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Grant Helps Farmers Borrow Ancient Techniques to Grow Shiitake Mushrooms

Watch Andy Bojanowski explain the cultivation process.

With their delicate curves, dappled brown caps and luminous gills, Andy Bojanowski’s shiitake mushrooms stand out from the crowd in the produce section of the Middlebury Natural Foods Coop -- a far cry from the pallid buttons and gnarled toadstools that are standard fare in supermarkets. 

“They’re the closest thing you’ll find to wild mushrooms in the forest,” Bojanowski says, “because in essence they are wild mushrooms in the forest.”

Thanks to a three-year, $116,706 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture jointly awarded to UVM and Cornell, all-but-wild shiitakes like Bojawanowi’s are increasingly common in markets in Vermont, New York and surrounding states.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant, awarded in 2010, has taught hundreds of growers around the Northeast to cultivate, market and profitably sell shiitakes grown in the traditional manner, as they’ve been in Japan for a thousand years. The goal is to give farmers a supplementary cash crop that can boost their bottom line. 

“'Shiitake' in Japanese means, literally, mushroom of the shii tree,” says Ben Waterman, coordinator of the New Farmer Program at the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture, who’s been instrumental on the UVM side of the grant. The Japanese cultivated the mushroom by cutting shiii trees with axes and placing the logs by trees that were already growing shiitake or contained shiitake spores.

Massively bland

Beginning at the turn of the last century, producers in the United States discovered a vastly more efficient method of cultivating mushrooms -- growing them indoors on sawdust in giant, windowless warehouses almost all located, by an accident of history, in Kennet Square, Penn., still the epicenter of commodity mushroom production.

But mass-produced mushrooms have their drawbacks.

“The common white button mushroom is a pretty bland product,” says Ken Mudge, a horticulture professor at Cornell, who conceived of the SARE grant as way to give farmers supplementary income by teaching them to produce a flavorful mushroom alternative that would create high demand -- and command a premium price.

Mudge, an expert in non-timber agricultural products grown in forests, had the technical expertise needed to teach farmers to grow shiitakes successfully. But for the business side of the equation -- enabling growers to market, price, distribute and sell the mushrooms -- he needed a partner. For this “enterprise development” savvy, he came to UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a national leader in helping traditional farms launch income-supplementing alternative ventures.   

"For the past 10 years or so, we’ve provided farmers with business planning assistance for all sorts of alternative enterprises, like soybeans and wheat,” Waterman says. “Shiitakes were a natural for us. Ken reached out to us so we could apply for the grant jointly.” 

Although lines weren’t strictly drawn, “We leveraged our strengths,” Waterman says. “When there’s a marketing question or a farm enterprise budget question, UVM will work on it. If it’s researching a particular competitive fungus and classifying that, that’s something Cornell may already have done. We’ve learned a tremendous amount from each other.”

Invasion

Learning how to grow shiitakes the Japanese way -- the subject of numerous workshops sponsored by the grant -- was hard but gratifying work for Bojanowski, who helps run the Eddy Farm School for Horses and Riders in Middlebury with his wife and has a full-time job as the assistant groundskeeper at the Middlebury College golf course.           

In giving visitors a tour of his "laying yard" at the side of the farm house, he gestures to a batch of logs, leaned against sawhorse-like structures. They've been inoculated with shiitake spore, which, for a full year, are allowed to colonize the logs, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style. At the end of that phase, the logs are "shocked" with a 24-hour dunk in a tub of cold water, which prompts them to "fruit" the mushrooms. (See the accompanying video for more detail on shiitake production.) In all, Bojanowski has about 1,000 logs in various stages of production.

Lasting impact

Now in its third and final year, the SARE grant looks like it will have lasting impact.

Workshops sponsored by UVM and Cornell drew between 500 and 600 attendees from as far away as West Virginia and Maine. A listserv created during the project has attracted 110 subscribers and resulted in more than 2,400 posts. A comprehensive online guide to growing and marketing shitakes, based on information gathered from participants in the grant, was developed. And research conducted with three veteran “farmer advisers” in the program showed that a modest 500-log operation could add more than $11,000 to a farm’s bottom line if the shiitakes were sold retail, or nearly $6,000 if sold wholesale.

But the best indication that the shiitakes in the northeastern U.S. may be here to stay comes from the reception growers like Bojanowski are getting from their customers. 

“The mushrooms are spectacular,” says Kira Winslow, produce manager at the Middlebury Coop, Bojanowski’s major client. “The first year we just couldn’t keep them in stock. People were really wowed and surprised that we were getting shiitake mushrooms locally.”

For Mudge, the grant has been an unalloyed success. “We’ve proved the concept,” he says. “You can teach farmers in these new enterprises. And they can be successful.”