Portland mom spearheads psilocybin mushroom farming, one tote at a time
When Oregon voters approved Measure 109 in 2020, the state gave the Oregon Health Authority and stakeholders — therapists, medical professionals, neo-shamen — two years to come up with rules on how legal psilocybin would be utilized in this state.
The main regulations to prevent Oregon turning into a party destination for would-be trippers were that the person taking psilocybin would have to be monitored by a licensed facilitator/guide, the mushrooms would have to be grown in Oregon by a licensed grower, and they would have to be tested at a licensed lab.
As of late April, several facilitators have trained and three have been been licensed. No treatment centers have been licensed yet, and none are expected to open before June. One testing lab has been OK’d, Rose City Laboratories. And three manufacturers (growers) of the chosen mushroom, Psilocybe Cubensis, have been licensed and are growing it.
They are Andreas Met of Medford, Gared Hansen of Walterville, just east of Eugene, and Tori Armbrust of Southeast Portland.
Being the very first grower to be issued a license, Armbrust, 33, was all over the media in March, although she says misleading headlines and stock photos of mushrooms taught her a few lessons about becoming the face of an industry that is being watched nationwide.
Armbrust is the owner of Satori Farms, which, as she describes it, is some plastic totes in an office building in Southeast Portland near I-205. “I was just looking for somewhere sub-$1,000 (a month, to rent),” she said cheerfully over lunch in Montavilla recently. Armbrust still keeps her day job working for a property manager, but her goal is to phase into full-time mushroom growing, to supply the expected market.
As of late April, she was a week away from harvesting her first legal batch of “magic mushrooms” as they are colloquially known, or “the medicine” as they are called by experienced growers and users.
Armbrust has been teaching people to grow mushrooms for six years. She has taught for the Portland Psychedelic Society, Decriminalize Nature Portland and for mycology clubs both here and in Southern Oregon. Whether students chose to grow shitakes and chanterelles to eat or to sell to restaurants, or psychedelic mushrooms for tripping, it is the same technique. Cultivate the spores in liquid for two weeks; introduce them to a sterile media like coco coir (ground coconut husk) as found on Amazon and at garden centers and cannabis grow stores; and keep them warm and moist until the fungus bursts forth in fruit form, what we know as mushrooms. Then, they can be harvested, dried and packaged. Their psychoactive potency half-life is measured in months, so careful processing and storing is essential.
She had a quick start. “(Psilocybe cubensis) spores are legal here in Oregon, so a chunk of that time was already completed,” Armbrust told Pamplin Media about being first to market. One big issue has been complying with the Oregon Psilocybin Services’ (a division of the Oregon Health Authority) rules for mushroom growers.
The rules state a manufacturer needs security system with a video camera that records at a certain frame rate and stores content for 30 days. The site also needs a burglar alarm and two panic buttons. Armbrust doesn’t invite media to her place, to keep it low-key. The OPS rules may seem overcautious for a manufacturer in a peaceful, rural setting, but they can’t be too careful in Portland. She has no sign. Her security camera was stolen within days and her new one is in a cage.
America is the land of small businesses, where you can rent a space and throw up your new business — stock-selling boiler room, supplements powerhouse, drop-shipping yoga pants multilevel marketing scheme — and no one asks too many questions. However, psilocybin mushroom growers in Oregon need the explicit permission of their landlord. Armbrust was lucky that her landlord’s wife has a brother who believes in the curative powers of mushrooms, and signaled approval.
“People are scared of the feds,” said Armbrust, noting that psilocybin is still a scheduled substance and illegal nationwide, to produce or sell.
Armbrust loves the horticulture aspect of growing mushrooms. She learned most of what she knows from books and other people, and trial and error has helped perfect her system. For instance, growers can get several harvests or “flushes” from one bin full of fungi, as long as they keep it wet. “It’s essentially recreating a rain out in nature,” she said with a shrug.
She will scale as demand grows. Now, she uses pressure cookers to sterilize the growing medium, but will trade them for more professional autoclaves. The key will be establishing contracts with service centers as they open up, so she is guaranteed sales. The OHA is treating “cubenzies” like a cross between food and medicine, with strict rules around hygiene, testing and delivery.
“It’s so labor intensive that, in order to even fill a 1,000 square foot space, it takes so much time, sterilizing all your substrate, your spawn, making the totes, harvesting, drying and packaging. I’m really realizing that I need to make a lot of changes. But that also comes with having the capital to do that. And that’s going to be the tricky part.” She wants to stay a sole owner, but when sales come in, she may rethink taking on investors.
“I also need to release control, because I’d rather have 10% of a watermelon than 100% of a grape.”
The places where people will go to experience psilocybin’s mind-altering effects, which could help treat depression and addiction, are called service centers. Yet with none set to open until at least later in 2023, can Armbrust keep using her savings to pay the rent, and working two jobs — while raising kids age eleven and two — until the sales come in? Her manufacturer’s license costs $10,000 a year. She is convinced the demand is out there.
But anyone expecting the boom-and-bust of the cannabis market — and “the greed,” as she calls it — should think again. This is not a big cash crop. The street value of one ounce of dried mushrooms now is about $100. Armbrust hopes to keep the price for the maxiumum allowed dose to around $200.
“But I’ve heard that number be all over the place, because there’s only three of us manufacturers,” she said. “The facilitators don’t know what they’re going to be paying to operate, and the service centers don’t know what they’re going to be charging their facilitators.”
Armbrust already had a call from someone in Utah asking her to be a 51% partner. They were trying to get around the residency rule that growers must have been Oregon residents for two years to qualify for a license.
More inspiring than that are the emails and calls she gets from people just wanting mushrooms for therapeutic, as opposed to partying, purposes. People with depression, especially veterans, have been contacting her from around the US, keen for something that works. She is glad people like former Texas governor Rick Perry and author Michael Pollan are singing the praises of psilocybin in treating PTSD, depression, end-of-life anxiety and even alcoholism.
“We need that, because we’re just coming off the war on drugs, where everybody thinks they’re just burnout, washed-up losers who are taking this medicine,” Armbrust said.
She says it’s an ironic comparison, but one day she would like psilocybin to be as available as alcohol, pointing out that it is neither addictive nor a substance people want to use every day.
“Most of the growing process is cleaning,” Armbrust says of the constant sterilizing she does.
The new legislation can be frustrating. “Who wrote the regulations aren’t the same people that are actually working in OHA,” she said. For example, the rules state that, for disposal, the substrate (the big chunk of soil which hosted the mushrooms) should be “rendered unusable”, so more psychedelic mushrooms can’t grow at the dump or on the compost heap. And yet, it should also be fit for human consumption. “I don’t know who would ever eat it, (but) I can’t just pour bleach on it to kill everything, because it still has to be safe for people to eat. A lot of the rules need clarification from OHA.”
Trying to figure out that headscratcher will take a lot of calls. Fortunately, she says, because she was the first, she has gotten a pretty quick response from the OHA.
Back when Armbrust was learning mycology, she used books, but says now everything you need to know is on YouTube. Still, people reach out. “People like to be have their questions answered (in person) or if there’s specific questions.” She skipped the Zoom period of the COVID pandemic, not wanting to deal with the technology, and being busy with her baby daughter. “I just use (still images) on Instagram, I still don’t have a website.”
Will there be a surge of underground growers going legitimate, just as there was a surge of underground consumers when Shroom House had lines around the block on West Burnside in December 2022?
“A lot of those underground (growers) people didn’t want to deal with a bureaucracy. Even though there’s pages and pages of regulations, there’s still a lot of things that are unclear.”
Her ideal set up would have at least $150,000 worth of equipment, and employees, and look more like a lab or a commercial kitchen.
“Stainless steel everything, no fabric, it would be totally a sterile environment that would also have separate areas.” Similar to a microbrewery? “Yes, brewing has to be very sterile, beer, kombucha, it’s a lot of the same process…I think we forget that these mushrooms grow in nature without our help, and typically, we’re the ones that mess up that process.”
Joseph Gallivan is a news and features writer based in Portland, Ore.