Sparta Mushrooms

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SONY DSC

Sparta Mushrooms

Homegrown inspiration for a life, unexpected

 

Written by Nicole Isaac

Photographed by Juan Alonso

 

It was March 14, 2015. I know the exact date because the invitation is still stuck to my fridge: Amy’s House-Warming Party. It was also the day that set off a spectacular chain of events that led me to meeting Robert and Suzy Currey, whom I now call the king and queen of Spore-ta.

The food menu at Amy’s party was out of this world. A banquet of fresh salads, garlic green beans, mouth-watering roasted figs stuffed with goat cheese, all leading up to the main course: chicken breast sautéed in a sauce of onions and s-h-i – I knew it was too good to continue. Shiitake mushrooms. As a lifetime hater of fungi (and all edible mold in general), I mentally prepared myself for the art – mastered by four-year-olds everywhere – of “creative vegetable positioning.” But, I was off my game. My friend called me out.

“You don’t like mushrooms,” she gasped as if I had an aversion to miracles.

“I… well…,” I stuttered.

She bargained. “Just, please. Try one. These aren’t like any mushrooms you’ve ever tasted.” As if I never heard that one before. But, reluctantly, I submitted. I stabbed the shiitake with my fork and chewed, expecting the usual taste of mud puddle meets mothball. But instead, I took in this salty, buttery, and rich morsel, this escargot of the earth, savoring each bite until there was nothing left.

What followed was an obligatory round of “I told you so’s,” and then me demanding to know where in the world the shiitakes came from.

“There’s this guy at the Freedom Farmers Market in midtown Atlanta. He cooks them right there every Saturday morning. You can’t miss him.”

So, I set my calendar for the Saturday next and made a plan to meet the maker of these magic mushrooms.

My friend was right. I couldn’t miss him. I just followed the long line of people wrapped around the Sparta Imperial Mushroom tent and there he was. I expected the standard farmer’s market vendor profile: A 30-something bearded guy in a grass-stained T-shirt and flip flops, chewing on a stick of straw. Instead, I saw a silver-haired gentleman with the face of an old movie star – Robert Wagner came to mind – bespectacled, wearing blue jeans, a crisp button-up shirt, and brown leather boots, tossing a hot skillet of sizzling shiitakes.

I waited for the crowd to die down so I could talk to him one-on-one. Rookie mistake! By the time I got back to the tent, he was completely sold out. I introduced myself anyway, and confessed how his shiitakes had caused my recent conversion.

“They make you want to just laugh out loud, don’t they?” he said, his blue eyes beaming with pride.

“Yes, that’s exactly right. They’re implausible,” I agreed. “How do you get them to taste like that?”

And that’s when he gave me two options: Tell me, or show me first hand where it all began. Obviously, I chose the latter, and scheduled a visit to meet Robert Currey at his family farm and mushroom factory in Sparta, Georgia.

 

***

 

The instant spring arrived, I set off to middle-of-nowhere Georgia for the grand tour. Sparta is one of those smaller than small towns you only know you’re in when the speed limit suddenly drops from 65 to 20 MPH. My high school had more students than Sparta has residents, a space frozen in time of quiet empty streets with rustic barns hanging on their hinges intermixed with massive 19th Century Antebellum homes deserted after the Civil War; quaint barbecue huts with walk-up windows, and one-room music stores with signs that advertise “Mixed Tapes Daily.”

And then you turn onto Elm Street and the first house on the left, number 15, is something straight out of a Faulkner novel. An immaculately-restored, five-columned Greek Revival mansion tucked behind a white picket fence and border of pink and white Spirea. That’s the Currey residence and home to the family’s organic produce farm.

I park, and walk through an open gate that leads directly into the garden. I spy pecan trees, every imaginable color of iris, day lilies as far as the eye can see, and an orange tomcat nondistractedly chasing a bumblebee around in circles. I walk up the front porch and see that the door is wide open. I follow the sound of voices to the far end of the foyer, and enter a spacious parlor where Robert sits pinned to a chair by an imposing standard poodle, blissfully undeterred by the infeasible size-to-lap ratio.

Wagging away, Reeves gets the first introduction, named after the historic home itself, the Harley-Harris-Rives home. “His dad is Cooper, from ‘Duck Dynasty,’” Robert elbows the words out from beneath his panting blanket. Cooper, it is further explained, is the reality TV show’s famous hunting poodle. I think to myself, “Hunting poodle?” The only thing this dog looks capable of capturing is bear hugs and squeak toys. Robert senses my skepticism. “Watch this,” he readies and yells out the words, “Squirrel! Reeves, get the squirrel!” And in a half-second flash, the dog darts straight up like a taut arrow, lets out a great yawp, and bolts to the window in a whir of orange and brown curls.

  1. Stand. Corrected.

After Reeves settles down, I meet the other half of the Spore-ta “dynasty,” Robert’s wife of 49 years, Suzy. Together, they give me the grand tour of the house, filling in each other’s blanks with the history of how it came to be and how they came to be living inside it.

The original home was built in 1843 and has changed a few hands since, culminating in its full present-day title, the Harley-Harris-Rives-and now Currey house. Robert and Suzy purchased the property in 2002, after retiring from their Atlanta-based, home furnishing business Currey & Company.

The Curreys weren’t content on spending their golden years playing golf or downsizing to a cross-country RV. Quite the opposite. They embraced a challenge of epic proportion: renovating a 150-year old near-fortress left in near-ruin for decades, a project Robert vividly compares to “trying to clean an elephant with a cotton swab.”

Six (and some change) years later, the renovation was complete. It was a constant balancing act of maintaining the home’s historic integrity and making it livable for today. Robert recalls, “I was refinishing the original staircase and when I was done, I realized it looked too good, too new. I wanted to go back over it with sandpaper and wear the steps back down!”

The Curreys’ restoration has become painstakingly perfect. Ninety percent of the house is comprised of all original material; the interior doors are made from walnut tress grown on the first owner’s cotton plantation, the same metal roof (with modern upgrades), the same Italian marble tile in the basement, and best of all, the same gorgeous heart-pine floors throughout. You can easily imagine the original owners settling right in, especially among Robert’s museum-worthy collection of antique furniture, turn-of-the-century toys, Colonial-era chairs, and rare, Yellow Ware pottery. But then, out of the corner of your eye you spy a giant bag of Legos, meant for the Curreys’ grandchildren when they come to visit, and you snap back into the 21st Century.

We then make our way outside into the Curreys’ two-plus-acre, 100 percent certified organic farm known as Elm Street Gardens.

“So,” I hesitate, trying to work out the math in my head, “Had you always been farmers?”

They both laugh. Before moving to Sparta, the closest the Curreys came to farming was a few window box herb gardens on their shaded porch in midtown Atlanta. Their lifelong trade was furniture. But after Robert suffered a massive heart attack in the late 1990s, they transformed their big-city, bad-eating ways and adopted a mostly vegetarian, organic lifestyle – long before it was trendy.

Still, buying pre-packaged health food at upscale grocery stores and getting knee deep in a pile of earth-worm filled compost while you harvest your own vegetables are two totally different experiences. The latter didn’t occur until they “retired” to Sparta.

The Harley-Harris-Rives-and now Currey house had never really had a garden. When they arrived, the property was overrun with shoulder-high walls of wisteria, poison ivy, and privet. Yet the Curreys were hopeful. Recalling these early days, Robert shares an insight to their personalities, “We get up every morning and we don’t say, ‘What’s wrong?’ We say ‘What’s right?’”

Through those rose-colered glasses, they saw in the midst of that tangled mess of bramble a “nice, little garden.” It took two years to stamp out the weeds and clear enough land for a single, raised bed, but boy did that single bed flourish. And for the first time, the Curreys were enjoying produce picked from their own backyard. The wheels started turning, and Robert got to thinking, “If some is good, MORE is better.” This, I would come to realize, is definitely the Currey family adage.

And so the couple fully immersed themselves into the world of permaculture; they read every book they could get their hands on, attended seminars, and partnered with local experts in the field. By 2012, that single raised bed had grown into a two-acre, fully operational, certified organic farm with three hoop houses and one seed house, a year-round CSA, and a coveted spot at Atlanta’s famous Morningside Farmers Market. All the while, Robert went from guest at the Georgia Organics Conference to member of the board.

Walking through Elm Street Gardens on that warm afternoon, I felt like I was inside a Monet painting. The colors were so vibrant and dense, every fruit and vegetable and flower imaginable all blooming together; fennel and fig trees, Japanese bonsais and banana trees, strawberries and squashes, and greens galore. We passed by a colossal chicken coup, home to a mix of 25 Barred Rock and Ancona egg-layers and then wound a bend to a lily-pad-filled pond. Out of the corner of my eye I see a rock hurled toward the water, and then, bolting from the blue, Reeves leaping gracefully in after it.

“They’re incredible swimmers,” Robert grins with quiet amusement.

What’s incredible is that two people, at an age when the world expects you to settle down and recede into the background, did just the opposite. They rose up to a daunting challenge, planting the seed for an unlikely garden in an inhospitable ground that quite unexpectedly mushroomed into a thriving oasis.

And speaking of mushrooms …

 

***

 

Somewhere between starting their own farm and C.S.A., spearheading countless volunteer programs, traveling to and from Atlanta every Saturday to sell at the farmers market, and restoring a leaky, squeaky, drafty 150-plus year old mansion, Robert decided to pursue yet another lofty goal: learn to grow organic mushrooms from scratch. Because why the heck not? In came the books, the seminars, and a couple of years consulting with experts.

Robert draws his attention away from a willowy quartet of purple and white irises and points across the street to a huge brick building with a hand-painted punch stencil sign “Sparta Furniture Manufacturing Corp.”

“That’s where we grow them,” he aims as loyal Reeves leads the way.

Originally a cotton warehouse, abandoned after the boll weevil ravaged the industry at the turn of the century, the building became a furniture factory, only to be abandoned again after the recession ravaged the local economy in late 1990s. Robert bought the building in 2012 and oversaw renovations to convert it into a mushroom-cultivating greenhouse.

And no, the irony of a retired furniture man buying an old furniture factory to grow fungi is not lost on anyone.

Inside, the space is bright, airy, and dare I say, hip; exposed brick to the side and handsome timber beams above, polished concrete floors and the iconic “haint blue” walls endemic of a time and culture that used the cerulean hue to keep evil spirits at bay. Understandably, the incredible craftsmanship and attention to every detail that went into the building’s restoration earned the Curreys a well-deserved award from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation.

But this is just the tip of the topsoil. Robert, Suzy, and Reeves steer me through a door and into a huge, open, airplane hangar-sized area where three hoop houses stand a few yards apart. This is where the actual growing takes place. It’s a meticulous, mind-boggling, spawn to fruit, eight-week long process involving sawdust and wheat bran, sterilized inoculation and climate-controlled incubation, all resulting in 100 percent organic shiitake, lion’s mane, and oyster mushrooms.

And, in typical Currey fashion, what started as a personal interest in a totally unfamiliar trade has, without meaning to, turned into a hugely successful business. Since its creation in 2012, Sparta Imperial Mushrooms has become one of the largest organic producers of shiitakes in the entire state of Georgia. It’s also the main supplier of shiitakes to some of Atlanta’s most prominent restaurants, (rhymes with “Sockannalia”), a pair of Whole Foods, the Freedom and Morningside Farmers Markets, and a popular organic-food delivery service. This February, Robert was also featured on “HGTV Garden” in a special segment on mushroom growers in rural Georgia.

“If you would’ve told me three years ago that I’d be freezing my butt off at Morningside Farmers Market selling mushrooms two days before Christmas, I would’ve asked you what you were smoking,” says Robert.

 

***

 

The most unexpected part of the Curreys’ story, however, is not how living in Sparta changed what they did; but rather, how it changed who they were. For four decades they resided in Atlanta, carving out a way of life quite similar to many urbanites: they had a private, close-knit circle of friends that gathered behind gated communities and club events. They were insulated from the hardships of others, and whenever they wanted to donate to this cause or the other, they could simply click a button.

Robert recalls, “In the city, you can remove yourself. We did. But here, it’s right there in front of you.” In Sparta, one of the poorest cities in Georgia with a population around 1,500, it’s a lot harder to look away. And the Curreys chose not to. In fact, they chose to face it head on by becoming an active participant in the community and reaching out to those in need.

Today, the Curreys volunteer their time, energy, and support to countless educational and environmental causes. From the Sparta Library Board, Head Start, Helping Hands, Relay for Life, the American Cancer Society, not to mention organizing community potlucks, holiday picnics, and fundraisers. Pick a day, and the Curreys are probably giving a tour to a garden club, 4H group, or the students at Hancock Middle School’s summer gardening course. In June, they host a month-long, live/work internship for five selected college students from Oglethorpe University and Agnes Scott, partnering with local farmers for a hands-on experience of cultivating organic produce, as well as raising grass fed beef, goats, and chickens.

The Curreys’ door is literally always open. Anyone is welcome to stop by, toss around ideas about farming, fungi, community outreach, antique collecting, home restoration, standard poodles, or any of the couple’s other many interests. Or, you could just come by to sit on their white wicker porch swing, sip tea, and talk about life.

Brazilian novelist Paulo Coehlo writes, “We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we let the unexpected happen.” I believe the Curreys thoroughly understand the miracle of life. As Robert so eloquently puts it:

“We’re here by accident. – through happenstance and madness. But when I die and look back at all the stuff I’ve down with my life, I think I’ll have the sense that this last decade here has been one of the most meaningful. Not to mention it’s been more damn fun than a barrel of monkeys.”

It’s tempting to appoint the Curreys as Sparta’s own beacon of hope, though that wouldn’t be fair. Sparta is a simple town with an incredibly complicated past. It’s not black and white. But you can’t help get this sense of untapped potential, this nagging idea that it “could be” great; it “could be” the next [enter beloved historic, small town here].

And, well, the Curreys are kind of the experts at seeing the possible in the improbable. They know first-hand that when something is abandoned, left to collapse under its own weight or be swallowed by a web of tangled weeds, sometimes the structure beneath is still intact, the seeds underground still alive, just waiting to be revealed.

 

  • ••

 

When I walked back to my car that afternoon, I met a young man headed up to the Curreys’ house.

“Are you a friend of the family?” I ask.

“Oh no,” he replies shyly. “I just drove down here from Atlanta to see how the mushrooms are made.”