What is it about mushrooms that lures food lovers so? In the Hudson Valley, the act of venturing out into the wilderness in search of round-topped, gilled, and puffed-up fungi has a similar allure to visiting a farm stand or shopping at a farmers’ market.
Yet for those who’ve tried foraging for themselves, the experience of sourcing ‘shrooms in their natural habitat is far more gratifying than a market trip could ever be. It’s a process that involves stepping off the trails, stepping into nature, and, more often than not, getting a little dirty in the process.
In short, it’s wonderful.
That’s part of the reason John Michelotti relishes every opportunity to track down mushrooms in the Hudson Valley. A self-taught mycologist, Michelotti is the mastermind behind Catskill Fungi, a Big Indian-based company that leads mushroom walks, offers educational workshops, and crafts mushroom-based health tinctures from its farm in Ulster County.
Here’s how the former outdoor guide cultivated his passion for all things fungi into a full-flavored career.
Step One: Get outdoors
In Michelotti’s childhood, Big Indian was a magical place. Seemingly worlds away from his Westchester home, the property his family maintained in the Catskills was a wonderland of giant-sized trees and verdant landscapes.
“I’ve been coming up here in the Catskills for my whole life,” he says, adding that his family’s land there actually dates back to the 1800s, when his great-great-grandfather purchased a plot in the area. After helping his parents take care of the grounds for years, Michelotti relocated there permanently in 2013.
Step Two: Let curiosity bloom
Although Michelotti always enjoyed navigating his way along the trails of the Catskills, it wasn’t until 2010 that mushrooms truly caught his attention. An outdoor guide at the time, he was naturally curious about the workings of the world around him.
So, when he began cooking plant-based dishes, many of which contained mushrooms, with a vegan friend and realized he didn’t know a thing about the ingredient, he knew it was time to delve deeper.
Back in 2017 I was lucky to go on mushroom foray with Gary Lincoff in Colorado. Today I found out he passed away last year. His enthusiasm for mycology still inspires me today to keep learning from our mushroom family. Thank you Gary for all the work you’ve done, hope to keep in passing the love for mushrooms. #mushrooms #mycology #mushroom #garylincoff #colorado #mushroomforay #mycelium #ðŸ„ #hongo #hongos
Step Three: Find a mushroom mentor
“My friend tipped me off and told me there were mushroom groups,” he recalls. He joined a few, including the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association, and began his informal education into the world of fungi.
It was through one of these clubs that he met Gary Lincoff, the self-taught mycologist and author who, as Michelotti describes him, “wrote the book” on mushrooms. He’s not just being figurative, either. When Michelotti met the man who would become his mentor, he was holding a copy of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by none other than Lincoff himself.
“He was an excellent teacher,” Michelotti enthuses. “He became one of my main mentors over the past 10 years before he passed away two years ago.”
Lots of smiles and bountiful baskets during all 4 mushroom walks this weekend. Thanks everyone for exploring and admiring the interconnections of nature. Thank you @westkillbrewing for the delicious reishi and chanterelle beers! #mushlove #mushroomwalk #fantasticfungi #mushroomhunting
Step Three: Foster a reputation
By 2014, Michelotti was fairly well immersed in the Hudson Valley’s mushroom community. He found a mentor, joined the clubs, and went on as many nature walks as his schedule allowed. Yet mushrooms remained just a hobby.
One day, he embarked on an herbalist walk with the Catskill Forest Association as a participant, not as a guide. Along the way, someone asked about a mushroom along the trail, so he answered. His guide noticed and later asked him to lead a dedicated mushroom walk for the group.
Since mycology is a close-knit community in the Hudson Valley, word of mouth did the rest. Shortly after leading that first walk, Michelotti began receiving requests to visit libraries, host school workshops, and give talks. Before he knew it, he was one of the leading fungi experts in the Hudson Valley.
Step Four: Find a niche
Just as Michelotti was developing an identity as a mushroom man, so too was he cultivating a reputation as a local maker. In the process of learning more about mushrooms and their various properties, he discovered that different types of fungi offer different nutritional benefits. To make the most of their wellness potential, he began experimenting with medicinal mushroom tinctures for himself and friends. Yet when he stepped foot into the High Falls Food Co-op and noticed it carried tinctures from across the country instead of from the Hudson Valley, he offered to bring in a few jars.
It took him approximately two years to perfect his recipes and bring them to market, but the effort was well worth it. In the four-plus years since he launched his tinctures for sale, he hasn’t altered his formulas once. Nowadays, he makes six tinctures to support everything from circulation and immunity to inflammation and nerves. He sources mushrooms for five of the varieties on his farm and collaborates with Julia Coffey of Mycoterra Farm in South Deerfield, Massachusetts to supply him with enough Lion’s Mane mushrooms for his tincture of the same name.
Step Five: Create a career
With his tinctures and tours up and running, Michelotti realized the time had come for him to turn his hobby into a full-time profession. After saving up sufficient funds and teaching himself how to build a website and create a logo, he filed for an LLC for Catskill Fungi and crafted his first official batch of tinctures for sale. By the end of 2014, Michelotti had his very own business to run.
Based on Michelotti’s private family farm in Big Indian, Catskill Fungi is a treasure for mushroom lovers in the region. On the grounds, Michelotti grows the mushrooms he uses for his tinctures. Throughout the year, he also hosts educational workshops to teach others how to identify and use different types of fungi in the region. In the Hudson Valley, he’s a regular presence at mushrooms talks and has collaborated with organizations like Menla in Phoenicia, Emerson Resort & Spa in Mount Tremper, and Hillsdale General Store in Hillsdale, to name a few.
Step Six: Make fungi friends
While Michelotti’s career as a mushroom expert is a dream for the self-made entrepreneur, it’s only part of the attraction for him with Catskill Fungi. The other allure has largely to do with his engagement with the mushroom-loving community at large. As a regular presence at foraging talks and nature treks, he has cultivated quite the network of fungi fans in the region.
“I feel like word of mouth has really been the best way we put things out,” he says of Catskill Fungi’s expanding presence. “It really goes to highlight the strength of our community. People here listen to each other and take interest.”
In addition to speaking at workshops and chatting with locals at farmers’ markets, Michelotti is also a past president of the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association and a member of the North American Mycological Association, the Amazon Mycorenweal Project, and the Mushroom Advisory Panel for Certified Naturally Grown.
For mushroom film buffs, Michelotti makes an appearance in Fantastic Fungi, a movie produced by locally based executive producers Stephen Apkon and Marcina Hale. He found his way into the film during the Telluride Mushroom Festival, which he attended with Lincoff during the duo’s last walk together.
“I was out in the woods with Gary Lincoff, who was being followed around by a film crew [for Fantastic Fungi], and they happened to capture me in some of the shots in the film.”
After Lincoff’s death, Apkon and Hale connected with Michelotti to do series of screenings and talks in the Hudson Valley. Not only did showings at places like The Rosendale Theatre sell out, but their popularity prompted the theaters to host repeat screenings.
“[The film] helps people connect with nature and connect with fungi,” he says. “[Mushrooms] can really help with issues [like climate change and alternative resources] that we face today.”
Step Seven: Educate others
At the end of the day, Michelotti knows that Catskill Fungi is nothing without educated, interested consumers. That’s why he makes a point to get out and about to share his passion for mushrooms with any and everyone. Although he remains rooted in Big Indian, he has occasionally traversed south to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx to talk about how to cultivate mushrooms indoors. When it’s safe to do so and when mushrooms renew their presence on logs and forest floors in the Hudson Valley, he will kick his nature walks back up again for the May through October season.
What Michelotti is most excited for, though, are his workshops. While the coronavirus pandemic put much of his programming on pause, he plans to roll out inoculation workshops to teach people the historic uses and ecological functions of fungi, then show them how to inoculate logs to grow their own mushrooms at home. While that will be open for beginners and experts alike, his foraging certification course will be available for experts only.
“For the first time in New York State, we’re going to be teaching a certification class for wild foraged mushrooms,” he enthuses. “At the end of two days, [attendees] have to identify 20 mushrooms and their lookalikes. If they pass, they’ll get a certification that says they’re allowed to sell mushrooms to wholesalers.”
He plans to host Catskill Fungi’s first certification course in coordination with Cornell Small Farms Program’s mushroom specialist Steve Gabriel in Ithaca, with more to come. Down the road, he also hopes to roll out three-day crash courses to help participants identify and cultivate their own mushrooms and learn about medicinal mushrooms. As long as he keeps the conversation going and gets more people interested in fungi, he’s a happy man.
“When I first started at farmers’ markets, people would walk up and say, ‘Mushrooms, weird, why?’” he recalls. “I’ve been into mushrooms for ten years and people are getting into it. More and more people are coming up excited about mushrooms and excited to learn more and have a basis. I’m helping them level up.”