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m8418 BC-MN-Topic-MushroomGro 09-22 0892 routed by tamara

Burnsville man follows dream of growing mushrooms

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By FREDERICK MELO

St. Paul Pioneer Press

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — After 38 years as a sheet-metal worker, Tom Peterson faced his "now or never" moment two years ago. He could abandon his profession and become the mushroom cultivator he always wanted to be, or stick to the work he knew and the security of its guaranteed paychecks.

The fungi won out — big time.

"This is the American dream," said Peterson, 57, of Burnsville, while traipsing through Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan on the hunt for log growths.

"What I came to realize is there’s fewer days ahead of me than behind me," he said. "I think (the writer) Joseph Campbell said, ’Follow your bliss.’ And I did."

It might be tempting to say that Peterson is to mushrooms what others are to rare coins or Star Trek memorabilia, but the comparison ultimately falls flat. How many make a living from their desire?

And how many believe their former hobby can heal the world?

Peterson grows, clones, sells, experiments with and lectures on a wide variety of ’shrooms, from shiitake to oyster to wine cap to exotic edibles that bear little resemblance to anything you’re likely to have seen on your dinner plate.

As he hikes, Peterson points to a few conversation-starters. The tinder polypore makes a great fire. The "fried chicken" mushroom tastes more or less like its namesake. There are mushrooms you can crumble into boiling water and drink like coffee; others glow in the dark.

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The shell-like ganoderma species, or "artist’s conk," is so sensitive that its white, canvaslike top retains impressions as fine as a fingerprint. Peterson has happy memories of hiking with his two young sons, marking the mushroom trail with messages like, "Hi, Mom."

When Peterson isn’t hawking mushrooms at farmers’ markets or distributing them directly to the high-end restaurants he claims he would never be caught dead in, he is in his elaborate home laboratory exploring the environmental applications of fungal growth.

And he swears he’s onto something.

During an oil change a year ago, he asked a mechanic for a half-pint of his car’s drain oil. He spread the oil on a test site, along with an aggressive fungal species.

Not long afterward, visible signs of life bloomed.

"One year later, now I’m growing flowers, grasses and I have a couple tree seedlings in there, plus a lot of insects," Peterson said.

He believes some fungal species are drawn to the hydrogen-carbon bonds in oil and effectively eat them up as an energy source, kind of like maggots in sugar, breaking down the contaminants as they go.

Peterson thinks if he can figure out all the ins and outs, fungi may become the miracle elixirs of the environmental movement — an all-natural antidote to paint, diesel, oil and all other manners of petroleum waste in soil.

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"Everything looks good so far, but we’re going to get more data next year," he said.

In the circle of life, the world’s estimated 1.5 million species of fungi act as the great recyclers of the wild, sprouting from dead things and releasing their nutrients back to the soil while making room for new growth.

"Most people don’t understand that fungi is the overwhelming life form on earth," Peterson said. "One-half percent of all the life on earth is animal; nine and a half percent is all the algae, simple plants. Ninety percent of the biomass of this planet is fungal."

As a boy, Peterson learned about mushrooms from a Chippewa man on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, near where Peterson’s father had a lakeside cabin.

He’s been smitten ever since.

Peterson, who is building a high-tech mushroom laboratory and greenhouse in a building he owns, isn’t shy about sharing his knowledge of the mushroom kingdom — which he believes spans 200,000 species in the upper Midwest alone.

For the past 10 years, he’s taught an annual two-day mushrooming series through Dakota County Parks.

On the first night, his three-hour seminar teaches students how to identify eight edible species and two deadly ones. On the second day, he sends his mushroomers into the woods to pluck away.

When they return, professional chef David Grass of Lake Elmo Inn cooks the mushrooms for a shared banquet lunch that includes earthy cheeses and breads.

Peterson lends a hand by prepping the three main dishes — stewlike soups prepared from high-end mushrooms he has picked in secret locations.

"Some people will say, ’I taste chicken. I taste beef,"’ said Peterson, who makes no secret of his prime ingredient. "There’s no meat in them."

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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