“You see that? That’s wild turkey tail. Look how it decorates the branch.” I directed my son’s gaze to a decomposing log amongst the forest floor. We were in William B. Umstead Park. A few days after a fall rain, and true to temperamental North Carolina weather, enjoying a 70-degree day. The red and orange canopy of trees were all around us. We were pointing out lichens as they crawled up oak trees, surveying large patches of wild ferns, and our favorite, searching for mushrooms.

So far, we’d found conecaps, boletes, clusters of honey mushroom and my personal favorite, turkey tail. We were crouched peering at the log when an older couple approached us.

“Those are mushrooms.” they plainly stated.

Before I could respond my chatty son excitedly answered “My mommy’s a mushroom farmer!” The shock on the couple’s face wasn’t new to me. I’d grown used to other’s sheer surprise when I shared my passion for mycology. The conversation following is what would stay with me. The couple proceeded to rapidly fire questions at my direction with furrowed brows.

“What are you growing? Where is your farm? Do you have a license for this? You can’t sell foraged mushrooms here without a license.”

I know my experience isn’t a unique one. It is an unfortunate reality to face individuals who immediately assume your level of knowledge and intentions based on outwardly appearance. I am either met with excited wonder or confusion. But the common sentiment is typically surprise. It begs me to question, what does a mushroom farmer look like when people envision one? And why doesn’t that portrayal look like me?

Walking the land, knowing what grows around you and what one can consume, is a deep and historical act of Black survival. I like to believe that as I continue journeying into connecting with the Earth and what it abundantly provides, I am returning to a point of origin. My personal focus on growing mushrooms is just an extension of the profound relationship between Black southerners and agriculture. It is a past marred with substantial pain and struggle, however, with a new day provides an opportunity to revisit, relearn and redefine.

I want to expose people to new realities…I want to help as many people as I can create a life they want to live, eat the foods they want to eat, and be with the community they want to be around.

William Padilla-Brown