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From Cordyceps to a New Counter Culture

Cordyceps militaris
FROM CORDYCEPS TO A NEW COUNTER CULTURE
William Padilla-Brown on mushroom terroir, knowing your worth, and his plans for a citizen mycology supercomputer
SUKAYNA POWELL

Sukayna: What gave you the fungi bug? What got you interested?

William: I was interested in meditation, and consciousness and started to see, through music mostly, people using psychedelics and experiencing new modalities. So I was interested in that, and I experimented with psychoactive mushrooms. Then I wanted to be able to be in control of my supply, so I started to grow them for myself.

S: And then you’ve obviously, from there, gone so far, to be publishing the first English language book on Cordyceps cultivation. What is it about Cordyceps that fascinated you?

W: I had a decent amount of information about them before I ever came in touch with them physically. I think I was first introduced to Cordyceps when I was studying nutrition. And then, I eventually read The Fungal Pharmacy and some stuff from Paul Stamets. When I was starting my mushroom business back in 2015, I was looking for as many cool mushrooms as I could grow and I saw that nobody was really working Cordyceps, but at the time the only culture that I could find was like $300 online, and most of the people I worked with said they couldn’t get it to produce mushrooms. Back then $300 was a huge deal. So yes, I couldn’t risk it, not knowing if it was going to work out or not. Then my buddy Charlie found Cordyceps millitaris, and so I had the culture, and I was like, alright, let’s just run it from here.

Then, through diligent research online, and communicating with whoever would talk to me, I figured out some different techniques. I started the Cordyceps cultivation group on Facebook, which branched out into all these different communities that have gathered all sorts of incredible information. So I started in 2015 and I published the book in January 2017.

I didn’t really want to patent a method or anything like that, and I didn’t want to be secretive about it. But I also knew that it could be super valuable for my family in the future. Now there are a lot more people producing it, but the demand is still significantly higher than the supply, and there’s an ever-growing consumer base that knows that they want domestic Cordyceps. But there are still not enough people producing it, because most people are hobbyist growers in their houses. So I started the first domestic Cordyceps production farm in Weaverville, North Carolina. And there I experimented through 2018 and learned a lot, which I put into the second volume of the book.

There was a lot of room for me to make my mark in the industry. It was clear to me that, within a couple of years, I would be a drop in a puddle of a bunch of people that are all trying to do mushroom business. So I was like, all right, I need to make myself different from everybody else. Because everybody’s going to have a mushroom farm, or everybody’s going to have a line of tinctures, or everybody’s going to have some mushroom capsules or something, so I was like, all right, how do I do something different? That’s why Cordyceps.

“I’VE TAUGHT THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE HOW TO FEED THEMSELVES AND GROW FOOD AND MUSHROOMS. CLEARLY I’M USEFUL, AND I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT I COULD JUST BE THROWN AWAY”

S: It’s a really fascinating mushroom to know a lot about, because it’s got such unique characteristics as a parasite, and there’s a lot more to learn.

W: Yes, there’s so much to learn. And it feels good to be in a position where we can do more research now.

S: You also teach a lot, and obviously, you’ve taught yourself a lot. But as you’ve been doing your outreach and sharing, what have you learned about how to communicate about mushrooms and fungi with people?

W: When I first started teaching, in around 2014, not as many people were interested in mushrooms. It wasn’t hitting on the internet as much, so the demographic of the clubs wasn’t very diverse, and not just that, but the type of people who came were already very interested. So whenever I would teach a class, the people already had some level of understanding. Now, it’s people who just saw Fantastic Fungi on Netflix, or just saw something on YouTube.

There’s definitely a broad range of myco-literacy in North America, and so finding ways that you can relate the material back to the individual is the best way to teach. When you’re teaching in a specific region, you can definitely find ways to connect with the people of that region. Like if you’re around Pennsylvania, most people know morels, because that’s one of the few mushrooms that whatever European people got here knew how to identify and they were able to pass that knowledge down into their family.

S: Would you say that like myco-literacy is a good way of increasing engagement with critical scientific thinking, without people necessarily having to have a background in that?

W: Yes. I mean, I’ve seen a lot more people, as they get interested in mushrooms, getting more interested in science in general. This is a moment – the media is not going to stay posting about mushroom articles forever. But this moment leads to myco-literacy around the world. This moment leads to people being able to say ‘mycelium’, and know what that means. And I feel as though, because of how directly active mushrooms are in ecological regeneration, that more and more people are going to find some level of nature relatedness through connection with mushrooms. Something about mushrooms drives people into connectivity and interdependence. I think it’s just the archetype of the mycelium, spreading fractal-like out into social systems.

S: Maybe people are mirroring them kind of instinctively, the nature of them. I hope, at least. Speaking of interconnectivity, the web of impacts that you’re having on the world is quite broad. Is that by design or do you just follow your instincts in terms of where you’re going with mushrooms, and permaculture, and products etc?

W: Yes, definitely both. When I was 16 I was growing cannabis, thinking about food production and production of medicine, I was feeling as though I was going through my own healing process from becoming sick, from antibiotic social systems. And by antibiotic, I just mean anti ‘bio’ life. Not the medicine, but any industry or any social system that is detrimental to life on earth – which is pretty much what I experienced growing up in the United States.

And I was very aware that I would be able to become a professional. And I would tell that to people older than me. I’d tell it to my parents and they’d say ‘you’re crazy, you got to get your head straight’ etc. And I’m just like ‘no, I know the world that’s in front of me, I know what’s happening in the world, I see the trend.’

Cordcyeps militaris cultivation

So after I dropped out of school I started again, learning about plants, learning about how to grow cannabis, learning about physics and quantum physics, and consciousness, because I just wanted a general understanding of the sandbox of space and time that we’re experiencing. And I connected with the permaculture com – munity here in Pennsylvania, which was connected with Charles Eisenstein, who was here in Harrisburg around that time that I was having those experiences as a young man. He writes about gift economics and things like that. Eventually I was writing essays on decentralisation, I was writing about my micro industries, I was writing about ecological regeneration, sustainable energy, all this kind of stuff. But I was really like the dude on the side of the road with a cardboard sign about it, like I was kind of not very formalised about it. It was like how do I design my way out of this?

I knew that I could do all this good for the world. I can help with whatever, but the way that society would view a young, high school dropout, Black kid, who has a baby outside of marriage at 20 years old, who’s serving tables, was as this useless person to society. I could just be thrown away to the side and nobody would ever care. That did happen to me. I got arrested, I went through the whole mess, I got my badges from the war on drugs, or whatever. So it really hit me, I’m very useful to society. Not to be egotistical or whatever, but I’ve taught thousands of people how to feed themselves and grow food and mushrooms. Clearly I’m useful, and I can’t believe that I could just be thrown away.

I’m sure there’s more people out there like that. That’s part of the reason why I give so much content on the internet for free, and why I expand and stretch as far as I can. Because people did that for me, in a big way. In my experiences, I’ve learned from stuff people thousands of years ago carved in a cave that somebody translated into a book I read. Or from somebody that that decided that they wanted to document their whole garden and put it on YouTube, or somebody that wanted to do science so bad that they started selling equipment to fund their work, all these different people did these things that helped me to get where I’m at. I’m just like, thank you, let me give that back to the world. Because somebody along the way will need it just like I needed it.

William Padilla-Brown

It’s not just about mushrooms. It’s whole-systems design: creating a counter-culture for people like me to exist without the friction. How do we make more gardens, more life? How do we make it so when we go outside it looks beautiful? How do we get people access to good clean water, and good mushrooms that can give them the nutrition so that they can think differently? Because I was growing up on McDonald’s and other crap, and when I first ate real food, I felt like I was high or something. And there’s a whole bunch of people that are just living in a world that is not showing them any of this level of beauty, so that’s why I do so many different things in so many ways.

S: It’s so important, being in a place and bedding in a little bit, and bringing in a large vision, but also really connecting it to what’s there, and what people have got access to. What else are you excited about? What projects have you got going on that are feeding you right now?

W: Well, on the family side, we’re about to welcome some new life into the world. So I’m super excited about that. Puerto Rico has been very exciting to me. We’ve been doing a lot of work just to get ourselves established, re-established over there, because that’s where my family’s from.

I taught a mushroom cultivation class out there recently, and it’s been exciting for me to be able to implement more of the tropical methods over there, which I haven’t been able to do, because I’ve been in North America. I taught a permaculture class down there too, we’re going to be going down again this month to go look at some properties to be able to set up a hub for education. It’s going to be more focused on regionally appropriate technologies.

I also want to set a standard of ethics for how we do business. I want to ensure when any product comes out from my company, everything in there has a story, everything in there is connected to something good. I find it a lot better for my conscience, and just in general for the way that I would like to leave the world working. So we connected with cooperatives in Puerto Rico to make sure that, for our cacao, our coffee, it’s aligned with good people the whole way through.

We’re also looking to get a lease to set up a larger facility for production of fresh mushrooms and dry mushrooms for our product line in Pennsylvania. And then we’ll also be able to do more education out of there; and set it up as a full model to show other people how they can set up a mushroom farm at whatever scale. We’ll also be setting up a community certified kitchen space as that’s something I had issues with starting up a business, and we want to be able to help others incubate.

I’m also really excited to do more DNA work. This year I’ll have a lot more time to get my head into doing the DNA analysis and then setting up the delegation of work for the DNA projects. Hopefully we can get a person hired, maybe, to start processing all our DNA data.

“IT WAS CLEAR TO ME THAT, WITHIN A COUPLE OF YEARS, I WOULD BE A DROP IN A PUDDLE OF A BUNCH OF PEOPLE THAT ARE ALL TRYING TO DO MUSHROOM BUSINESS”

“I FEEL AS THOUGH, BECAUSE OF HOW DIRECTLY ACTIVE MUSHROOMS ARE IN ECOLOGICAL REGENERATION, THAT MORE AND MORE PEOPLE ARE GOING TO FIND SOME LEVEL OF NATURE RELATEDNESS THROUGH CONNECTION WITH MUSHROOMS”

S: That’s a good amount of things to be excited about all at once I’d say. Can you talk a little bit more about the DNA projects that you’re working on?

W: Yes. So we’re prepping to barcode entire forays this year. Whenever we go out on a big foray, we typically find at least 100 mushrooms. Hopefully, by summertime I have an assistant or have some time to get my production manager up to speed with it, so that we can start taking a little bit of tissue from each sample from the foray and sequencing everything. So that we can kind of get like a rough seasonal thumbprint or barcode of a forest.

It’ll be really cool, so we’ll identify them by our eyes and with our experts, but we can also register that these are all the mushrooms for sure that we found at this foray, these are all the mushrooms that we found growing at this time of year in this forest, and that data is just incredible. And I’ve collaborated with a company that makes PCR machines that are affordable and portable. I’ve also been working with Oxford Nanopore technologies for doing the sequencing part. So that’s how we’re able to sequence a whole foray in 48 to 60 hours.

Another big-time goal that I really want to lock this year is I want somebody to buy us a supercomputer. We’ve been able to get sponsorships to do our events, and do all the things that we’re doing. If somebody can get us a supercomputer, then we can ask really good questions and also hold on to and evaluate these huge data sets that we’re going to start compiling. So yes, looking forward to that.

“IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT MUSHROOMS. IT’S WHOLE-SYSTEMS DESIGN: CREATING A COUNTER-CULTURE FOR PEOPLE LIKE ME TO EXIST WITHOUT THE FRICTION”

Jackfruit tree in Puerto Rico
Cordyceps militaris growing on insect pupa

S: I love the idea of a citizen mycology supercomputer. Specifically to mycology, what do you hope that more people focus on going forward as it spreads around the world and people get more interested?

W: I would love to see more people cultivating non-typical mushrooms. I would love to see more people cultivating regional mushrooms. In Pennsylvania, for instance, we’ve recently done the Ischnoderma resinosum. But I would love to see: what is the expression of Michigan? What is the expression of Florida? When I go to your city in Oklahoma, I want to go to the farmer’s market, and the oyster mushrooms that I get, I want to be an Oklahoma oyster. I want to see some other edible species that’s just from there, that’s your guys’ mushroom.

S: It would be really cool to see people going out trying to cultivate the really hyper-local stuff, rather than just shipping everything all over the place, and potentially homogenising the environment a little bit more too.

W: Yeah – so that I can taste that place. Instead of just like indoor mushrooms with cultures from anywhere grown on hardwood fuel pellets, with a master mix method. Because that tastes pretty much the same, and I’m just much more interested in exploring the terroir of the land. In the same vein I would like to see more people growing outside as well, in areas that are adapted to it. Yes, tasting the myco terroir – that’ll be super tight. I’m looking forward to that time.

“FINDING WAYS THAT YOU CAN RELATE THE MATERIAL BACK TO THE INDIVIDUAL IS THE BEST WAY TO TEACH”

All images by William Padilla-Brown / Mycosymbiotics

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