When Greg Carter is out in the woods, foraging for mushrooms with his students, he’s in his element, happy as a preacher in a new pulpit. He bounds along the
When Greg Carter is out in the woods, foraging for mushrooms with his students, he’s in his element, happy as a preacher in a new pulpit. He bounds along the trail, his blue eyes sparkling with equal parts mirth and mischief. He gets so fired up about sharing his fungi knowledge that each of his sentences invariably ends with an irrepressible giggle, as if to say, “Isn’t that cool?”
Spotting a familiar species at the foot of an oak tree, he enthuses, “This one here, the Latin name is Lactarius corrugis. Corrugis because it looks like cardboard. And Lactarius because they milk. It’s a lactating mushroom.” And from there, the conversation sprouts into fruitful new directions.
Typically, Carter introduces fledgling foragers to the “robins and cardinals” of the mushroom world. “The chanterelles, the oysters, the lobsters, the chickens of the woods, the hens of the woods, the puff balls, the meadow mushrooms,” Carter says, rattling off the different species. He also helps students identify dangerous mushrooms — which can often look very similar to edible types — offering sound advice for beginning foragers: “If you are not 110 percent sure, throw it out.”
Carter started his business, Deep Woods Mushrooms, in 2006, after a career as a machine operator. Initially, he focused on the commercial production of shiitakes for sale to restaurants and farmers markets. Today, two-thirds of the business is devoted to wild mushroom hunts and farm tours.
The farm tours and some of the foraging explorations take place on his almost two-acre homestead, located on the side of a mountain in Mills River. In Carter’s personal garden, raised beds yield carrots, cucumbers, green beans, squash, corn, and a selection of herbs. Aromatic hops climb a trellis attached to the gutters on his house.
The backyard is where things get wonderfully weird: Yes, that really is an 18-foot-tall king bolete mushroom looming in front of you. Carter made it from an assortment of cast-off items. Next to it, he turned a shipping container into a retail store. The arched wood door, stained-glass windows, and ornate wrought-iron door handles combine to create the face of a magical forest creature. The building is topped with another shaggy stalk bolete mushroom, painted a vivid yellow. And don’t be surprised if you encounter Bigfoot on one of the woodland trails. He’s perfectly harmless. And he bears a striking resemblance to — you guessed it — Greg Carter. In short, it’s a storybook setting, a wonderland in which Alice would feel right at home.
“People really enjoy taking his classes,” says Dr. Jeanine Davis, an associate professor and extension specialist at North Carolina State University who has known Carter for years. “Greg gets you so engaged that you want to hear every word he says. He knows his stuff.”
That education started early. As a child, Carter and his father, Larry, would harvest morels in the suburban Detroit neighborhood where they lived. His father learned how to forage for mushrooms in England from the locals to supplement his rations when he was a sergeant stationed abroad during World War II. By the 1960s, Larry and his wife were raising 13 children, and the morels played a similarly practical role in feeding their own little army. “Dad would come home from work and grab a knife,” Carter remembers. “I’d grab a basket, and off we’d go.”
For Carter, mushrooms ultimately had to take a back seat to a career and raising a family with his wife, Holly. But by the time his youngest son went off to college, Carter had had enough of indoor work. “When I started grumbling, I knew I had to get out of there,” he says of his years in manufacturing. “I just had to escape those four walls.”
With Holly’s blessing, he left the factory and started Deep Woods Mushrooms. But, she cautioned him, “You need to turn a profit in two years.”
In addition to giving him a goal, Carter explains, Holly provided the wherewithal for him to attempt his venture. “There’s an old saying: Behind every successful farmer is a spouse who works in town,” he says, winking. Fortunately, he was able to turn a profit right on schedule, and he’s never looked back. When Holly eventually retired from her office job, she joined the business as his one and only employee, managing the books and performing an assortment of other tasks.
“It works out very well,” says Holly, who is happy to do the indoor jobs while Carter spends his days outside. “The hardest thing I can get him to do is schedule a staff meeting,” she says with a laugh.
When Carter was starting out as a grower in the early 2000s, NC State Extension began promoting shiitake mushrooms as an alternative crop to tobacco by giving away spawn. Almost 25 years later, that program is yielding big results. “I’d say it’s been very successful,” Davis says. “We have small-scale mushroom growers across the state. More and more people are making it their whole business.”
In August, the North American Mycological Association held its Annual Foray in Hendersonville. More than 400 mushroomers from around the country converged on western North Carolina to forage and learn from presentations made by some of the leading mycologists in the U.S.
At long last, consumers are beginning to realize that the world of edible mushrooms goes far beyond the generic white caps they see in stores.
On the scientific side, mycologists are mining the mysteries of mushrooms to help us better understand the natural world. “If we could hear the fungal world and plant world, it would be deafening,” Carter says. “So much communication is going on beneath our feet. Plants and trees are talking to each other on a thread of mycelium.”
When Carter isn’t taking students on wild mushroom forays or tending his garden, he can be found at the Transylvania Farmers’ Market, selling his shiitakes and generously sharing his hard-won knowledge. “Super knowledgeable,” says J.J. Carson, market manager for the Transylvania Farmers’ Market. “He’s so big on the educational part of what he does. We have a couple of vendors who people get in line for, and he is one of those.”
Not surprisingly, when you spend time with Carter, it doesn’t take long to realize that the world of mushrooms is a deep and profound one. In fact, the only thing more mystifying is how four walls contained him for as long as they did.