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Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants (and Fungi, Too): Bashira Muhammad

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Courtesy photoBashira and assistants enjoy the fieldwork component of fungi farming. From left, Bashira, Rebecca Winters, Casey Broaddus and Michael Henn, Bashira’s spouse.
Photo by Rhonda NowakBags of fungi spawn are ready to be shipped for people to grow mushrooms at home. Bashira recommends starting out growing fungi in the kitchen where they can be regularly monitored.
Photo by Rhonda NowakBashira Muhammad checks on the progress of fungi spawn in the incubation room at Zoom Out Mycology in Central Point.
Photo by Rhonda NowakFungus spores are produced and inoculated in a sterile “clean room” at Zoom Out Mycology.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about women gardeners in the Rogue Valley.

“Mycologists are few and far between. We are underfunded, poorly represented in the context of other sciences — ironic as the very foundation of our ecosystems is directly dependent upon fungi, which ultimately create the foundation of soils.”

— Paul Stamets, author of “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” 2005

Given the importance of fungi and the shortage of mycologists reported by fungi expert Paul Stamets, I am all the more thankful that we have mycologist Bashira Muhammad in the Rogue Valley. Bashira has been the managing owner and head fungi farmer of Zoom Out Mycology in Central Point for five years. An important part of her work has been educating others about how fungi can drive our path toward sustainability.

Mushrooms can really do that? Before getting into deeper territory, though, during my recent conversation with Bashira I started out with a basic question: how does she pronounce f-u-n-g-i?

“I go with ‘fun-guy,’ like the pun,” she told me.

I admit, I was a fun-jigh girl up until then, but I really like the image of a “fun guy” — maybe a Portobello mushroom in glasses and a party hat. (Technically, Portobellos are the fruiting bodies of a particular fun-Gus, whose scientific name is Agaricus bisporus.)

Diverse pronunciations aside, fungi are pretty fantastic, which is the theme of Stamets’ latest book and film, aptly named “Fantastic Fungi” (2019). It was also Stamets’ message when he visited Southern Oregon University in 2015 to talk about the relationship between fungi and the health of bees.

Bashira, who had recently arrived in Oregon from New Jersey as part of the National Student Exchange Program, was in Stamets’ audience that day. She’s now in her last year of a master’s degree program in environmental science and policy with a minor in sustainability leadership at SOU.

“That’s the day when I definitely knew what I came here for; I was going to work with fungi,” Bashira said.

On Jan. 1, 2017, Bashira opened Zoom Out Mycology, a name she chose to highlight a broad focus on sustainability by incorporating social, environmental, economic and institutional principles and practices into her business. Bashira educates others about using these strategies in her sustainability workshops.

Today, Bashira and her three assistants grow 18 different strains of edible and medicinal fungi throughout the year. They produce sawdust spawn for people to grow fungi at home, as well as several different kinds of mushroom herbal teas. The tea canisters even feature a “fun-guy” dipping his feet — I mean stipe — into a steaming cup of tea.

When I visited Bashira’s fungi farm, I realized right away that growing fungi looks a lot different from growing other crops. There are a couple of hoophouses on the farm where Bashira’s team grows some fungi during the summer. However, fungi spores are produced indoors in a laboratory environment, also called a clean room. Here the spores are inoculated by placing them in a sterile medium, such as sawdust or millet seeds.

Another area is called the incubation room, which has a high-quality air filter to prevent contamination. The spawn spend time in the incubation room to allow the fungus mycelium to fully colonize the substrate before it’s ready for purchase. To produce mushrooms for tea, the fungi head over to the fruiting chamber, a kind of spa for fungi to help them develop their best produce.

Bashira has been working a lot with reishi (Ganoderma lingzhi), a fan-shaped mushroom that has been used medicinally for hundreds of years. She’s conducting tests to see how reishi might be grown to reduce the amount of water consumption on a farm. She is also working with a client to develop an entomopathogenic strain of fungus that would reduce the tick population on the client’s property.

Bashira told me she loves the research and fieldwork aspects of her work with fungi, as well as the educational component. She has partnered with ScienceWorks in Ashland to lead summer youth camps, and with the OSU Extension Service to present a four-part series of workshops on growing and using mushrooms to promote environmental sustainability and human health.

Her third workshop on medicinal mushrooms is coming up from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 12, at the OSU Extension Center. Her fourth workshop, focusing on cool-weather cultivars, will take place from 10 a.m. to noon Sunday, Dec. 19, with an optional farm tour at Zoom Out Mycology after the program. The cost for each workshop is $45. For more information and to register for the workshops, visit www.zoomoutmycology.com.

I left Bashira’s farm with a lot more knowledge about fungi than I had before I arrived. For example, did you know there are about 148,000 known species of fungi throughout the world, but scientists estimate there may be up to 3.8 million species? No wonder Paul Stamets said we need more mycologists — there are a lot of “fun guy” still left to find!

Bashira’s favorite fungus

“My favorite fungus is known as Gomphidius oregonensis or the insidious gomphidius. I like it for extremely superficial reasons, like its morphology. It can be a wide range of colors, and I'm particularly fond of the purple expression. It features a long, 10 cm, “taproot,” which is sometimes a bright yellow at the base of the stipe (mushroom stem). It’s a pretty small mushroom, though, with a cap ranging from 3-10 cm. Ecologically it's pretty interesting, too. It’s a mycorrhizal mushroom, meaning it has a mutualistic form of symbiosis with plant roots. The plants they commonly partner with are conifers, especially Douglas fir. Their native geographic range is the West Coast of North America, particularly Northern California and Oregon.” (Rhonda’s note: My reason for loving the insidious gomphidius is superficial, too; I love the way it rhymes!)

Inspiring women

All of these women are visionaries in Bashira’s personal farming community:

• Shantae Johnson of Mudbone Grown, based in Portland (www.mudbonegrown.com)

• Erica Lee of HooperLee farms in Southern Oregon (www.hooperleefarms.com)

• Elaine Ingham, my early internet hero (www.soilfoodweb.com)

• Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm (www.soulfirefarm.org).

Inspiring literature

Bashira says she mostly read nonfiction books, and the most inspiring ones have been:

• “Earth Repair” by Leila Darwish (oldie but inspired me early on)

• “Farming While Black” by Leah Penniman

• “Mycelium Running” by Paul Stamets

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.