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A shortcut to mushrooms? Learn how to grow your own at the La Crosse Earth Fair

A sour, rotting odor filled the UW-La Crosse biology classroom at 331 Crowley Hall as members of the UW-La Crosse mycology club stuffed fistfuls of fermented hay into plastic bags April 1.

The bags weren’t an elaborate April Fools prank, but grow-your-own mushroom kits being prepared in advance of Sunday’s local Earth Fair.

After all, mycology is the scientific study of fungi and growing mushrooms is both a science and a crapshoot.

“You can do everything right and not get anything, and do everything wrong and still get mushrooms,” said club president Annie Schauster, a graduate student in the biology department. “These are living organisms.”

Jennifer Lu / Jennifer Lu, La Crosse Tribune 

A close-up of spawn jars prepared by the Mycology Club, full of mycelium has been growing for about three weeks. 

Many fungi, including mold, toadstools and edible mushrooms, are composed of a network of cells that together, form the mycelium. (Yeasts, also technically fungi, are monocellular.)

Since fungi can’t make food like plants, the mycelium acts like underground roots that interface with other organisms and break them down into water, sugar and other nutrients fungi can use.

The caps and stalks we colloquially call mushrooms are the visible, above-ground part of the fungal whole. Mushrooms, also called fruiting bodies, serve as fungal reproductive structures that release spores to perpetuate the fungal life cycle.

Fungi need nutrients and energy to produce fruiting bodies. These nutrients are delivered in three stages. First, mycelium is cultured on petri dishes to ensure that only the desired strain is grown, then scaled up in nutrient-rich spawn jars. Finally, the concentrated mycelium, presumably in a sufficient amount to outcompete other contaminants, is added to a grow bag or artificial log with enough surface area to maximize mushroom growth.

Though some fungi are pickier about their substrates — shiitake mushrooms like sawdust logs while oyster mushrooms are happy with hay, straw, sawdust, wood chips, even cardboard toilet paper rolls — it’s all sustainable materials, said mycologist Tom Volk, a professor of biology at UW-La Crosse. “You just use whatever waste products you can find.”

To prepare the spawn, club members inoculated mason jars in March with bits of what looked like thin filter paper — actually living strands of mycelium grown on petri dishes. They added the mycelium to sterilized jars filled with water and rye or millet for nutrients. The jars had holes drilled into the lid with a filter in between to allow air, and only air, to flow through.

Microbial contamination is the enemy when growing fungus. Any growth in the jar more colorful than plain white mold spells game over, Schauster said. “Don’t open it up, just throw it away.”

Jennifer Lu / Jennifer Lu, La Crosse Tribune 

A member of the UW-La Crosse Mycology Club opens up a spawn jar April 1 that was inoculated in March. 

During the next few weeks, the mycelium grew until it had taken over the spawn jar, coating the grain with white filaments and filling the space of the jar with what looked like a crusty colorless cotton ball.

At their April meeting, club members sprinkled bits of mycelium spawn into hay-filled plastic bags equipped with filters for low air flow.

“You hope that you put enough of the spawn that it will take over whatever contaminants are in the hay,” said club member Megan Nodolf, a 2017 graduate.

The club is also trying out different types of hay substrate. Mushroom growers can either use fermented or “stinky” straw, or hay that’s been heat-pasteurized.

“Everyone has their own secrets so we’re just experimenting,” said Sabrina Aspensen, a graduate student.

If all goes well, they’ll puncture the bags in a few weeks once the cultivated fungus has taken over the bag. The change in oxygen levels will promote fruiting of oyster mushrooms from the hay.

Not only are these kits primed to grow “choice” mushrooms you’d find at an upscale restaurant, it’s a way for people to get interested in fungi, Nodolf said. “It’s good for the environment and it gets people involved.”

The club will sell these kits for $15 apiece at the Earth Fair.

Earth fair is Sunday in Myrick Park

The Sustainability Institute, Wiscorps and Earth Fair committee will host the 11th annual fair from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Myrick Park, 789 Myrick Park Drive.

AAUW hosting screening of 'Equal Means Equal' documentary

That men and women are treated differently is undeniable. The extent of the disparity, however, could be stunning even to feminists.

Some of the facts are well known: women are paid less than their male counterparts. Less widespread is just how big the discrepancy is — up to 43% less, depending on race — and the knowledge that for every child a woman has, her salary decreases 4%. Consequently, 11% of the adult female population lives in poverty, versus 8% for men, with as many as one in four homeless women having suffered from violence.

Kamala Lopez

These are among the disturbing revelations in the 90-minute documentary, “Equal Means Equal,” directed by political activist and actress Kamala Lopez and touching on topics including healthcare and reproductive rights, domestic violence, rates of female incarceration and pregnancy discrimination.


More than 100 people, from the famous to the anonymous, were interviewed for the eye-opening feature, which will be screened at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the La Crosse Public Library, followed by a question-and-answer session with Janette Dean, an environmental policy and human rights advocate from Caledonia who led a grassroots effort for Nevada to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in 2017.

The screening is being hosted by the American Association of University Women La Crosse Chapter, an organization that strives to advance equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy and research. The organization acquired a $300 grant from the Women’s Fund of Greater La Crosse to conduct one public viewing and obtain the DVD for lending purposes.

“I read about the movie and I wanted to bring that conversation to the community,” said Erica Koonmen, chair of the AAUW in Action committee. “Honestly, anyone in the community could benefit from (watching it). It’s a very honest and kind of stark movie about the treatment of women. ... Technically and legally, women do not have equal rights.”

“Since 2016, when the film came out, it’s been building greater momentum and awareness of how important it is to continue the fight for the U.S. Equal Rights Amendment not only among women but also all the men who have seen it,” Dean said. “The inequality that American women experience not only affects them, of course, but also their spouses and children in terms of womens' own safety, self-actualization, wages, promotions, family life and resources, and more. ... Even though some people may tend to think that they have more or fewer rights depending on their life circumstances and their own financial security to live and work in safe environments, for example, or to fight harder for their rights, the less-known reality is that sex discrimination harms people across ethnicities and socioeconomic classes and, of course, in attitudes and behaviors at the cultural level.”

According to the film, 96 percent of Americans believe men and women should have equal rights under the constitution, and 72 percent assume they do. There are laws in place, among them the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act, and the Constitution contains the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. However, the film explains, loopholes, differing interpretations and paltry penalties can interfere with enforcement.

Dean references a quote from the late justice Antonin Scalia, published in a 2010 interview with California Lawyer Magazine: “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”

“It’s hard to believe a Supreme Court member would actually say this,” Dean marveled.

There are 15 states whose legislatures did not ratify the Equal Rights Amendment by the 1982 deadline, with Illinois and Nevada having done so since. For something so important, Dean says, there shouldn’t be a deadline.

“I am so proud that both Wisconsin and Minnesota quickly and wisely ratified equal rights at the federal level the very first year after it passed Congress,” Dean said. “No matter what one’s feelings are on any particular issue, the position of women as second-class citizens without equal rights in our Constitution is unacceptable to any generation. The ERA would finally fix that.”

The film touches on legal cases addressing blatant or potential infringement of rights, including a lawsuit filed by employee Peggy Young against UPS for violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which she won, and a 2015 decision by Hobby Lobby to deny insurance coverage of birth control. Despite the fact that the company’s policy covers Viagra and vasectomies, the film notes, the Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor.

Ongoing epidemics, from domestic and sexual violence to child sex trafficking, are discussed with experts in the documentary, and many of the statistics are startling: Every 24 hours, three women die at the hands of a current or former partner, and every nine seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten. Up to 80% of women convicted of homicide were acting in self-defense, and 92 percent of incarcerated juvenile females have been exposed to physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Those enslaved in sex trafficking may end up in jail for prostitution, and remain there simply because there is no other place to house them.

“We work with law enforcement, who frequently say they are locking up these girls, even as they identify them as victims, because they have nowhere else to put them,” Stephanie Richards of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking says in the film. “I’ve never heard that about any other victim population.”

Worldwide statistics are also shared in the film, among the most jarring that 600 million women live in a nation where domestic violence is not considered a crime, 130 million females are victims of genital mutilation and 64 million females are child brides. Equal rights advocates are working to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, referred to as the “International Women’s Bill of Rights,” to establish equality in education, employment, marriage and political representation. The U.S. is one of only seven countries, including Iran and Somalia, that have yet to ratify the treaty. Doing so would require two-thirds of the Senate to vote in favor, and the bill has yet to make it to the floor.

On a national level, Dean stresses that the ERA would “benefit men as well,” citing custody cases, where the female is often favored as the primary parent, as an example, as well as leveling the hiring field for occupations generally associated with females.

“I hope by seeing this film, women and men will be inspired to fight for equal rights so all citizens of the U.S. are fairly protected,” Dean said. “We are nearly at the finish line of achieving equal rights for both men and women in the Constitution, and it would be a great moment of pride in our country when it finally (happens).”

After the film screening, Dean will take questions and discuss ongoing efforts to complete ratification of the ERA in the remaining 13 states — 38 states total are required — as well as Congress’ continued efforts to have it added to the Constitution.

“We currently have 27 amendments in the Constitution,” Dean said. “And there is plenty of room to add one more, especially for something that would liberate and better protect over half the U.S. population.”

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Felipe Martinez trains with Danny Moe at Ironworks Training Center in Holmen on Wednesday. Martinez puts his 6-0 record on the line in the 3 River Throwdown XV event at the OmniCenter in Onalaska on Saturday.

Snow? Again? Saturday could be slushy in the La Crosse area

If you’re ready to slip on a pair of sandals and put the lawn chairs out on the patio, you may want to wait until after Saturday.

La Crosse could see 2 to 4 inches of snow accumulation Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

The weekend will start with rain before 10 a.m. Saturday and slowly transition to snow by 2 p.m.

Snowfall could be heavy at times and winds are expected to gust to 26 mph, the weather service warns. The storm could deliver up to 9 inches of snow in the Madison area, and forecasters stress that accumulations will vary depending on what track the storm takes Saturday.

This would be the third bout of snow the region has seen since April 1, coming straight from a winter that blasted the Coulee Region with record amounts of snow and bone-chilling temperatures to boot.

The La Crosse is also currently under a flood warning, though the river is expected to fall a bit through Friday morning, the weather service reports.

The Mississippi River registered at 14.1 feet in La Crosse on Thursday morning, and moderate flooding will continue. Flood stage in La Crosse is 12 feet.

But there’s at least some good news ahead: Friday’s forecast is mostly sunny with a high near 60, and, according to the weather service, a sunny Sunday will drive temperatures back to a high of 49.

Grin and bear it on Saturday — and then hopefully, we’re cruising toward summer.

48 photos: A look back at our seemingly never-ending winter in the La Crosse area
48 photos: A look back at our seemingly never-ending winter in the La Crosse area

Report: Wisconsin had 4th biggest drop in per-student spending for higher education

As other states’ per-student spending on higher education started to partially recover from cuts made during the Great Recession, Wisconsin experienced among the country’s largest declines between 2013 and 2018, according to a recent report.

The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association reported earlier this month that just three states — Oklahoma, West Virginia and Mississippi — saw a larger drop over that time.

The report comes at a time of guarded optimism for the University of Wisconsin System and its campuses. The election of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is seen by higher education advocates as a way to offset some of the cuts imposed by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Evers proposed about $150 million more for UW campuses in his 2019-21 budget proposal, about $43 million more than the UW System requested last August.

Wisconsin’s per-student spending fell from $7,002 to $6,435 in the five-year period. The national average in 2018 was about $7,800 per student.

Put another way, the average student studying in Wisconsin got about $1,400 less than other students, according to Sophia Laderman, lead author of the report.

“This is definitely a near-historic low,” Laderman said of Wisconsin’s spending level. “Wisconsin has generally been similar to the U.S. in the long term, but it’s split off in the last few years. As the U.S. recovered in state funding, Wisconsin did not.”

UW campuses felt the brunt of the cuts during the 2015-17 budget biennium when they absorbed a $250 million loss in state money. At UW-Madison, a $59 million cut led to reduced student employment, halted expansion of student advisers and prevented the expansion of high-demand programs, such as engineering and nursing.

“Chancellor (Rebecca) Blank has been vocal about the need to reinvest in higher education to ensure UW–Madison can continue to attract and retain top students, faculty and staff,” UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said.

“The return on investment for Wisconsin taxpayers when funding our University is 23 to 1,” UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch said. “Our budget request is targeted to help grow Wisconsin’s talent pipeline, improve lives and communities, and lead to higher wages for graduates. It’s a critical investment Wisconsin needs to build a prosperous future.”

The report also names Wisconsin as one of just six states in which “total revenues” — meaning state money and tuition dollars — had returned to pre-recession 2008 levels.

However, that particular analysis didn’t include local money, such as property taxes. The Wisconsin Technical College System in 2015 lost $406 million in property tax money, but gained the same amount in state tax money. Because of the switch in the funding source, the offset is not apparent in the analysis.

“The bottom line is we have not recovered yet, which goes to what we felt intuitively, especially with the tuition freeze and the cuts,” said Noel Radomski, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. “It becomes a question of does the state want to return funding to where we were prior to the recession?”

Future funding

UW System officials asked in August for $107 million more in the 2019-21 budget, three-quarters of which would be awarded to campuses based on performance metrics.

Republicans traditionally support such a funding model to increase accountability to campuses on measures such as undergraduate enrollment, number of degrees awarded and number of students studying in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Evers proposed about $150 million more to the UW System, none of which would be based on performance measures. His budget proposal says the funding model often fails to achieve intended results and limits flexibility to respond to changing needs.

But Republicans who control the Legislature are writing their own budget instead of using Evers’ proposal as a template.

Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, chairman of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee, said in an interview that he expected to see some form of funding increase for the UW System in the next budget, but not more than what the system requested.

He also said it was too soon to abandon the performance-based funding model because it hasn’t been in place long enough to judge its effectiveness.

Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, chairman of the Senate Committee on Universities, Technical Colleges, Children and Families, declined an interview request last week and on Monday.