Thursday, April 3, 2008

Room for 'Shrooms

This morning I finished mounting our biennial crop of shiitake logs just ahead of the rain.

It's a highly satisfying Sandhill ritual, ensuring a steady supply of homegrown mushrooms whenever the rain and temperatures are right (best times in Missouri are spring and fall). Unlike morels, which we only wild craft (during a narrow 10-day span straddling late April/early May), shiitakes are relatively easy to propagate. Starting in 1998—and continuing every even-numbered spring since—we secure spawn from Mushroom People at The Farm (a well-established and well-known intentional cmty in TN) which we then insert into freshly cut green oak logs about 42 inches long. it's important that the logs be green because the mycelium spreads through the soft cambium layer of the wood (not the heartwood) and depends on the moisture in the log to thrive.

It takes about 18 months before new logs start producing mushrooms, and then they continue producing for about six years. When the conditions are right, we harvest them by the 5-gallon bucket load and have enough to dry, or sell to our neighbors. While it can be a lot at one time, when was the last time you heard someone say, "it's a nice place you have here, except you've got too many mushrooms."? Some problems you can deal with more graciously than others, and mushroom explosions are our kind of problem.

Shiitake inoculation is an excellent example of symbiotic relations on the farm. Let me count the ways…

First, it takes place in March or early April, when our agricultural dance card is not so full. So there's room for it.

Second, I typically pick up the spawn in early Feb, when I'm in TN anyway for FIC mtgs at Dunmire Hollow, home to long-time Fellowship board member Harvey Baker. The Farm is only a 30-minute drive away. I can pick up the spawn, find out the latest on new varieties and propagation techniques, and save the postage.

Third, we depend on wood harvesting for heating our buildings and cooking down about 6,000-8,000 gallons of sorghum juice each fall to produce our main farm cash crop: sorghum syrup. So we need to be cutting lots of wood every winter anyway. When there's a shittake party coming up, we make sure to cut the enough oaks that winter to have the mushroom logs we'll need in the spring. Thus there's not much extra work in cutting the logs. We just have to plan ahead. We do about 90-100 logs in a batch (using about 4 kilos of spawn), yet that's no problem for us. We burn a lot of wood and we have about 60 acres in trees—more than enough to provide all of our wood needs (including construction) on a sustained yield basis.

Fourth, we have plenty of places near our residences with a suitable environment for shiitake development (you want shaded, moist places, out of the wind). Seeps are relatively common on our property and we're currently storing our logs in a boggy spot well-shaded by a grove of hard maples (which we're developing for a future sugar bush). It's a poor garden area, yet terrific mushroom habitat. In the early years we just laid the logs on the ground, but they rot too quickly that way and now we're going for a more aesthetic array where we place the logs upright, leaning against a rail. For the batch I placed today, I have used the logs to line the path between the main house and the Sugar Shack (where we cook down our sorghum and maple syrup, and also extract our honey crop). It'll be easy to keep an eye on the logs this way.

Fifth, it's important to protect the moisture in the spawn after it's been inserted into holes drilled into the oak logs. For that we use beeswax, a natural byproduct of our honey operation (we also make beeswax candles).

Sixth, the central post-and-rail system that we now use to lean the logs against is made out of black locust, a locally abundant hardwood that's highly rot resistant. Our primary use of black locust is for pole construction or fence posts. Sections that are too short for a fence post, may be perfect for a shiitake support post. Sections that are too thin for a fence post make superb rails. Thus, when I cut a dozen black locust poles for a building project for our neighbors at Red Earth this winter, I partitioned the tops such that I'd have the shiitake support pieces I'd need later. While digging post holes can be a booger in the summer, the soil is plenty wet this time of year and working down through the clay subsoil is no problem in April. In these conditions I can set a post in five minutes working by hand.

You can force mushroom production by spraying the logs with water, or even submersing them overnight in a trough of water, but life's too short and we prefer minimal management. We just let Nature handle hydrating for us, checking the logs for edible fungi whenever we're blessed with a good soaking.

It's all part of the good life.

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