"I would watch the news footage after the earthquake in Haiti, or the tsunami in Southeast Asia, and it would just eat away at me. All this devastation, all this trash, and all these hungry people. Yet to mushrooms, all that trash is food. So we could grow food, feed the hungry, clean up the environment and maybe even kickstart a new agricultural sector in the process."

Tradd Cotter is the founder of Mushroom Mountain.

Growing food where it is most needed
A mycologist and mushroom cultivation expert from South Carolina, Cotter is pursuing an idea that could bring lasting relief to poor communities and victims of natural disasters around the world. Having built a business on growing — and teaching others to grow — mushrooms on just about any waste biomass he could get his hands on, he became painfully aware that these same techniques could be used to both clean up after natural disasters and create meaningful amounts of fast-growing, plant-based protein in a matter of weeks. 

"The way the modern news cycle works, you see a natural disaster on the TV and everyone clammers to help. A few months later, however, the news cameras have moved on to the next story, the aid starts to run out, and these devastated communities are left to pretty much fend for themselves once again. If you dropped me into a disaster zone, I'd have the skills and the spore cultures to start growing food immediately on the trash all around me. But what if I could teach whole communities to do the same?"

Laying the groundwork
In the spring of 2013, Cotter traveled to Haiti with students from the Clemson Engineering for Developing Countries (CEDC) program at Clemson University. They brought cultivated mushroom spores, lab equipment, and everything else they would need to kickstart a small mushroom cultivation program at Corporan, an agricultural trade school, and also a village called Cange. They built a grow room, largely from salvaged materials, and they began teaching classes on basic mushroom ecology and cultivation techniques. 

"It was incredible and very moving. Every evening when we got back to the hospital where we were staying, there would be a small group of students waiting for us — asking us to teach them how to grow mushrooms so they could feed their families."

The project was not without its challenges, however, not least the fact that mushrooms are not a common food source in Haiti. 

"The whole culture is relatively mycophobic. There's only one mushroom that's commonly used for cooking, called the djon djon. In fact, Haitians don't even have a name in their native language for the other mushrooms they see growing around them. I showed them how to cook and eat some delicious oyster mushrooms growing in the woods. They thought I was crazy."

Spreading the spores
Cotter is now launching a crowdfunding campaign to bring himself and a documentary camera crew back to Haiti for three consecutive trips — providing the technical resources and know-how necessary to ensure successful cultivation, and turning the resulting film footage into a DVD with a how-to section translated into several world languages. The idea, says Cotter, is to build the resources so mushroom-based disaster relief can disseminate across the world to communities where it's needed, much like mushroom spores floating in the wind. 

Cotter is adamant that mushrooms are uniquely suited to this type of relief project. They are a fast-growing, productive source of plant-based proteins, and they have many other health-giving properties too. They can fruit in a matter of weeks of being inoculated, and the mushroom mycelium — the web-like body of the fungus that grows underground — is extremely adept at filtering and breaking down pathogens and pollutants that are so prevalent in poor, tropical communities. 

Picking up the pieces
In addition to teaching cultivation, the Djon Djon project, as it has become known, will be partnering with Clemson engineering students to prototype and test biofiltration methods using spent cultivation substrates, with the hope that they can be used to clean up streams, ponds and other water sources in contaminated areas. 

Ultimately, says Cotter, this project is about reducing dependence on foreign aid and increasing resilience: 

"The people I met were energetic, motivated and ready to learn. The idea of turning trash into food was exciting to them — we just need to get out there and make it happen. They asked me to return and I told them I would. It's time to keep my word." 

See the Djon Djon Project indiegogo page for more details or to lend your support. 

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Could mushrooms be a secret weapon for disaster relief?
After most natural disasters, you see mounds of trash and lots of hungry people. Mushrooms could turn that trash into food.