In the first five years of his stepfather’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, Naples’ Jor’El Schustrin didn’t notice much change. Joe Frame—a former Air Force fighter pilot who flew planes for USAir and Eastern Air Lines following his military career—had lost some weight, but nothing egregious. “You didn’t see much of the disease. But then, as it progressed, [his symptoms] were getting worse,” Jor’El says. By 2016, Joe was taking up to 13 pills a day. “When that medicine kicked in, he looked like he was on another planet,” he says. “It almost looked like he was tripping.”
Jor’El thought back to a mycologist’s talk on lion’s mane mushrooms. The bulbous fungus is covered in threadlike ‘hairs’ akin to an ivory Cousin Itt, and the mycologist noted the ’shrooms’ alleged health benefits for treating Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s patients. “It promotes nerve growth in the brain,” Jor’El says. While the FDA hasn’t approved lion’s mane as safe or effective for treating health conditions, several studies in the National Library of Medicine demonstrate promising results.
In part, lion’s mane is known for its regenerative capability in peripheral nerves—those outside the brain and spinal cord—which Parkinson’s is said to disturb. Jor’El and his family saw all the evidence they needed. After supplementing his medication with lion’s mane capsules and tinctures, Joe lowered his pharmaceutical intake from 13 pills to three within a year and a half. Though his cognition improved, the cost was lofty. So, Jor’El bought ready-to-fruit kits to grow the mushrooms himself.
Four years later, Stropharia Mushroom Farm opened in Naples in 2020 as a partnership between Jor’El and his brother, Sheth. The duo had planned to open a deli in Naples. COVID-19 and their stepfather’s success with medicinal mushrooms rerouted them to something better. At Stropharia—which moved to a Central Naples spot with a physical storefront and an about 1,700-square-foot warehouse after Hurricane Ian damaged the original space—the Schustrins grow up to 13 fungi species, including pioppinos, blue oysters, king trumpets and, of course, lion’s mane.
The mushrooms we consume are deceptively simple when you consider how they’re grown. Behind the Stropharia storefront, the brothers maintain an engineered space, where temperature, humidity, air exchange and light are rigidly controlled to create ideal growing conditions. When Jor’El discusses the process, his voice grows hurried, excited as he points to the root-like feeding mechanisms of the hyphae growing in petri dishes in the early stages of the mycelium’s life cycle. The roots look like clouds in the small discs, indicating the tissue has taken hold. Or how contaminants, like the so-called ‘lipstick mold,’ would appear bright pink and mean the growers need to ditch the samples and start over. Or how the flow hoods, which pump clean air through HEPA filters to minimize contaminants, are sourced from the Fort Myers-based lab equipment company Air Science.
It could be considered easy to get lost in the science for the non-mycelium-minded. But, get out of your head for a minute, and instead, imagine Jor’El and Sheth, donning full protective garb—masks, gloves, white gowns—making their way through Stropharia Mushroom Farm’s warehouse, tending to their babies. They’ve set up the process as if it were a cycle, a mix of square and rectangular mylar tents and open space meant to follow the circle of life.
The process starts in the substrate tent, where the Schustrins use an oak sawdust mix to create blocks that serve as garden plots for the eventual mushrooms. (Nutrient-rich and dense oak is an ideal choice as it can sustain the mycelium for longer stretches of time.) In the next tent, the barrel room, they ‘cook’ the blocks in a metal barrel to pasteurize them. Nearby, there’s the lab—a 10-by-5-foot tent—where they pop tissue from a cap or stem of the type of mushroom they’re looking to grow into a sugar-filled petri dish, before moving to the incubation room. The mushroom bits incubate until a network of mycelium—the root-like growing structures that spawn the mushrooms we eat—fill the dish. The cultures get moved to a sugar water base, eventually yielding a kind of ‘mushroom juice’ that’s injected into a bag of grain, which the mycelium feed on. Once the roots have eaten their fill, the brothers break the grain up and place the mix into plastic bags with the pasteurized blocks for the next round of incubation.
The incubation room is the most expansive part of their warehouse. The space is lined with five-tiered metal racks packed with variety after variety of mushrooms in their early stages. Bags start out mulchy and get dense like foam as the mycelium develops. The timeline varies depending on the mushroom—a lion’s mane mushroom goes from pink, brain matter-looking goop to the fluffy edible iteration in one to two weeks. Along the way, the brothers slice the growing block open with a sterilized razor blade, bringing oxygen into the colonized block and encouraging the mycelium to push up stems. They then place the blocks on shelves in the open air of a 10-by-10-foot growing tent.
The mushrooms we see only represent about five percent of the mycelium’s life cycle—the reproductive, spore-bearing portion—and the Schustrins manage to grow 200 pounds of nutritionally packed morsels a week. The two could supply about 2,600 of us annually, considering the average American consumes about 3 to 4 pounds of mushrooms a year (though, Jor’El and Sheth would like to see that number rise).
Stropharia Mushroom Farm sells their dried and fresh mushrooms, tinctures, ’shroom-infused salts and other specialty foods at their shop, at the Pine Ridge Farmers’ Market, and directly to restaurants such as Sails Restaurant and Hyde N Chic Restaurant in Naples. Jor’El likes to educate shoppers about the potential he sees in mushrooms. Despite humans using mushrooms as natural medicine for millennia and the fungi’s recent mainstream popularity, Jor’El is still trying to fill a deficit of fungi knowledge. “There are things on this planet that can heal you and treat your body better than medicine that’s made in the lab,” he says. Oyster mushrooms, for example, naturally produce lovastatin, a compound familiar to anyone on blood pressure or cholesterol medication.
It doesn’t hurt that mushrooms are also delicious. Jor’El and Sheth leverage ’shrooms’ culinary value to teach preparation techniques, as well as extolling fungi’s power as gentler-on-the-planet substitutes for animal protein. “We make them into ‘steaks’ or ‘pulled pork’ or ‘chicken,’” Jor’El says. One of his favorite recipes is a golden-fried lion’s mane that mimics a fried chicken sandwich, with pickles and all. “This is just the tip of the iceberg … It baffles me that we’re not using this stuff.”