Five years after an animal rights group complained about the treatment of chickens at an egg farm run by a Roman Catholic abbey in South Carolina, the monks are now earning their daily bread by growing mushrooms. It hasn't been easy or without frustration.
"It's been very much of a journey with a very long learning curve and we didn't know exactly how it would all turn out," said Brother John Corrigan, who oversees the mushroom operation at Mepkin Abbey. "There were a lot of failures in the beginning one after the other. It almost made you want to give up."
Growing mushrooms is now bringing in almost as much as the old egg operation did. "We're almost there now," he said.
Although the abbey, which is home to 18 monks, did not release sales numbers, Corrigan said that each week 400 pounds of oyster mushrooms and 200 pounds of shitake mushrooms are produced.
The entire production of fresh mushrooms is sold either to restaurants in nearby Charleston or to retail customers through Piggly Wiggly stores. The abbey sells dried mushrooms through stores and its website.
It was nearly five years ago the animal rights group complained that the monks were operating a factory farm. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for a boycott, publicized what it said was undercover video of the egg operation and complained to federal and state agencies.
The abbey denied there was anything wrong in the way it produced eggs and their farm met industry standards. State and federal officials took no enforcement actions.
But the publicity distracted from the quiet life of the Trappist monks. Their abbey, founded in 1949, sits on a bluff overlooking the Cooper River winding its way toward Charleston about 35 miles to the south. The abbey is just outside of Moncks Corner, named for Thomas Monck, who founded the community in 1728.
The abbey monks, who in the past have made bread and sold milk to support the abbey, considered almost 40 new ways to support themselves, including making wine and gathering honey, before settling on growing oyster mushrooms.
The nearest place you can get fresh oyster mushrooms is Pennsylvania, so it seemed like a good fit.
"But oyster mushrooms are the most difficult type to grow. All the experts will tell you that, but we didn't quite know what that meant," Corrigan said.
One problem is the oyster mushrooms are susceptible to airborne pollutants as they're grown in hanging black bags called columns containing a medium of pasteurized straw, wheat bran and cotton seed hulls. That's a difficult thing to control in South Carolina in the spring and fall.
"We had to deal with an invisible enemy. We couldn't even see the pollutants and no matter what the mushrooms would not grow," he said. "There were many frustrating times asking where do we go from here and what do we do next."
Last week, Brother Anthony-Maria was raking out straw and covering it with wheat bran to prepare a column for the oyster mushrooms. Once the mushroom spores are added, the mushrooms grow in about 20 days. Each bag can produce about five harvests of mushrooms.
"My understanding is oyster mushrooms will grow in practically anything. People have used coffee grounds and all kinds of stuff. One person even told me you could use motor oil, but I have never seen that," he laughed.
A problem in expanding the abbey's market much beyond Charleston is that oyster mushrooms have a short shelf life.
"They are truly fragile. It's like having a florist dealing with flowers," said Brother Corrigan, who added he had no previous experience with mushrooms.
"I liked the idea. It was close to the earth and I thought it would work reasonably well for us," he said. "It's been quite an ordeal for us. But thanks to the Lord and good help, we were able to overcome."
Mepkin Abbey: http://mepkinabbey.org/wordpress/