“Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom.”
– Thomas Carlyle, Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, translator, historian, mathematician, and teacher
Cultivating mushrooms provides a comprehensive sensory experience for Olga and Tradd Cotter, the wife-husband team of Mushroom Mountain in Easley. They touch, smell, taste, and see the fruits of their labor — fungal aberrations that emerge in a plethora of shapes, sizes, and hues. The couple did not meet over mushrooms; however, when Olga met Tradd in Florida while he was doing landscape design for affluent and sometimes celebrity homeowners, he happened to tell her that he was “into” mushrooms. Instead of a deterrent, the pronouncement intrigued her enough to learn more.
Entering the Matrix
When Tradd was 20, having landed in Summerville after a lifetime of moves due to his father’s military career, he toured a mushroom farm on John’s Island on a whim. So fascinated was he by the mushrooms that the owner asked him if he wanted a job. For two years, he worked and absorbed the science of mushroom growing, learning to identify varieties and even finding wild chanterelles, which he sold to area chefs.
He left there in 1994 knowing he would have his own mushroom farm that he would call Mushroom Mountain. “I don’t know why,” says Tradd. “I was living nowhere near any mountains.”
For the next 10 or so years, Tradd learned and practiced landscape design in Hilton Head and Florida, but always with an eye toward mushroom education, identification, and agriculture. He says the police were once called because a mushroom walk drew hundreds and caused traffic and parking issues. People began to hear of his mushroom knowledge, and he was contacted regularly for lecturing to garden clubs and other groups. Work at nurseries along the way also imbibed in him a continuing education about plant life.
Then he met Olga in Florida. She and her sister, Billie Katic, were teenagers in Croatia when they had to escape the Bosnian War with nothing more than literally the clothes on their backs. A tenacious spirit took the family to refugee areas throughout Europe, and from there they moved to Canada and ultimately immigrated to America. All became successful in their own right.
“She ignited in me a drive to start Mushroom Mountain,” Tradd says. “She saw potential in the farm and business.”
Olga used her skills as a professional graphic and web designer to help Tradd establish a business plan and marketing presence. He knew they could not stay in Florida to cultivate mushrooms due to weather conditions. Tradd convinced Olga to entertain the idea of moving to South Carolina, which he considered his home state even though he had lived all over the world while growing up. They married and flew twice to South Carolina, perusing at least 100 properties throughout the state. Criteria included acreage for production buildings and access to a major highway. Finally, a house — just before returning to Florida — turned out to be the one. Eight acres and a home in rural Easley (not too far from Clemson) very near Interstate 85 proved to be just what the couple needed. They moved and set up shop initially inside their home in an 8-foot by 16-foot back room. “I just wanted to get to work on it so badly,” says Tradd, who explains that he had tried a mushroom lab in a 4-foot by 6-foot walk-in closet in their apartment in Florida. “I knew I could grow mushrooms on a large scale.”
It did not take long for Mushroom Mountain to flourish. The goal was to find more land and buildings for growing. On the same country road was a 23-acre property with a 50,000-square-foot warehouse, barns, and a large home. For two years, the couple rented buildings on the property, with Olga’s father, Miro Katic, a builder, electrician, plumber, and engineer, constructing interior labs: a tissue culture “nursery,” sterilization room, colonization room, and fruiting room. Plus, he made an office, packing room, and gift shop in one of the buildings. Just this past year, Olga and Tradd became the proud owners of the property. They still live on their eight-acre original property, but the new spot is 100-percent Mushroom Mountain, with Miro; Olga’s mother, Dragica; and her sister, Billie, all residing in the property’s home and apartment suite.
Although Olga never envisioned herself as a mushroom farmer, she says, “I have spent a lot of my life out in the wild, and I could not imagine doing anything else.” Her favorite aspect of the business is the amount of time they spend in nature. “For me nature is the ultimate healer of body and mind, and let’s be real, you can never get bored of finding all kinds of interesting mushrooms and plants in the woods.”
She says she benefitted from working at a large company in Florida, but adds, “Being out in nature and around mushrooms definitely beats working in an office environment.”
Tradd, who lauds Olga for her contributions and their partnership, says, “It’s definitely a family business. And our staff is like family. Besides our employees, we have interns from nearby universities and from abroad. Once a month, we all go on a mushroom hike and out to lunch so that we can keep things in perspective and bond.”
Growth has been exponential since Olga and Tradd gave full attention to Mushroom Mountain. In just four years since starting out inside their home with both growing and shipping, business is picking up.
“We’re supplying spawn and cultivation supplies throughout the United States,” says Tradd, “and currently working with Jamaica to develop mushroom agriculture.” Instead of a few square feet, Mushroom Mountain requires thousands. They grow at least 150 pounds of mushrooms weekly, with the ultimate goal of 700 to 1,000 pounds weekly now that a full-time production manager, Joel Myers, has been hired.
Tradd has used his knowledge of mushroom education to train the owners of farms like City Roots in Columbia and to write an Amazon bestseller, Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation. The do-it-yourself book for farms and individuals has sold more than 25,000 copies. Tradd is often invited to speak all over the country, including at the largest mushroom festival in the world, Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado.
Tradd is continuously reading books by and about CEOs who started small and made it big. His goal is for Mushroom Mountain to be the sort of “Google of fungi,” he says. “This place will be like nothing else. This place is and will be innovative and disruptive. I want people to come here and say, ‘This place is off the grid.’”
Tradd’s vision is multifaceted, with Mushroom Mountain as the holding company and other entities falling under it, including Myco Matrix, a supplement company, and Myco Remediation, which involves Tradd traveling regularly to places like Jamaica to teach the benefits of mushrooms for sustainable agriculture and water purification. Other concepts in the works involve targeted (instead of broad-spectrum) agricultural insecticides, a non-profit organization, medicinal products, and more. Tradd is most excited about the possibility that mushrooms, because of their protein content and many other attributes, could drastically aid struggling countries.
The Spores Have It!
Always at the core of Mushroom Mountain is mushroom production for consumption. Most end up in kitchens and restaurants throughout South Carolina. High-end clients and chefs from James Beard Award winning restaurants regularly purchase their mushrooms.
Mushroom Mountain follows daily the spore growth of dozens of mushroom varieties; some popular ones are oysters, shitakes, and lion’s mane. In the lab is an air filtration system that results in 99.975 percent pure air at three-tenths of a micron to ensure a sterile air workplace so that the mushroom spores are not contaminated. A tiny petri plate with a minute starter spore could technically grow a million pounds of oyster mushrooms in about 10 weeks, explains Tradd.
As Tradd writes in his book, in order to grow, mushrooms need media such as logs or wood chips, as well as spores, the right temperature, humidity, and some light. It is much more complicated than one would expect, and understanding mushrooms has required countless hours of study and experimentation. Tradd says he has had to “get into the mind of mushrooms” to become successful at growing them. He offers a handy, illustrated Mushroom Mountain Growing Manual for individuals interested in purchasing starter kits or plug spawn, which is basically mushroom spores, or culture, in a capsule that can be inserted into logs.
Penetrating the air at Mushroom Mountain is the earthy smell of the mushrooms on drying racks or in the fruiting room, where they emerge from wrapped black bags or sawdust blocks. Whimsical forms in varying hues from pale yellow to deep red protrude from their substrate sources ready to be plucked, sold, and eaten.
All the buildings at Mushroom Mountain are equipped with LED lighting. “Overall, we grow seasonally with energy efficiency in mind,” says Tradd, who wants the facility to eventually reach a zero waste goal. He spent time at an international worm conference learning mushroom composting using red worms and hopes to one day market the rich fertilizer so that no aspect of the mushroom cultivation process is wasted.
Ongoing are workshops, special events, and monthly extensive educational tours. The Mushroom Mountain website offers online courses on topics from “Ecology and Life Cycles of Cultivated Mushrooms” to “Mushroom ID.” Olga and Tradd have plans to offer recipes and nutrition information via a free e-newsletter, and an online store has spawns, starter kits, books, clothing, and more.
In an office decorated with colorful mushroom posters and clever expression plaques, such as “No Shitake Sherlock,” Tradd says his mind is filled with another book, the new business entities, teaching mushroom cultivation, and, most importantly, enjoying growing, hunting, and eating mushrooms with his family and staff.