"Bees are the gateway drug to mushrooms," says Chelsea McFarland, who lives on Medical Lake acreage she and husband Rob call HoneyLove Homestead.
The comment is a total non sequitur, unless you know that the couple's startup mushroom business, Far Land Fungi, sprouted from their intense interest in beekeeping.
Roughly 10 years ago, when they were living in Los Angeles pursuing careers in tech and media, the McFarlands became interested in bees. But Los Angeles didn't allow residents to keep bees, so the McFarlands started HoneyLove, an educational nonprofit, to set about changing public perception.
Various Los Angeles neighborhood councils they dealt with cited fear of getting stung as a barrier to beekeeping, says Chelsea, who's allergic to bees. Using her own experiences to address people's fears head-on, she and Rob successfully swayed the city to change its ordinances to allow residential beekeeping.
In 2015, when the couple relocated to Eastern Washington, where Rob grew up, the McFarlands brought with them their honeybee hives and a dream to expand from beekeeping to creating a suburban homestead.
The five acres they own on the shore of Medical Lake allow them to do just that, both indoors and out. Chickens roam freely, finding shelter underneath a trampoline left on the property by the former owner. A fence secures berry bushes against deer. Nearby, a 50-foot hoop house for a large-scale floral garden is under construction. Next year, the McFarlands plan to transform the front yard into a lavender field — blissful for the bees.
Inside the McFarland's home, an entirely different crop is in the works: mushrooms.
Currently, Far Land Fungi offers a wide range of mushrooms, which are fungi with plant-like traits such as stems and cell walls. Lion's mane, golden chestnut, and three types of oysters are relatively easy to grow, as well as fast-growing, Rob says. Oyster mushrooms, for example, take around 10 days to reach maturity.
Rob has also undertaken more challenging varieties, such as golden enoki and shiitake, which can take more than three months to mature and require more steps to achieve a solid harvest. The McFarlands hope to incorporate their turkey tail and reishi mushrooms into medicinal applications like tinctures once the processing kitchen they're building has been approved by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Rob is the driving force behind Far Land Fungi's growing operations, transforming the home's daylight basement into mushroom central. He created a HEPA filter-controlled airspace for sterilizing the growing medium (usually sawdust) into which mushroom spores — think of them as baby mushrooms — are injected.
In another area, Rob has installed a zip-up tent with shelves for holding dense bags of mushrooms in various stages of growth known as fruiting. Rob maintains moisture and temperature through a system he designed and is still tinkering with.
"I read a lot," he says.
He's taught himself about mushrooms, much like he did about bees. "Mostly I learn by making mistakes," he admits.
"Mushrooms and bees are great teachers," Chelsea adds. "They'll let you know instantly where you've done something wrong."
"I've always been fascinated with fungi, specifically how they work with plants and soil microbes symbiotically," Rob says. "Once I started figuring things out and began to understand how magical mycelium is, growing mushrooms quickly took over my life."
Rob's interest in mushrooms, bees and growing things in general stems from a lifelong interest in nature.
There's a photograph over a fish tank in the home's basement — another of Rob's interests is growing underwater plants — showing a young Rob at Cannon Hill Park pond, specimen net in his hand. His mother had forbidden him to go to the pond, so when a Spokesman-Review photographer who happened to be nearby clicked the shutter, Rob knew he'd have to fess up.
After graduating from Gonzaga Prep, Rob attended Eastern Washington University for political science, but his heart belonged to the wild outdoors. After college, Rob volunteered for the Orangutan Foundation International in Borneo. There he helped map Tanjung Puting National Park, videotaping and documenting habitat loss due to natural and human impacts.
Chelsea, meanwhile, had been working in Delhi, India, editing cultural dance documentaries. A University of California Santa Cruz graduate with an independent spirit and ebullient personality, Chelsea was all ears when an acquaintance told her about a tall guy "who had 12 hours of orangutan footage who needed an editor."
"I was like, 'You had me at tall,'" Chelsea says, laughing.
While Rob handles the growing operations, Chelsea puts her considerable marketing background to use (when she's not working in real estate) promoting mushrooms.
It was Chelsea, for example, who reached out to Little Noodle restaurant chef-owner Kadra Evans about incorporating a rotating variety of Far Land mushrooms into its dishes.
Currently, diners can find Far Land mushrooms in Little Noodle's pho ($12).
If all goes according to plan, Far Land Fungi mushrooms should be available at area farmers markets this summer, as well as the farm stand at HoneyLove Homestead. Visit farlandfungi.com for more information.
Far Land mushrooms are available this summer at the HoneyLove Homestead farmstand (farlandfungi.com) and at Garland Summer Market (weekly, Tuesdays), Kendall Yards Night Market (weekly, Wednesdays) and at Medical Lake Farmers Market (on the first and third Saturdays from 8 am to 12 pm).