Dispatch

Why Puerto Rico Is Betting Big on Mushrooms

Fungi could be the secret ingredient to the island’s food sovereignty.

Mushrooms foraged near Rincón, Puerto Rico
Mushrooms foraged near Rincón, Puerto Rico
Mushrooms foraged near Rincón, Puerto Rico, by Kurt Miller, who is documenting the archipelago’s native fungi, on Aug. 23. Erika P. Rodríguez photos for Foreign Policy
By , a writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

This piece was written in August, before Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico. This event has only made more significant the efforts toward food sovereignty discussed below.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—From the start, Huerto Rico was like no urban farming start-up I’d visited before. When I approached its then-headquarters in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, for the first time in 2019, I became a bit nervous. As an editor at an agriculture-focused magazine in New York, I had seen big money scale up production of hydroponic lettuce, herbs, and—yes—mushrooms, which are Huerto Rico’s focus. But these headquarters looked like a nondescript suburban home, not the warehouses I was accustomed to, with their sleek technology controlling temperature, light, and humidity.

THE FOOD ISSUE: This article appears in the Fall 2022 print magazine. Explore the issue.

This piece was written in August, before Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico. This event has only made more significant the efforts toward food sovereignty discussed below.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—From the start, Huerto Rico was like no urban farming start-up I’d visited before. When I approached its then-headquarters in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, for the first time in 2019, I became a bit nervous. As an editor at an agriculture-focused magazine in New York, I had seen big money scale up production of hydroponic lettuce, herbs, and—yes—mushrooms, which are Huerto Rico’s focus. But these headquarters looked like a nondescript suburban home, not the warehouses I was accustomed to, with their sleek technology controlling temperature, light, and humidity.

Sebastían Sagardia, Huerto Rico’s founder, answered the door in a baseball cap and T-shirt. He had quit his advertising job a few months earlier, following his dream to bring specialty culinary mushrooms to the Puerto Rican market. Sagardia rented the space from an owner who let him use it rent-free for three months if he fixed it up himself. The incubation room, which sat just beyond the living room, stank of rot. Bags of wood waste, sterilized and inoculated with mushroom spores, showed signs of mycelium growth, the rootlike tangles from which edible matter emerges. They would remain there for around two weeks before moving to the fruiting room. There, audible delight replaced my trepidation: Through cool white fog, I could see yellow oyster mushrooms sprouting. 

More than three years later, Puerto Rico’s mushroom business has seen a mini-boom. Huerto Rico is preparing to move into a 4,000-square-foot space in Carolina on the northeast coast. Puerto Rico now has at least two other operations dedicated to specialty mushroom cultivation, and the largest commodity business, Setas de Puerto Rico, has overseen a youthful rebrand of its own products. Although mushrooms, known locally as setas, have never been considered a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine, chefs are now putting them on menus in ways that complement traditional flavors. 

According to their advocates, mushrooms could provide one step toward food sovereignty, or the ability of a region or nation to produce all of its own food. Cultivation and foraging are a potential nutritious boon for the 3.1 million Puerto Ricans living on the archipelago. Puerto Rico, which has already warmed by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit since the mid-20th century, suffered a catastrophic disaster when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, and it is experiencing coastal soil erosion due to climate change. This vulnerability has caused destruction, but it also affords an opportunity to show what the future could look like for sustainable agriculture. Puerto Rico’s chefs and entrepreneurs believe that mushrooms’ adaptive nature may hold a key to survival. They want to present a reproducible model—and make it delicious, too.


Sebastián Sagardia, founder of Huerto Rico, stands inside the mushroom company’s new 4,000-square-foot space in Carolina, Puerto Rico
Sebastián Sagardia, founder of Huerto Rico, stands inside the mushroom company’s new 4,000-square-foot space in Carolina, Puerto Rico

Sebastián Sagardia, founder of Huerto Rico, stands inside the mushroom company’s new 4,000-square-foot space in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 28.

Miller forages for mushrooms along a bike trail in Rincón
Miller forages for mushrooms along a bike trail in Rincón

Kurt Miller forages for mushrooms along a bike trail in Rincón on Aug. 23.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory since 1898, now imports more than 80 percent of its food. In 1940, though, agriculture employed some 45 percent of its workforce. Efforts to modernize the economy in the mid-20th century pushed rural populations into cities for manufacturing jobs, leading to a reliance on U.S. agribusiness. Today, this has given rise to a youth-led focus on agroecology. The goal is to create a food-secure future for Puerto Rico where local production is sustainable for farmers and accessible to the population. This would require support via subsidies and higher wages, as well as cultural change, but it is technically possible: A 2017 report found that Puerto Rico could be a leader in tropical agriculture that supports food security while still allowing for a diverse economy.

Mushrooms are part of that vision, especially native varieties that can thrive in the hot, humid climate. Huerto Rico started out with nonnative types because they were the only strains available to cultivate at scale. Sagardia has now partnered with Kurt Miller, a fungal parataxonomist who is documenting the archipelago’s native mushrooms. It’s possible Puerto Rico’s Indigenous people once made use of them, but, Miller said, they haven’t become a staple of local cuisine in part because Spanish colonization cut off Indigenous knowledge. Sagardia and Miller have been awarded a small-business innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cultivate a native variety of the reishi mushroom, which is a bit bitter and used more as medicine than food; they hope to contribute to research on its cancer-fighting properties. With Huerto Rico, Miller also plans to experiment with native varieties of oyster mushrooms that require less air conditioning.

Miller sees a lot of potential in Puerto Rico’s under-researched fungal ecosystem. He has used books on the Amazon, Venezuela, and the Lesser Antilles to guide his identifications, which he uploads to a citizen science database and shares on social media. Through his work, Miller has found tropical chanterelles and truffles—highly coveted varieties—growing around abundant coastal seagrape trees at certain times of the year. Wood ear mushrooms are easily found after a rainfall and have proved resilient to the weather. (Sagardia notes that the common Spanish name, oreja de ratón, or “mouse ear,” could be changed to something more appetizing.)

“It’s just a food resource that’s been totally ignored,” Miller said of the native mushrooms. “If we can awaken people’s consciousness to the availability of this resource, then, obviously, it’s just another tool in the tool belt to becoming self-sufficient.”

In Huerto Rico’s new facility, one room will be dedicated to experimentation, while two others will grow mushrooms for culinary purposes and sale. Even three years on, funding and environmental issues have gotten in the way of scaling up production. The business still uses a stovetop autoclave to sterilize the substrate on which the oyster mushrooms grow rather than a larger model that would allow for bigger batches, which it doesn’t yet have the capital for; near-daily power outages have made a generator nonnegotiable. Even short blackouts can wreak havoc on the electrical equipment needed to maintain the cool temperatures and low humidity European oyster mushroom strains require. “I am not a rational person,” Sagardia said. “If I were, I would have never been like, ‘Oh, I’m going to leave my cushy job and become a farmer.’”

Despite these challenges, Puerto Rico’s growing mushroom business mirrors an expanded interest in fungi that has swept the Western world. Between culinary applications, medicinal uses, and the fun of foraging, mushrooms have become big business: The global market was valued at $50.3 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow annually by 9.7 percent between 2022 and 2030. Companies such as Smallhold have started making countertop grow kits—although they don’t ship to Puerto Rico—and farmers’ markets across the United States sell varieties from entrepreneurs a lot like Sagardia. This fall will see the major release of two cookbooks dedicated entirely to mushrooms, which are also gaining more space in mainstream food media such as Bon Appétit and New York Times Cooking. 


In Puerto Rico, chefs focused on locally sourced food have welcomed the availability of specialty varieties. Their customers have also shown a decrease in mycophobia—the fear of mushrooms—which was once pronounced in the local population, as it becomes clear fungi can be more delicious than the canned varieties that were for a long time the only kinds around. 

María Mercedes Grubb, a 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist, was an early adopter of Huerto Rico’s product and puts mushrooms on every menu she develops. At Taberna Medalla, a beer garden in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan, they appear in a play on the Argentine choripán, which uses chorizo. The mushroom is seasoned and grilled, put in a bun, and topped with a green recao chimichurri that nods to the dominant herb in Puerto Rican sofrito. For the more upscale Suma Mesa + Barra in Old San Juan, cremini mushrooms from Setas de Puerto Rico turn the fried beach snack of alcapurria, made with a dough of green banana and root vegetables, into an elegant bite. The vegan version sells more than its steak tartare counterpart, according to Grubb.

“People are traveling, and they’re tasting fresh things, and they’re tasting a different concept of what they grew up eating here on the island, eating the canned stuff,” Grubb said. “But once you have the real stuff, you come back and you’re like, ‘Damn, I want the real stuff here, too,’ you know?”

Rafael Fonseca, chef and owner of Flora in Aguadilla on Puerto Rico’s west coast, worked with Grubb before going to New York City to study at the International Culinary Center and work in fine dining. Now, he’s sourcing cultivated oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms from another new start-up, Wild Culture Mushrooms, in Aguada, Puerto Rico. He has focused on using them in a guisado, or stew, which provides a longer shelf life, as well as in a galette with seasoned oyster mushrooms over a cauliflower puree. 

Even with a nearby source for specialty mushrooms, there can still be supply problems with farm-to-table fare. “It’s just two people [at Wild Culture], and if they have bad production one week, or even if they can’t find a lot of people willing to buy from them, it’s hard for them to get a kick-start,” Fonseca said. “Especially when you can just import mushrooms from the States. Most cooks don’t really care about where they source their food. Paying the bills is hard as it is, so wherever they can cut corners, they will.” 

Systemic issues such as high electricity and food costs have an impact not just on local businesses but on the caliber of dishes that can be served. Imported ingredients spend weeks on a ship before being distributed, but they can save a restaurant money. There are currently tax breaks offered to those who export their goods and services from Puerto Rico, which has led to an influx of businesspeople from the United States. Although a new initiative will see a $12.7 million infusion for approved farmers’ business operations, food producers have complained of the red tape involved in procuring such funding. With a more comprehensive model to support small businesses that rely on local agriculture, perhaps Puerto Rico could see a shift toward more sustainable practices.


The entrance to San Juan Bay on Aug. 28. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory in the Caribbean, imports more than 80 percent of its food.
The entrance to San Juan Bay on Aug. 28. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory in the Caribbean, imports more than 80 percent of its food.

The entrance to San Juan Bay on Aug. 28. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory in the Caribbean, imports more than 80 percent of its food.

While the mushroom mini-boom continues apace, new entrants to the field are encountering the same challenges faced by Huerto Rico. Joshua Montanez, a civil engineer by training, founded Espora Mushroom Co. in his garage in Juana Díaz last December. After losing 20 percent of his harvest during a two-day blackout in April, he moved to solar energy, but he hasn’t been able to scale up his operation without funding. Still, he is hopeful that urban mushroom farming will catch on and be able to provide a reliable food source for Puerto Ricans without taking up the archipelago’s finite farmland. “Mushrooms are a great solution for our food safety,” he said.

Puerto Rico has proved an open market for specialty mushrooms, and those taking part in it—chefs and cultivators, foragers and entrepreneurs—continue to push against the idea that a Caribbean island chain can’t ensure its own food supply. Mushrooms are just one piece of the puzzle. But the possibility of harvesting and collecting native varieties for consumption means rethinking the rules: What kind of food is “authentically” Puerto Rican, and which kinds of mushrooms are out of reach if they don’t fit the criteria? Tostones with tropical truffle? Chanterelle pastelillos? These possibilities could be exciting for chefs. Puerto Rico can create its food supply in its own image, for its own ends, against European and U.S. cultural hegemony.

After Hurricane Maria, chefs and farmers in Puerto Rico learned the hard way that locally sourced food isn’t a bourgeois affectation but a means of survival—and that building a resilient agricultural infrastructure will take work and mutual support. “It’s all about independence, and I used to think that it was obvious,” Grubb said. “Now, I feel like I have to scream it at the top of my lungs: I’m buying everything local that I can. I don’t want to be caught with our pants down when another hurricane comes, depending on what we can get from the United States.”

Although it’s too soon to say whether a new moment for local food is dawning in Puerto Rico, it must mean something that on at least one menu, mushrooms are outselling steak. Miller is leading groups on foraging tours, invigorating an appetite for native foods. Huerto Rico is moving out of a house and into a specially constructed facility. It is easy to get stuck on how reliant Puerto Rico’s food supply is on imports, to forget that the groundwork has been laid for a resilient local cuisine. Mushrooms are just one ingredient, but they have the power to incite movements.

This article appears in the Fall 2022 print magazine. Subscribe now to support our journalism.

Alicia Kennedy is a writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the author of the forthcoming book Meatless: The Radical Cultures and Innovative Cooks That Have Shaped Plant-Based Eating.

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