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A Howell woman discovered passion for gourmet mushrooms. Now she's teaching others how to grow them.

Daily Press & Argus (Livingston County) logo Daily Press & Argus (Livingston County) 6/3/2022 Patricia Alvord, Livingston Daily
Erin Hamilton shows oyster mushrooms growing out of a 90 second rice bag on May 20, 2022 © Patricia Alvord Erin Hamilton shows oyster mushrooms growing out of a 90 second rice bag on May 20, 2022

HOWELL — Over the last decade, Erin Hamilton discovered a passion for fungi, especially oyster mushrooms, and now she's teaching people how to grow them.

Hamilton is conducting a six-week interactive biweekly Zoom workshop through her business, The Mushroom Conservatory, from 11 a.m. to noon June 11, 25 and July 9. The cost to participate is $55.

Hamilton first got involved in mycology, the study of fungi, in September 2014, when she discovered a mushroom hunting class at Bald State Park and learned about foraging for mushrooms. She said she wanted to learn how to identify mushrooms so she could eat them safely. 

"At the end of it I thought, 'I am so scared that I'm going to eat the wrong mushroom.' I was really obsessed with, 'I want mushrooms, but I'm too scared,'" Hamilton said. 

Hamilton continued to fear eating the wrong mushrooms, while also maintaining an interest in them. That led her to growing her own, and now offering others information on how to follow suit.

For her upcoming class, Hamilton recommends that people register by June 4 to ensure that their mushroom growing kits arrive in time for the first session. Participants will learn how to grow oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, in a rice bag, in a bucket or on paper. After each session, Hamilton will be available for a live Q&A.

"I want to, over time, just continue expanding that reach. Seeing how many people I can possibly get, learn to grow, get excited about it, see what you can discover for the world," she said. "My mission in that is feed them as much information and excitement as possible to keep growing and I think it's going to be really interesting to see what people come up with it from it."

How it all began

Prior to getting involved with growing mushrooms, Hamilton worked in advertising and design. She is a graduate of Detroit's College for Creative Studies, with a focus in experimental animation. 

After taking the 2014 class, she continued working in advertising, but her curiosity never faded. She began researching fungi and found that there are 20,000 times more organisms in the fungi kingdom than the plant kingdom, and 25 core mushrooms.

One of the types of mushrooms that Erin Hamilton teaches people how to grow with her kits are king oyster mushrooms pictured here. © Submitted One of the types of mushrooms that Erin Hamilton teaches people how to grow with her kits are king oyster mushrooms pictured here.

"I just dove in. I got the basics. I needed to try. I did so much reading and I got so into it," she said.

She also discovered that information about the process of growing mushrooms, is complicated, with many people hesitant to share their knowledge.

In 2020, Hamilton finally tried her hand at growing her own mushrooms. She quickly discovered mold — which ruins the mushrooms — and had to throw the whole project away. 

She tried again, and again, and again, until she was successful. 

"It was this incredible thing and seeing them grow...they are so otherworldly. It was so inspiring and motivating," she said.

Oyster mushrooms typically have broad, thin, oyster- or fan-shaped caps and are white, gray or tan, with gills lining the underside. The caps are sometimes frilly edged and can be found in clusters of small mushrooms or individually as larger mushrooms. They grow in the wild near or on trees.

Erin Hamilton sells grow kits for different gourmet oyster mushrooms. © Submitted Erin Hamilton sells grow kits for different gourmet oyster mushrooms.

Hanmilton initially created The Mushroom Conservatory to grow high-end gourmet mushrooms for private chefs and restaurants. To fulfill that plan, she moved with her family — her husband Elijah and children Ember and Bear, and a baby on the way — to Ann Arbor and bought a warehouse amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

She sold mushrooms to private chefs for a little while, but with the stress of a baby on the way, she and Elijah decided to move to Howell and leave the warehouse behind.

Erin Hamilton, far left, along with two of her children observe mushrooms. Pictured left to right, Ember Hamilton, Bear Hamilton and Erin. © Submitted Erin Hamilton, far left, along with two of her children observe mushrooms. Pictured left to right, Ember Hamilton, Bear Hamilton and Erin.

In early 2021, after digesting all the information she could, she decided she was going to teach people how to grow their own by making grow kits. 

Prior to the creation of the grow kits, one option for growing mushrooms, according to Hamilton, was opening a box, cutting a hole in it and spraying it with water. She wanted to teach people more techniques.

"You can't replicate it and that just really bugged me," Hamilton said.

She created her own liquid culture for oyster mushrooms, which takes about two months to prepare.

Erin Hamilton holds up a live culture she's prepared to grow gourmet oyster mushrooms on May 20, 2022. © Patricia Alvord Erin Hamilton holds up a live culture she's prepared to grow gourmet oyster mushrooms on May 20, 2022.

"It has live mushroom tissue suspended in it and what happens and the way it works is its got a little bit of nutrient and the mushroom culture slowly eats it and feeds on it," she said. "It continues to grow and be alive suspended in this, so once you add it to something, then it grows on it."

The kits include liquid culture for several harvests of oyster mushrooms and directions on how to grow them.

"Oyster mushrooms are particularly cool because they eat a lot of things," Hamilton said. 

Which is one of the reasons why the class focuses on using a bag of rice.

Additionally, because of oyster mushrooms' voracious appetite, they can also be used to clean up oil spills. 

“There is so much to explore in the fungi kingdom," she said.

Contact Livingston Daily reporter Patricia Alvord at palvord@livingstondaily.com about news coverage.

This article originally appeared on Livingston Daily: A Howell woman discovered passion for gourmet mushrooms. Now she's teaching others how to grow them.

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