Ari* tiptoes out of the room and pulls the door closed behind her; the kids are finally asleep. All is quiet except for the cicadas, the day’s heat still hanging in the Southern California night—and now it’s time to tend to her other babies.
They live in a darkened, mylar-lined tent in the spare room, clustered at the bottoms of plastic tubs. Along one wall is a shelving unit where they gestate in round petri dishes, each containing what looks like a fluffy white snowflake. In the closet, rows of wide-mouthed mason jars hold their ancestral DNA.
Ari is an independent cultivator of Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms. Growers like her are the backbone of local psychedelic ecosystems that have flourished underground like the fungi themselves, but shifting legal and economic landscapes threaten the balance.
While growing and using psilocybin mushrooms is still federally illegal, to Ari, it’s health care: the natural extension of her seven-year career in counseling, focused on helping people with substance-use challenges. She uses the mushrooms in her psychedelic integration and facilitation practice, and co-leads a peer-run group offering entheogenic education, events and support for the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s a line of work that offers her not only personal and professional fulfillment, but flexibility and self-sufficiency as a single mom, working alone and from home.
“I really love cultivation because it [gives me] more freedom … and fits with parenting well,” Ari told Filter. “It allowed me to step out of the draining, time-oppressive work schedule and … see the opportunity to be self-employed. I didn’t ever think I could be, due to neurodivergence and mental health [challenges] as a queer person with trauma.”
The “Little Children”
Ram Dass’s dulcet New England drone wafts from the speakers as Ari puts on gloves and picks up a petri dish with feathery white fronds branching from the center like a capillary system. These are mycelia, root-like structures from which mushrooms ultimately sprout, composed of clusters of fungal threads called hyphae. They’re embedded in agar, a gelatinous layer of algae-based nutrients, and will ultimately be mixed with grain spawn in those jars in the closet, where they will gestate for two to four weeks.
María Sabina called mushrooms “the little children,” and it takes a lot to raise them right. According to some traditions, the energy of the cultivator is passed down to the mushrooms, influencing the trip; the key is providing a safe, supportive environment, making only those few interventions that facilitate healthy, natural growth. Independent growers say they’re producing something very different from mass-market psilocybin products.
“I said, if that’s your stance, I’m out. I’m gonna go all-in on cultivation.”
Working with fungi helped Ari find freedom from her own substance use issues. With their help, she has chosen to be abstinent from alcohol and opioids and have a more balanced relationship with cannabis. “When I had this life-changing experience, it was like they inoculated me. I was enlisted into the mushroom [tradition],” Ari said, adding that “the medicine has helped greatly with moderation and harm reduction.”
Ari started growing her own mushrooms early in that journey. In 2016, she bought a Midwest Grow Kit, got some spores on Facebook, and taught herself the PF Tek Method for small-scale cultivation through online tutorials, YouTube videos and trial-and-error.
She has facilitated ceremonies since 2020. “Psychedelic integrative recovery coaching is my specialty,” she said. “I’ve lost so many people to addiction or suicide, and … I want to be one of the people to help save more lives.” Research has pointed to psilocybin’s efficacy in helping people with issues such as substance-use challenges and depression.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Ari to leave her high-stress, low-pay job as a substance use counselor. With no option during lockdown but to stay home with her kids, she invested the subsequent unemployment funds into her own business: building her grow room and creating materials, workshops and courses for her new integration practice. In 2021, she traveled to Peru for a dieta, the traditional preparation process for those who work with sacred plants, and trained with the Shipibo people, an experience that “changed the course of my spiritual and mental health.”
It also changed her career. Upon her return, she began working for a men’s outpatient rehab. But when a coworker found her pro-psychedelic Instagram page, “I was told, ‘You can delete it and keep your job, or quit,’” Ari said. “I said, if that’s your stance, I’m out. I’m gonna go all-in on cultivation.”
Looking for support in her new line of work, she became acquainted with someone in the Californian psychedelic advocacy space. He proposed a scheme where she would scale up her growing, he would sell, and they’d evenly split the earnings. In the end, she said, she was doing all the work while he got half the money—a familiar scenario in the nascent psychedelics industry.
“I quickly realized I didn’t want to be involved with him. He had a very capitalist, self-interested ethos,” she said. “I’m grateful to him for showing me it was possible … but I was still figuring everything out on my own. I paid for all the materials. He just wanted to profit off my labor.”
Luckily, her own business grew through word of mouth, and she built a loyal customer base. “I’ve always hooked people up with medicine,” she said, and her customers refer others to her, too, because “people seem to get a lot out of my product.”
“Proximity to your clients matters … You have to know your clientele—people who know it as medicine and aren’t trying to get fucked up or shopping for the lowest prices.”
It’s what small-scale growers need to survive in an increasingly volatile landscape, said Reggie Harris, founder of Oakland Hyphae. His organization offers education and events supporting the independent plant medicine community.
“People who are able to weather the storm can make a decent living as a cultivator,” Harris told Filter. “Proximity to your clients matters … You have to know your clientele—people who know it as medicine and aren’t trying to get fucked up or shopping for the lowest prices.”
As an early leader in the psilocybin space and a person of color, Harris has offered counsel to the movement’s diverse underground workers, including Ari. And it’s been needed.
“I’ve encountered toxic masculinity [from other cultivators] as a queer femme grower,” Ari said. “I thought they were just being helpful, … and then it would turn into this expectation of returning their advice with affection. You’d think that because it’s mushrooms, it wouldn’t be happening.”
She now buys all her genetics from a grower named Bear, whom she calls “a genius with genetic isolation,” introduced to her by Harris.
A South Asian-American woman, “Bear was a cultivator these white boys just hated,” Harris said, “but she’s doing such good work that they don’t even know how to try and destroy her.”
Ari is a low-tech grower, like many independent cultivators. While they still can still produce in volume, they emphasize personal attention over mass production, using inexpensive, DIY inputs to stay sustainable.
It contrasts with large-scale, high-tech operations that cropped up after various municipalities in California decriminalized—and with Oregon’s heavily bureaucratized, legal psilocybin-therapy model, where high costs are passed on to consumers.
Low-tech growers sterilize grains in pressure cookers and grow in plastic tubs, eschewing shortcuts like premade grain spawns both on principle and necessity. They’re not only more expensive, but Ari found they caused contamination; sterilizing her own grains is more work, but provides better quality control.
Indigenous traditions say working with mushrooms requires a reciprocal relationship, and nothing builds it like this kind of devotion. Harris recalled his own time as a cultivator, working strings of 12-hour days, because the harvest waits for no one; turning the house into a mycelial assembly line to manage multiple batches; hearing the pff-pff-pff of the pressure cookers that crowded the stove in his sleep.
When the grains are ready, Ari inoculates them with liquid culture: mycelium suspended in a sugary liquid base. Sterile environments are crucial in cultivation, especially during this stage. The sterile grains are inoculated either by removing strands of mycelium from the agar plates and placing them inside jars or bags, or injecting them with a plastic syringe full of liquid culture.
“Now that there are all these warehouse grows that are funded by white men with cannabis and crypto money, I question if I should keep doing it.”
No matter who you are, Ari said, at some point you’ll want to invest in certain equipment that can make the process more hygienic and streamlined. She used to inoculate grains inside a large Tupperware with holes cut into the lid for her hands, working solely by feel. Buying a flow hood—a big box with a filter that blows clean, sterile air—was a “game changer.” She also erected a cannabis grow tent in the spare room to serve as a “mini sterile room,” filling tubs and harvesting mushrooms inside wearing a mask and protective suit.
Once inoculated, the grains begin to colonize, which takes about a month, and requires keeping the room at a stable temperature. Then she transfers the inoculated grain into large tubs or grow bags, which sit in the tent for another week to 10 days before it’s time for the actual mushrooms to grow. To colonize at the right time, conditions must resemble the underground: dark and temperature-stable with lots of nutritious material. Once fruiting is ready to begin, she places them on lighted racks and allows for increased air circulation. This process mirrors nature, as mycelium reaches toward the surface and detects water evaporation, such as after a heavy rain— sensing the right time to emerge.
It’s a fitting metaphor for the rapidly swelling market. “Now that there are all these warehouse grows that are funded by white men with cannabis and crypto money, I question if I should keep doing it,” Ari said. “The days of this being a solid financial foundation are numbered, because the dispensaries are coming.”
Harris warns that warehouse growers will subsume the knowledge of independent cultivators before spitting them out, the way Amazon displaced mom-and-pop shops. He’s seen it before. In 2019, underground prices for mushrooms were nearly $2,000 a pound. Things were less lucrative in California’s legal cannabis market, dominated by dispensaries that displaced independent legacy growers—many of whom were people of color—by scaling up and undercutting them on cost.
“Mushrooms are absolutely going to go the way of cannabis unless there are safeguards put in to keep big money out.”
“The bottom had fallen out of cannabis, and a lot of [those who] were already growing at scale saw this nice situation … and transitioned to mushrooms at scale,” Harris said. “They didn’t know anything about the economy or pricing … so they created a race to the bottom. That drove a lot of people out of mushroom cultivation, including myself.”
By 2020, prices had plummeted to just $300 a pound. They’ve somewhat recovered, now averaging $700-$1,000 a pound, but some warehouses charge as little as $500, Ari said—an unsustainable price for one-person shops to compete with.
“It’s in the business model [of dispensaries] to drive prices down,” Harris said. As the biggest buyers, they set the price. “[Mushrooms are] absolutely going to go the way of cannabis unless there are safeguards put in to keep big money out.”
The Mycelial Network
The harvest is the hardest but most rewarding part, and this is what Ari is settling in for tonight. She lifts the lid of the tub to reveal clusters of light brown caps reaching skyward like clamoring children, then gently separates them from the substrate with a knife, careful not to bruise their tender flesh.
“Each tub will fruit at different paces, … and you have to gently harvest every cluster or individual mushroom,” she said of the time-intensive process. Once it’s done, she dehydrates and stores them under her altar, blessing them each day until they find a home.
“Growing is my second mom role,” Ari said. “Even though it can be a lot of work by yourself, it’s amazing when you get to experience new genetics and see what they look … and feel like.”
It can be a lonely life, as Harris knows: You can’t tell most people what you do or have them over to your home. While psilocybin is decriminalized in cities such as Oakland, enforcement is at the discretion of individual officers.
A veteran political campaigner, Harris is proposing the Cognitive Freedom Initiative of 2024, a statewide measure that would legalize sales and cultivation along with possession and consumption, while allowing people to appeal prior convictions. He also wants to see legislation limiting geographical footprints and institutional funding, “so that even if big corporations come in … you can keep everybody with a fair shot.”
Independent and underrepresented cultivators can build networks that corporate dispensaries never will, Ari observed. “My customers are women, BIPOC, and queer folks almost exclusively.” Some of them work with psilocybin themselves, purposefully sourcing from underrepresented growers for their own clients and ceremonies.
Ari also donates mushrooms to an organization in Portland that offers low-cost psychedelic sessions to people of color. “Other small growers do that, as well. It carries on the ethos of caring for our community, while being supported to improve our own quality of life.”
Similarly, Bear promotes and sells strains from other independent mycologists on her website.
“If it’s doing that for me, I know it’s doing that for other female and queer cultivators.”
When people ask Ari how to grow, “If I have time, I will sit down with them and share everything I know,” she said. She’s in a Signal group where people of all backgrounds share growing information, but “I would love to be a part of a female and/or queer cultivators’ collective.”
Harris doesn’t think growers should have to form co-ops to survive, “but it’s the way cannabis went,” he said. “I just want to reduce the barriers of entry for people like myself, and for the barriers to be sky-high for anyone with investor money.”
There are at least opportunities for independent growers to act as consultants for new larger entrants, he added. But he advises caution, solidarity and organizing early and often.
Whatever happens in the market, “I think I’ll always cultivate, because I prefer to use my own medicine for myself [and] clients,” Ari said. “My prices are higher, but it has allowed me to shift my career in a way that’s more sustainable [and] allows me to be with my kids. If it’s doing that for me, I know it’s doing that for other female and queer cultivators.”
*Name has been changed to protect source.
Photographs courtesy of Ari