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Mushroom farmers work to expand in Missouri

Article from The Missourian

BY Lisa Appleton

Heather Willman, a full-time mushroom farmer located six miles outside of Ashland, sells a bag of oyster mushrooms to Jack Wax at the Columbia Farmers' Market on Saturday. Wax's favorite kind is shiitake, but Willman did not have any at the time.   ¦  CHRISTINE MARTINEZ/ Missourian


COLUMBIA — Fred Fry grows mushrooms in his wine cellar. They look like miniature umbrellas hooked onto a row of logs propped along the walls.

When they're harvested, Fry said, they'll fetch $8 a pound.

Fry owns the Mushroom Farm near Montgomery City, one of a half-dozen farms growing specialty mushrooms in the state. Most grow shiitakes, some cultivate lion's mane and oyster mushrooms, and one or two have tried morels with limited success.

The largest is probably Ozark Forest Mushrooms, which farms 18,000 shiitake logs in the Big Springs region.

For the past 10 years, the MU Center for Agroforestry has been encouraging farmers around Missouri to grow specialty mushrooms as a way to conserve and use logs. This type of "forest farming" can provide income and improve the management of wooded areas.

Research Associate Professor Johann Bruhn has been developing step-by-step methods for propagating mushrooms, growing shiitakes on sugar maple and white oak logs.

“The whole idea of our program is to help the family farmer diversify their landscape and agricultural production,” he said.

Specialty mushroom cultivation has been growing in interest across the country, fueled by the trend of eating local and organic food, a boom in farmers markets  and an interest in sustainable growing practices.

According to Joe McFarland, author of "Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States," mushroom farming goes through phases, and in the past 20 years it has become popular again.

“It’s had its booms and busts throughout the last 100 years,” he said. “Right now, it's sort of experiencing another renaissance."

Most people grow these specialty mushrooms as a hobby, McFarland said. Factors  such as pests, climate and uneven harvests make consistent profits unpredictable.

None of the large, commercial farms that produce the common white button mushrooms sold to grocery stores are located in Missouri. Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Institute, said about 100 of these farms can be found around the country, mostly concentrated in Pennsylvania and California.

The industry began in Pennsylvania about 100 years ago, Phelps said, and now 63 percent of the standard supermarket mushrooms are grown there. That seems to be based on tradition rather than a favorable environment for the white button mushroom crop.

“They are grown indoors, so they can be grown anywhere,” she said.

Bruhn said anyone with time and patience can take care of mushrooms. Depending on the type, edible mushrooms can flourish indoors, outdoors, on logs and in the ground with straw or sawdust.

Although small-scale mushroom farming requires little acreage and little investment, it might take months to reap the final product. With shiitakes, it can take up to a year.

Production starts with farmers choosing a strain, then inoculating the logs with spawn, which looks like mold on old bread.

Inoculation involves drilling tiny holes in a staggered diamond pattern. Spawn are inserted in the holes and covered with the same kind of wax that often encases cheese.

The spawn spreads in a thread-like network along the log, and mushrooms sprout randomly, a process called fruiting. After a resting period of 10-12 weeks, called "flushing," the mushrooms can fruit again without another inoculation. Bruhn said one log can repeat this process for up to four years.  

He has also done research on oyster mushrooms, truffles and morels, but the shiitake is the only variety he has tested sufficiently for purposes of instruction. He expects to make available a publication on truffles in the next year.

Morels are very popular for mushroom hunters, but finding a way to grow them consistently has always been a challenge for researchers, including Bruhn.

“Morels are the prize mushrooms that everyone wants cultivated,” he said.

Fry, who also runs an excavation business, has been growing mushrooms for the past nine years, mostly shiitakes but also oysters and the occasional morel. He grows them both on logs and layered with straw on the ground, and he sells them to repeat customers.

Shiitake mushrooms are quite distinct visually, he noted. A normal cap is 2 to 3 inches in diameter with white spots at the edges that look like snowflakes.

He has about 3,000 white oak logs in his wine cellar and under a shady, wooded  grove nearby. The ones indoors produce all year, he said, but the ones outside are seasonal.

Fry uses the “totem” method to grow oyster mushrooms, stacking sections of logs with layers of spawn. Depending on the weather, he can cover the logs with trash bags to hold moisture. He also uses a wet "fruiting blanket" to create a tent over the mushrooms to retain humidity.

Mushrooms require considerable time to mature. Fry said it can take seven to 15 months to harvest a crop. In a year, he estimates he nets 400 to 500 pounds.

Tending to mushrooms and logs can also be high-maintenance work. There can be contaminated mold in the wood, for example, and farmers might not be aware of the problem until it’s too late.

Mushrooms like environments with low shade and high humidity, and controlling the climate can be difficult as well.

“So many people lose logs because they don’t know how to tend to them,” Fry said. “When you pick them, the log is in a weak and vulnerable position. You want to take care of it, nurse it and protect it.”

To reach potential customers, Fry tries to market his mushroom farm as much as possible, participating in a number of parades each year and hosting an annual mushroom festival. This year, the festival is Aug. 28 and 29, complete with bands and farm tours.

Closer to Columbia, Heather Willman and her husband own Sunrise Shiitake Farm in Ashland and sell to restaurants as well as the Columbia Farmers' Market every Saturday morning. Heather also makes weekly deliveries to restaurants in St. Louis.

Currently, the Willmans sell oyster, lion’s mane and shiitake mushrooms, and they hope to add others in the next month.

They began growing mushrooms as a hobby about seven years ago.

“My husband got a kit, and our friends kept asking to buy them,” Heather Willman said.

She lost her job during the economic downturn a year and a half ago, and the couple decided to farm full time.

They grow their mushrooms on imitation logs made of oak or maple sawdust.

“We use a by-product, so we don’t have to cut down more trees.” Willman said. “Plus, the mushrooms grow in three months with sawdust, compared to one year with a log.”

Originally, they tried to cultivate mushrooms outdoors year-round. They found it too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, so they moved their logs into an unfinished basement and installed a misting system to keep the mushrooms at ideal conditions of 85 percent humidity.

Because of their success, the Willmans are expanding the farm to grow more produce for farmers markets.

Few farmers, however, can grow specialty mushrooms and make a living. Ron Spinosa, the cultivation chair for the North American Mycological Association, thinks of it more as supplemental income.

“In your backyard, you can set up an operation to maybe sell to local restaurants and farmers markets," he  said. "But, I would say for a lot of people it’s more of a hobby type thing."

Fry grows specialty mushrooms to supplement his income but wishes he could spend more time with them.

“To really do the mushrooms right, it’s a full-time job,” he said.

Because not all of his mushrooms fruit year round, he can't count on a profit.

“I would probably make more working at McDonald's some days,” he said.



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