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Mighty Mushrooms

Story By Terry Reilly
Photography By Jason Hudson

Thanks to a recent workshop, shiitake mushroom farms will be flourishing in the Cape Fear area.

In a tough economy, farmers are always looking for ways to supplement their incomes. In early February, North Carolina A&T State University offered an unlikely alternative – growing shiitake mushrooms.

“Don’t try this at home” did not apply. Hobbyists and backyard farmers were welcome to participate, too. More than 40 like-minded local farmers and growers attended the workshop at the Brunswick County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension, which offered free admission as long as participants brought four recently cut logs. The centerpiece of the workshop involved the “inoculation” of those 4-foot-long logs with mushroom spores.

More established in western and central North Carolina, the cottage industry of shiitake mushroom growing is just beginning to attract interest in the Cape Fear area. This was the first such workshop offered in Brunswick County.

Many participants were first timers, but a few, like Gina Crites, had some experience. Crites is making the transition from hobbyist to commercial enterprise.

“This is my third season,” she says. “It’s been an experiment, but I am fixing to roll it over and go commercial. Last year I produced about 150 pounds and sold just enough to break even.”

Crites plans to add 200 logs this year, bringing her total to 675 logs. Commercial growers should have at least 200 logs. If a grower commits to 200 or more logs, the university provides free mushroom spores, or what is called “spawn,” to inoculate new logs.

Overseeing the free spawn program is Omoanghe “Omam” Isikhuemhen, an assistant professor at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. He has teamed up with Cooperative Extension programs throughout the state for the past 11 years.

“Spawn is expensive and, by providing it for free, we help farmers get started,” says Isikhuemhen. “We want to see shiitake farming grow as a commercial enterprise. That’s why we require a minimum of 200 logs to qualify for the free spawn.”

Currently, demand exceeds supply for fresh shiitakes, and retail prices command more than $10 per pound. Even so, growing gourmet mushrooms is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Significant time commitment and a small upfront investment are required before turning a profit. A cord of 125 logs will generate $500 to $1,000 after expenses, according to university experts.

The American Indian Chamber of Commerce of North Carolina also encourages members to consider the economics of shiitake farming, especially as an alternative to tobacco farming. Their website proclaims that “the amount of land required to produce 3,500 pounds of tobacco can be fitted with 1,500 mushroom-producing logs. With half the labor, the mushrooms can produce the same or more income. And there are no fertilizers to buy as with tobacco.”

The biggest drawback to mushroom farming is the initial investment, as Sam Marshall, Cooperative Extension horticultural agent for Brunswick County, points out: “After the initial time and labor investments, mushroom farming can be a very viable and profitable business. While most farmers do not want to add to an already extremely busy schedule, mushroom farming can be a viable business for local farmers.”

For Crites, it’s not only about the money, but also about enjoying the fruits of her labor.

“It’s worth it if you like mushrooms, and I eat my weight in mushrooms!” she says.

The word shiitake means “mushroom of the oak tree.” The cultivation of shiitake mushrooms originated in Japan about 2,000 years ago. People often found these mushrooms growing on downed ‘shii’ trees (in Japanese, shii means “from a hardwood tree,” and take means “mushroom”). The mushroom-clad logs would then be placed next to logs without mushrooms. The wind would disperse the spores, and the first mushroom farms were born.

Until recently, only imported, dried shiitake mushrooms could be purchased in the United States. Japan, Korea and China had cornered the market until U.S. production began in the last 20 years.

Consumers have discovered the smoky, meaty flavor as well as the health benefits of shiitakes. They are rich in B vitamins and the minerals copper and zinc. Studies have shown that shiitake mushrooms assist in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And extracts of the mushroom are reported to have anti-tumor, anti-viral and immune-stimulating effects.

During the workshop, the group learned that the shiitake mushroom is a wood-decay fungus and must be farmed on logs or sawdust. You won’t see any shiitakes growing on live trees.

Maintaining the right moisture levels is the biggest challenge. Most farmers stack the logs under shade trees close to a nearby water source.

Following more background information, participants formed an assembly line and began the inoculation process. They drilled 1-inch-deep holes in a diamond pattern about 4 inches apart around each fresh oak or sweet gum log. Next the shiitake “spawn” was mixed with sawdust and inserted into the 4- to 6-inch diameter logs. A special tool was used to plunge the spawn into the holes. Finally, to keep the spawn from drying out, each log was “waxed.” Food-grade wax was heated and applied with a small paint brush, sealing the deal on this stage of the preparation.

Upon returning home, the budding shiitake farmers cross-stacked their stash of logs and waited for nature’s magic to begin. If all goes well, the fungus will start a slow migration through the sapwood. This process, known as spawn run or incubation, lasts from 6 to 18 months, depending on fungus strain, log moisture content and weather.

Given that shiitake mushrooms grow best in warm, moist air, the entire state climate, with high humidity and mild temperatures, creates a perfect brew for shiitake fruiting.

Aside from moisture control, mushroom farmers also need to contend with the occasional infestation by slugs and beetles. Being vigilant for an occasional snake is also advised.

As the logs slowly disintegrate, mushroom production will continue for three to five years until all the nutrients are exhausted.

Kathy Holub, who lives in Carolina Beach, watched her logs slowly disappear over the last few years and missed the supply and sight of dinner-plate-size shiitakes in her garden. Hearing about the Brunswick workshop, Holub resurrected her hobby by inoculating a half-dozen new logs. Having recently opened a retail shop in Wilmington, Holub hopes to add shiitakes to her “My Secret Garden” business.

While growing her first batch of shiitakes, Holub made an interesting discovery. While most of us dread hurricanes, Holub found that hurricane rains caused an explosion in shiitakes on her logs. However, she is happy to trade hurricanes for her pond to irrigate her logs.

Several Brunswick County organic farmers took the bait (or “spawn”), including Sam Bellamy from Indigo Farms in Calabash. Bellamy believes that sweet gum tree logs are better than oaks for raising shiitakes. In addition to their robust flavor, Bellamy finds “the properties of these mushrooms are amazing and perfectly designed for our bodies.”

Bellamy encouraged even non-farmers to think about the benefits of small-scale farming. “Agriculture is a nurturing process,” he says. “It stretches, teaches and humbles you as you learn to relate better to living things.”

With shiitake farming in its infancy in Brunswick County, the success of other North Carolina mushroom farmers is reassuring for those just starting out. Greg Bender, owner of Largemouth Gallery Shiitake Mushrooms in Randolph County, started in 2001 with 200 logs and today has more than 800 logs.

After attending a workshop, Bender was skeptical about the logs really producing as advertised. Working with his sister, they were surprised to realize a good harvest the first year. Bender contributes his early success to the extra large 12- to 16-inch diameter sweet gum trees that he felled on his property.

Although Bender has enjoyed success growing shiitakes, selling them has not been easy.

“I am a teacher and my business skills and time are limited,” he says. “I have supplied local restaurants, but it’s hard to balance supply with demand.”

He says others who supply a wide range of produce to consumers and restaurants have a better shot at commercial success. To compensate, Bender freezes, dries and refrigerates as many mushrooms as he can. “Rehydrated mushrooms are fantastic for stews, soups and sauces,” he says.

East of Charlotte in Pokton, the Bountiful Harvest Farm is beginning its third year with shiitakes. With her husband, Gary, doing most of the heavy lifting, Kelly Sikes operates the business. She describes her experience on her website: “There really is not a hard part to mushroom farming. The inoculation process, the drilling, filling and waxing of the logs is the most time consuming. Everything else is pretty simple. And the reward of fresh shiitake mushrooms coming right out of my woods is pretty cool.”

Whether you raise your own shiitakes or just purchase them, Sikes shared some excellent advice on keeping them fresh. “Place clean, dry mushrooms in a paper bag and store in the refrigerator, extending their shelf life from four to five days to two to three weeks. Or dry them and place in a freezer bag and store for up to six months. It’s easy to rehydrate them by placing them in a bowl of water.”

Of course the whole point of growing shiitakes is to eat them. More than any other mushroom, shiitakes have a meaty and chewy texture. This intense flavor is the epitome of the taste of umami, an internationally recognized fifth basic taste.

By mixing shiitakes with butter, garlic, salt and marsala wine, Sikes creates a dish that combines well with meat or rice (recipe at: bountifulharvestfarmnc.com/ ). Holub grills her shiitakes in a cast-iron pan with onions, peppers, mushroom butter and garlic.

At Jerry’s restaurant in Wilmington, Executive Chef Steve Powell delivers shiitake-laced dinners every night.

“Shiitakes are the only mushroom we really use,” says Powell. “Our signature dish for over 18 years is Chateaubriand with Shiitake Mushroom Sauce. I love the meaty earthiness and the rich buttery-ness of the shiitake and do a lot of specials including a phyllo-wrapped quail breast with shiitake mushrooms braised on top. Stand-alone dishes include shiitake ragu, risotto and shiitake sauce, and shiitakes with just some butter and fresh thyme.”

With time being money in the restaurant business, Powell says he loves working with the shiitake. He says that “because they are harvested off a log, they are hardly dirty and less cleaning is involved. Cleaning is always the most time-consuming thing about working with mushrooms.”

At the end of 2013, according to Isikhuemhen, there were 400 shiitake farmers in North Carolina. When the 2014 numbers are compiled, there will be a small, but growing group of shiitake farmers in Brunswick County, along with many hobbyists.

For additional information on shiitake farming contact the Brunswick County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, 25 Referendum Drive, Bolivia, (910) 253-2610; brunswick.ces.ncsu.edu

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