Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
I first discovered Smallhold via the brand’s at-home grow kits – which became my favorite thing to gift friends and family during the pandemic. As my personal love for and knowledge of the fungal kingdom has grown, Smallhold has done the same. The brand just opened its first certified organic mushroom farm in Vernon, just a mile from Downtown LA, and I was lucky enough to pick founder Andrew Carter’s brain on all things mycelial (including his own favorite mushroom du jour, and the most delicious way to enjoy it).
I’d love to begin by learning more about your personal background, and how that led to the beginnings of Smallhold.
AC: As an early employee for companies like Brightfarms, Windowfarms and Agritecture, I built my foundation in greenhouse and commercial hydroponics and saw a ton of opportunity in mushrooms. They’re highly nutritious, cultivated indoors, delicious – and I was drawn to their mysterious nature and the fact that there’s still so much more to learn about the fungal kingdom. I’m fairly convinced they will play a big role in feeding the world in the coming decades.
We established Smallhold in 2017, starting out in a shipping container under the Williamsburg Bridge. We’ve gone on to build the first USDA-certified organic farm in New York City, and have more recently built farms in Austin and LA. I’m proud to have designed, built, and operated technologically innovative growing systems that get nutrient-dense, speciality mushrooms to way more people than ever before.
I’m a bit of a mycelial geek, and am excited by the seeming “mushroom boom” we’re currently experiencing. From urban farms to at-home grow kits, it seems like Smallhold does it all. Can you tell us about Smallhold’s place in this larger industry trend?
AC: Smallhold has always believed that mushrooms can change the way we eat, for the better. For those of us in the mushroom community, it’s not just a trend, it’s a deep-rooted and ongoing passion, and a catalyst for change. We want to help other people become mushroom people, and to do that, we have to get mushrooms in front of more eyeballs in as many ways as possible.
It’s funny, a lot of people have pointed out to us that Smallhold as a company has followed a growth pattern that’s reminiscent of mycelial networks. First come grow kits, then our larger farms (we call them “Macrofarms”), and then our Minifarms start to emerge in surrounding communities. We send grow kits all over the country and after fruiting, they are oftentimes returned to the soil. We also dive into other channels and mediums, whether that be artistic, culinary or even literary collaborations – increasing the interest in mushrooms, and starting the cycle all over again.
Mushrooms are fascinating and beautiful things. Similarly, Smallhold’s minifarms across the U.S. are more beautiful — and aesthetically modern — than one might expect from a typical agricultural operation. How does Smallhold consider the intersection of art and urban farming?
AC: We wanted something clean, modern, even a bit futuristic. The mix of art and science opens doors, facilitating introductions to the world of mushrooms.
I hope the visual aspect of mushrooms and of Smallhold overall spark curiosity in people, whether that’s when they see a minifarm at a restaurant or see our colorful, compostable clamshells of fresh mushrooms in the grocery aisle at their local supermarket.
Some of these mushrooms almost look like an optical illusion, or something of sci-fi proportions. How do they just grow independent of soil and sunlight?
AC: Mushrooms are grown off of blocks of substrate – which in our case is primarily made of sawdust, a waste byproduct of the timber industry. Mushrooms are also not photosynthetic, so they don’t need light to create energy, though they need a little bit to convince it to grow in the right shape and direction. Intriguingly, if they are exposed to sunlight, they produce Vitamin D, making them the only item in the produce aisle to contain the essential vitamin. Fun fact: substrate can be broken up and returned directly to gardens or composted whenever you’re done with fruiting mushrooms.
At our Macrofarms, we use hundreds of thousands of data points collected each day to dictate climate recipes and automation that allows us to grow organic specialty mushrooms of the best quality possible. We often say that we’re creating an ideal environment for mushrooms to fruit, most reminiscent of a forest floor at dusk. We can never perfectly imitate nature but enjoy the challenge.
At our Macrofarms, we use hundreds of thousands of data points collected each day to dictate climate recipes and automation that allows us to grow organic specialty mushrooms of the best quality possible. The difference between growing mushrooms in a farm vs in the wild is that you can control and optimize for these data points (light, soil, etc. needed). A vast majority of mushroom farms grow indoors, we just do it differently. We often say that we’re creating an ideal environment for mushrooms to fruit, most reminiscent of a forest floor at dusk. We can never perfectly imitate nature but enjoy the challenge.
Smallhold’s Grow Kits are my favorite go-to gift. I can’t describe the secondary joy that comes from gifting a living organism. The gift that keeps on growing (and giving).
AC: That’s so nice to hear, we love gifting them, too. We hope that growing your own food continues to gain popularity – the kits were actually spun up out of necessity at the start of the pandemic. We thought of them as modern day “victory gardens” for all of our friends and family stuck in their homes during lockdown.
Can you speak to some of the greatest challenges of building Smallhold, both at the initial stages and in the present day? Has consumer education posed a challenge?
AC: The tide is definitely turning, but there is some mycophobia in the US that we combat with education, science, chef partnerships, and even simple things like doing demos so people can taste our mushrooms for the first time. Many Americans are only familiar with button, cremini, and portobellos – which are actually the same mushroom at different growth stages. Our mission is to introduce way more people to the entire edible fungal kingdom, a vast world of different textures and flavors.
Smallhold just opened its first certified organic mushroom farm in LA, less than a mile from Downtown. How does this new farm relate to Smallhold’s dedication to sustainability, biodiversity, and local agriculture?
AC: We are beyond excited to finally be in LA - it’s actually my hometown, which makes it extra special. We intentionally built all of our farms in or immediately around urban city centers in order to bring mushrooms closer to the people consuming them, versus shipping across the country, ultimately reducing food miles and likelihood of spoilage. The LA farm allows for new partnerships with Lassens and Erewhon, reducing the miles spent to get the produce to its final destination.
We partnered with University of California PhD candidate Danielle Stevenson on a groundbreaking mycoremediation field study, testing the ability for our spent substrate to remediate brownfields in Los Angeles county. We’ll also continue to hire locally, always pay above the living wage, compost or donate 100% of spent substrate, as well as partner with regional non-profits and groups.
Are there any upcoming launches or longer-term visions for Smallhold you can share with us?
AC: Smallhold recently established partnerships with restaurants Kismet and Gjusta in Los Angeles, in addition to existing partnerships with Mena, 232 Bleeker, and Maison Yaki in New York City as well as Uchi, Comedor, and Intero in Austin - and more! We’re continuing to connect with the community through these partnerships and ongoing expansion plans.
As a founder, how do you take care of yourself and prevent burnout? Any go-to self-care products or practices that are an essential part of your day or week?
The biggest thing I’ve had to get used to is letting go. For so long, we’ve had to directly handle every little thing that comes up. Now, we have an amazing team with the right people that may have different perspectives – but can probably do it better than I can.
I run when I can, try to be smart about the food I put in my body, and spend as much time with my family as possible. I eat mushrooms in as many meals as possible, but try not to obsess over my diet. I love the sauna, which was one of the things I missed most during COVID. Beyond the countless health benefits, it’s time off your phone, talking to random sweaty people – it’s better than anything else.
Any brands or start-ups you’re personally excited about?
We Are The New Farmers grows spirulina cubes in Brooklyn and ships them direct to consumer. Fresh spirulina is hard to come by, and they’re doing it right.
Fishwife is my go to for all tinned fish needs, which is surprisingly more common than you’d think.
Lastly, I’d be remiss not to ask: what’s your favorite mushroom? And your favorite way to cook + enjoy it?
It changes week by week, right now it’s lion's mane, cooked on a cast iron a la Derek Sarno’s method.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Have a founder you’d like us to interview next? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.