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Lessons from a Mushroom Farm: How Alyssa Lajoie ‘19 Cultivated a Passion for Growing

 

Recent TA graduate Alyssa Lajoie ‘19 got a taste of the real world last year through an internship at Mousam Valley Mushrooms, an organic mushroom farm in Springvale, Maine. For 6 months, Alyssa spent 2 to 3 days per week on the farm as part of TA’s Advanced Academic Internship Program, an opportunity designed to encourage upperclass students to step out of the classroom and into the world. Under the advisement of faculty members she literally got her hands dirty, learning all she could about mushroom farming. She grew, harvested, packaged, and distributed the fungi, while also enrolled in “Introduction to Business” at Southern Maine Community College—a class that helped her draw parallels between her classroom learning and what she experienced in the workplace. 

With countless hours tending to both the mushrooms and a college course, Alyssa’s senior year was full of interesting and challenging lessons. However, Alyssa will be the first to tell you there’s a lot more to be learned from mushrooms than farming and business skills. “I found a love for learning at the farm. This experience opened up my mind,” said Alyssa during her final presentation to school administrators and teachers. “I asked more questions than I’ve ever asked in a classroom [because] I was connected to the work..I was surrounded by people who were mature and independent like me. That helped me grow not only in the field, but as a person.”

Lajoie discovered her passion for fungi while spending time in the woods with her family; hiking, four-wheeling, and exploring. On one expedition she came upon what she describes as a “glorious” Chicken of the Woods mushroom, a salmon colored beauty that tastes like fried chicken. “This was the start of my curiosity about mushrooms,” explained Lajoie. “Wherever I went, I searched for edible mushrooms, my mushroom book in hand...If I could find these mushrooms in southern Maine, I wondered what other mushrooms I could find and how much money I could make.” She realized how lucrative the business could be while watching an episode of National Geographic’s “Filthy Riches.” In fact, the most expensive mushrooms can cost thousands of dollars per pound!    

Between the days she worked at the farm, which she described as “fun, but “back-breaking”, Alyssa discussed her findings at the farm and the science of mushrooms with her biology teacher, Andrea Bove. The two spent hours processing what she observed as she cared for the diverse array of fungi. They discussed the intricacies of how mushrooms grow, their medicinal and other practical benefits, and looked at Alyssa’s many pictures of the diverse array of fungi she’d grown to love:  Lion’s Mane; Yellow, Blue, Grey, and Phoenix Oyster; Shitake; and even her old friend, Chicken of the Woods. 

School counselor Lucretia Wallace, who worked with Lajoie for four years, praised her enthusiasm and commitment to a challenging project. “I am so impressed by [her]...she had this big idea and she made it happen and persevered.” Wallace joins many other faculty members who celebrated Alyssa’s success and the tremendous growth she found outside of the classroom. She will continue her studies next year at Southern Maine Community College and pursue a degree in business. She hopes to one day open her own business in a nature-related field. “I have always been fascinated by nature. It makes me want to push forward and get better...I want to keep growing.” 

 

Story by Katy Nicketakis & Katie Beane