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What fungus among us can teach us

John Bissey's mycology class at Prospect Charter School is often the scene of at least three different activities at a given moment.

One student shakes out a bucket of damp rye berries to dry on a screen door that's balanced between a desk and the counter. A few steps away, two classmates load quart jars of those berries into an autoclave, which will apply enough pressure and heat to kill any microscopic organism in the jar. Next to them, students open jars that have been through the autoclave in front of a laminar flow hood projecting 99 percent purified air. This prevents airborne contaminants from joining the ingredient they are trying to introduce — and the focus of all the steps before this one — invisible mushroom spores.

"Now it has nothing to compete with and will colonize the entire jar," Bissey says. "It will go to a solid white mass."

The bounty from the class's indoor work is found outside in the greenhouse. Bissey and the students cut ripe clumps of smooth, beige oyster mushrooms exploding out from suspended, plastic-encased columns of those same rye berries mixed with straw. The mushrooms, however, will travel even further, to the kitchens and plates of mushroom enthusiasts across the valley after they're sold to the Ashland or Medford Food co-ops.

Bissey watches the students and gives advice when needed, but mostly, the students in this third period class work with practiced hands.

Hailey Govenor knows her way around the fungi: she's been out picking wild mushrooms with her parents to support their income for as long as she can remember, she says. Her interest, however, began to wane as she got older and her schedule grew busier with schoolwork. As a senior, Govenor is in her second semester of the mycology class. She says she enjoys learning about the lucrative fungi more than she ever did harvesting them from the wild.

"I would much rather grow them," she says.

Bissey's own interest in mushrooms began when he was pursuing a master's degree in zoology, which evolved into education, first at Oregon State University and then Western Oregon University. He says mushrooms captured his imagination for a few reasons: one was that he was a gardener, and although mushroom gathering was a popular activity in the state, he realized that cultivating them was not nearly so much.

From a teaching perspective, he was also intrigued by the oft-misunderstood identity of the mushroom — while many people think of them as plants, the fungi actually behave more similarly to animals, in that they break down other living things (once they've died) to feed themselves. They also play an important role in the life cycle of the planet by replenishing nutrients in soil.

Students have shown interest in these things as well.

"It made me want to know more because it showed how much mushrooms impact our lives through these seemingly insignificant ways," says Richard West, a student in his second semester of the course.

Bissey, who grew up in South Carolina, attended Clemson University and spent a brief stint in California, gained the bulk of his experience as a cultivator in perhaps the least likely of his past homes: living in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. His girlfriend, Haley Cox, was pursuing a graduate degree at the Pratt Institute. While there, he read books by Paul Stamets, a leading mycology researcher and author, to learn the multi-step cultivation process. He began practicing by hanging columns like what now hang at the Prospect greenhouse, growing his first oyster and shiitake mushrooms in his apartment. The fungi require little water and light, he says, so they are easier to grow indoors than many plants.

Meanwhile, he was more than prepared to leave Brooklyn and return to Oregon.

"I searched for more secluded schools because I was ready to ... get in a forest again," he says. "I’m looking out my window in Brooklyn and seeing nothing but concrete."

Then-principal of Prospect Charter School Tim Dexter noticed the mycology skills listed on Bissey's resume with his application. Prospect, located in the heart of Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, is home to avid mushroom hunters who faithfully return to their preferred spots to find chanterelles, lion's mane and morels. So Bissey and Cox moved back to Oregon, married and settled in Medford — her to be the city's parks planner and him to teach, among three other subjects, Prospect school's first mycology course. He believes it's one of the first courses in the country to focus exclusively on the field; most life science classes only devote a chapter or unit.

He says the class will help expand his students' options after they graduate, regardless of whether they are college-bound or not. The sterile tissue culture techniques they're taught, for example, are applicable in a range of science fields, and those who are interested in agriculture now have the skills to grow a sustainable crop that can bring in a steady income.

"I want all my kids to go to college but that’s not always an option for everybody, or it's not going to be what they want to do if it is an option," he says. "I want them to be exposed to as many different realms of science as possible before they leave here."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or ktornay@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.


Hailey Govenor
Prospect Charter School seniors (from left) Alex West III, Brenden Raines, Kyle Davis and Richard West work with rye berries inside the science room of the school. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]