Attack of the killer mushrooms

Farmers start campaign to fund research about how mushrooms can break down herbicides

Gabe Deall and Travis Custer sell mushrooms at a farmers market. The pair farm mushrooms near Mancos and believe the mushrooms could also be used to cleanup herbicide contamination. Enlargephoto

Courtesy photo

Gabe Deall and Travis Custer sell mushrooms at a farmers market. The pair farm mushrooms near Mancos and believe the mushrooms could also be used to cleanup herbicide contamination.

Powerful herbicides have made their way into compost and manure, stunting and harming small farms and gardens in the area, but on Saturday two Mancos farmers launched a fundraising campaign to research a potential solution.

Travis Custer and business partner Gabe Deall run San Juan Mycology, which raises edible mushrooms, but they believe the enzymes that mushrooms produce to decompose material could be used to break down the broad leaf herbicides that have contaminated soils in the area.

“When we work within the community, we have the ability to create real and lasting change. We don’t have to feel so debilitated by the issues that we face,” Custer said to a gathering at the Mancos Grange on Monday night.

The Colorado State Extension offices for La Plata and Montezuma County receive several hundred calls a year about herbicide contamination, but there is little landowners can do other than simply wait until the chemicals break down naturally, Custer said. This can take years.

The chemicals are mainly used on hay fields, and the grasses retain the chemicals.

Once animals eat the hay, the herbicide is passed out through manure and finds its way into gardens and farms.

A single family of herbicide produced by Dow Chemical Co. have caused the contamination problems, but the company is not responsible for lost crops because the herbicides are properly labeled, Custer said.

A few other researchers around the country have done similar experiments to the work the two are proposing. Researchers have exposed different kinds of fungi to harsh herbicides and found over time the fungi naturally develop enzymes that can break down the chemicals, Custer said. Once fungi has been exposed to certain herbicides, it retains the ability to break it down. The use of fungi to reclaim contaminated areas is called mycoremediation.

“The field of mycoremediation is really blooming,” Custer said, but field testing is limited.

Custer was inspired to pursue the project, in part, after seeing how contaminated soil had hurt his neighbors. But the problem is apparent across the country.

Their goal is to raise $10,000 by May 4 to research potential native mushrooms that could restore the soil. But this work would be challenging in this area.

“We have a really difficult climate to use mycoremediation on a really large scale,” Custer said.

If they figure out a solution their ultimate goal isn’t to market a product but to help restore soil in other communities. The two realize herbicide use probably can’t be stopped, but they hope to mitigate some of the unintended consequences through greater awareness about its impact. They would like to see herbicide users inform those who buy their product.

“Our goal within San Juan Mycology is to act as a force of change and leadership within our community,” Custer said.

The CSU Extension offices, a professor at Fort Lewis college, a plant pathologist and the coordinator at the Old Fort research facility in Hesperus all support the project.

If the two meet their fundraising goal they are going to apply for a $250,000 Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant at the end of June. As of Monday the two had raised $1,000.

Mancos Valley Resources is the umbrella organization for the project and therefore donations are tax deductible.

To find out more about the project visit, Harvest Funders, a new crowd funding site at


Courtesy photo Mushroom oysters sprout at the San Juan Mycology operation near Mancos. Travis Cus


Courtesy photo Travis Custer (pictured) and his business partner Gabe Deall raise edible mushroom


Mary Shinn/Mancos Times Travis Custer shows Dolores student Tim Wyman some young fungus growing a