Levon Durr is the owner of Fungaia Farm, a permaculture company that provides mushroom growing kits, spawn, culinary spice mixes, and more. He moved to Southern Humboldt in the late 90’s to manage the farm at Heartwood Institute. He knows all about the pros and cons of agriculture, including problems like oil spills and contamination. Levon sees a potential for fungus, like the everyday edible oyster mushroom, to help clean up dirty soil. We sat down with him to learn about mycoremediation, a natural process that can break down pollution!
As a mycologist and permaculturist, I’m always looking for ways to reduce our impact on the planet, and clean up polluted environments in our community.
I ran the farm at Heartwood Institute in Southern Humboldt for three and a half years. We grew vegetables for the massage college. I remember one incident back then, in the late 1990s, when motor oil was reported in Chamise Creek, below Heartwood. Fish and Game agents came out, and they began hiking all over, trying to locate the source of the oil.
Apparently, an indoor cannabis farmer had dug a huge hole right outside of his generator shed, thrown in some straw bales, and dumped all of his used motor oil into this hole. Fish and Game was called because the oil made its way into the creek. Environmental damage like that needs to be addressed.
Bacteria and fungus can offer tools for remediating all kinds of human-made pollutants. Biology is so important. It’s the only reason we are here and breathing right now!
Mycoremediation is the use of fungus to degrade or remove toxins from an environment. Mushrooms and fungi are made up of a web-like structure called mycelium. They use this root-like structures to digest their food, and to spread and grow. We can use this technology to decontaminate soils and other materials.
Hydrocarbon-contaminated soils can be addressed with commercially-available, super productive, white oyster mushrooms. They have the widest growth temperature parameters, so they are the easiest to grow. Believe it or not, the mycelium that makes up those mushrooms can actually break down these pollutants at the molecular level!
Back in 2011, I was part of a soil remediation project organized by the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council in Orleans. We successfully remediated over 40 yards of diesel- and motor oil-contaminated soil. We did this with Pleurotus ostreatus, or oyster mushroom mycelium.
That project took over two years to complete, and we learned a lot along the way. In the end, we were able to show an overall average hydrocarbon reduction of 90%. The community was able to keep the soil on-site, and use it for a stage area. You can read my full report on the project at Fungaia Farm’s website.
I was recently contacted by a cannabis farmer in Southern Humboldt, who had a used motor oil spill on her property. This landowner was referred to me by High Tide Permaculture consulting, who was familiar with our successful remediation project in Orleans.
This farmer had dug up all the contaminated soil, but they didn’t know what to do after that. It’s not easy to dispose of hydrocarbon-contaminated soil!
Dirty soil needs to be transported by technicians licensed to deal with hazardous waste. There is a hazardous waste facility in Humboldt County, but they don’t take contaminated soil in large amounts. You have to truck it outside the county to a landfill. For most growers, it’s just too expensive and complicated to properly dispose of soil like that.
We treated the motor oil spill in Sohum with oyster mycelium. The first round of testing showed that hydrocarbon levels from the motor oil were very high. After the first fungal treatment, we saw a 30% reduction. So it looks like we need to retreat the soil again to reduce the levels further. The motor oil is being more stubborn than we expected!
Maybe the viscous motor oil and high concentration will take longer for the fungus to break down. This is an emerging technology, and there’s a lot of on-site experimentation going on. The science is there, but the field application is so unique in every setting. Weather, temperature, and soil types can each a play a role in how we treat each project.
We will probably do a second treatment later in the summer, when the weather cools down a bit. We may add inoculated wood shavings, which take a lot longer to decompose. The straw and burlap that we used in the first treatment are so compostable, and seemed to break down too fast.
I’m also thinking about upping the ratio of mycelium to contaminated soil. Luckily, the landowner is very patient and open to experimentation.
Landowners should always clean up fuel spills, no matter the size. On-site remediation can be a great tool for contamination projects, large and small.
I’m motivated to help our local cannabis community find a niche in this ever-changing business, where they will soon be competing with huge farms and large-scale production. Permaculture techniques like mycoremediation could become great selling points for your product.
Cannabis farmers can transition into the legal market and remain competitive by providing top quality, organic, grown in the sun, Humboldt-branded, and clean-tested product. Mycoremediation fits into that story, because it can naturally help address pollutants from fungicides, pesticides and petrochemicals. It gives people the ability to clean up their soil on-site, without passing the buck to another community.
Fungaia Farm sells mushroom spawn, and can provide knowledge and assistance for helping address contamination issues. I hope that more local farmers and landowners in our community will want to learn about biological remediation techniques.
Levon Durr is a full time mushroom farmer at Fungaia Farm in Eureka. In addition to mycelium and expert advice, he sells dried mushroom spices and do-it-yourself home mushroom growing kits. You can learn more and reach out to Levon at FungaiaFarm.com.