Mushroom Soil, Banjo Craft, and Other Profiles

This installment of an ongoing series profiling resourceful, innovative, self-sufficient people features stories about a California professor who uses straw as mushroom soil and an Oklahoma man who has devoted himself to banjo craft.

| November/December 1978

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    Dr. Kurtzman examines a fungal specimen grown in straw, aka "mushroom soil."
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    Jeanne and Norbert Pierlot work on a ceramic piece. Though hard to see, the inset is Chateau Ratilly.
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    Biology professor and environmental activist Wayne P. Mueller at work in the field.
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    Don Thomas displaying the product of his banjo craft.
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    Folktellers Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan.
  • Sunday Ajayi handling an African giant rat.
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    Michael Epp and Bob Shannon in the space that became People-Space, their alternative architecture business.
  • Left: Mushroom soil developer Dr. Ralph Kurtzman. Right: Banjo craft-er Don Thomas.

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In celebration of little-known MOTHER EARTH NEWS-type folks from all over.

Dr. Ralph H. Kurtzman, Jr.: Mushroom Soil

Rumpelstiltskin could turn straw into gold, or so the story goes. The rest of the world has met with little or no visible success in its effort to make use of the most abundant of agricultural wastes ... until Dr. Ralph H. Kurtzman, Jr. came along. Dr. Kurtzman—biochemist and plant pathologist with the Department of Agriculture's Western Regional Laboratory in Berkeley, California—has discovered a method for turning straw into mushrooms! "Not the common button variety," says Dr. Kurtzman, "but oyster mushrooms: Pleurotus ostreatus. A ton of straw will produce about an equal weight of the fungi, leaving behind about 700 pounds of nitrate-rich soil residue to use as fertilizer. Though I've not yet tested all varieties of straw, rice and wheat straw have proved to be favorable growing mediums for the mushroom spawn ... whereas barley straw has not.

"In addition," says Dr. Kurtzman, "shredded magazines can be mixed with the straw as a medium for growing the crop." Dr. Kurtzman's experiments with magazine paper have opened the door to recycling a paper product which has generally been considered unusable because of its clay coating. According to Dr. Kurtzman, as long as at least one half of the mixture is straw, the mushroom spawn growing in it should do quite well. And although magazine inks contain a degree of lead, Dr. Kurtzman's recent X-ray spectrometer test showed absolutely no lead transfer from the paper to the mushrooms.

"Moreover," Ralph Kurtzman asserts, "oyster mushrooms are capable of playing an important role in the use of straw to produce beef." Straw is normally not used as cattle feed because it contains lignin, a complex chemical which must be broken down before the fodder can provide any nutritional benefit for the livestock. Oyster mushrooms have the ability to break down the lignin, thus transforming straw into wholesome cattle feed. This means that growers of oyster mushrooms can harvest some of their crop for the table and retain a quantity of feed for their livestock as well.

"Economically," says Dr. Kurtzman, "oyster mushrooms offer an excellent method of utilizing straw. If all the straw in the U.S. were used for mushroom production, the yield would be approximately 18,000 pounds of the crop per person per year." Perhaps we should divert a portion of this country's wasted straw to the Department of Agriculture's resident Rumpelstiltskin: Dr. Ralph H. Kurtzman, Jr. —Toys Morgan.

Don Thomas: Banjo Craft

Seven years ago, after a long stretch working in oil fields, machine shops, and automobile repair services, Don Thomas of Shawnee, Oklahoma gave up what job security he had to return to his first love: music.

At first, Don set out to teach guitar and banjo, but he soon found himself fascinated by the design of stringed instruments and decided he ought to attempt the creation of a banjo of his own. "In the beginning," says Don, "I didn't know a thing about the process of crafting a banjo and, consequently, it took me three long months to complete my first one. Today, though, I can put together two banjos in about three weeks' time—but even at that rate, I can't keep pace with my orders!"

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