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Trendsetters: Sparta Mushrooms

Mushroom Mavens

Across the street from an antebellum house in Sparta is a red brick factory housing a business that has – well – mushroomed into a fungal enterprise. In climate-controlled portable greenhouses, five workers with Sparta Mushrooms grow, harvest and package 500 to 600 pounds each week of shiitake, lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms on a mixture of hardwood sawdust and organic rye grain infused with mushroom spawn. And someone, somewhere, eats all of those mushrooms.

It’s a steady, repetitive business, something that owners Suzy and Robert Currey wanted to create for the community. It’s been operating five years.

“At a workshop, we learned that Atlanta is the second largest market for mushrooms in the country,” Suzy says. “We visited with a mushroom expert on the West Coast, and we decided to concentrate on mushrooms.”

The Curreys had already established a large organic garden – the mushrooms offered a way to expand their economic footprint in Hancock County. They didn’t really plan to move to Sparta, two hours east of Atlanta, any more than they planned to become mushroom mavens. They were easing out of their family lighting and furniture business in Atlanta, turning it over to their son, and thinking about retiring to middle Tennessee.

But when they visited newly relocated friends in Sparta, they saw an antebellum house and bought it, thinking it could be restored into something beautiful. They also believed the lot behind the house could support a dandy vegetable garden.

“We couldn’t work on the house ourselves – it needed a lot of work [so] someone else had to do that – but we thought we could work on the garden,” Suzy says with a laugh. “It had been overgrown for 20 years, and every type of weed and everything else was in it.”

They spent two years clearing, cleaning and planting. In 2006, the Curreys relocated to Sparta permanently. A dozen years later, their backyard plot has become part of the four-acre organic Elm Street Gardens. In addition to raised beds, there are 11 greenhouses for growing vegetables year-round, along with several beehives and a flower garden. It’s not only functional, it’s beautiful.

“We really started the gardens to feed ourselves, then realized we had to do something with the overflow,” says Suzy.

Expanding the gardens allowed the Curreys, both in their mid-70s, to hire some of their neighbors, a goal of the business. Hancock County’s 30.4 percent poverty rate is twice as high as the national average, and the Curreys are doing what they can to remedy that. Both are involved in local nonprofits, like the food bank and library, trying to give back to the community.

The mushrooms – and produce from the gardens – can be found in Whole Foods groceries in Atlanta and at the Morningside Farmers Market, the Freedom Farmers Market and the Grant Park Farmers Market. Friday afternoons, residents of Hancock County and surrounding areas can buy vegetables and mushrooms directly from the farmers at Elm Street Gardens. – Rebecca McCarthy

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