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Rural Missouri Magazine

Forest Fresh
Ozark Forest Mushrooms converts oak into gourmet fare

by Jason Jenkins

Harvest comes regularly as Ozark Forest Mushrooms grows mushrooms on logs near Timber, in Shannon County. With their rich, hearty flavor, shiitake mushrooms are growing in popularity in the United States.

Sautéed in butter with a sprinkle of salt, pepper and a splash of white wine.

That’s how chef Andy Ayers first prepared Nicola Macpherson’s shiitake mushrooms 15 years ago, and it’s how he’s served them ever since. His menu boldly states, “These are likely the best mushrooms you’ve ever eaten.”

“Nobody ever argues with that assessment,” says the owner of Riddle’s Penultimate Café and Wine Bar in St. Louis. “Nikki’s mushrooms are head and shoulders above the rest. From the very beginning, I was blown away by their flavor.”

Since 1990, Nicola and her husband, Dan Hellmuth, have grown their business, Ozark Forest Mushrooms, into the preeminent year-round supplier of gourmet specialty mushrooms in Missouri. Tucked away in Shannon County just east of Timber, the operation produces more than 3 tons of organic shiitake mushrooms annually.

The Black River Electric Cooperative members’ foray into fungus farming began almost 20 years ago. Dan’s father had raised cattle on the family’s 2,500-acre farm, but livestock did not interest the couple. Dan, an architect, attended an alternative farming conference looking for another venture, and the prospect of growing a niche crop using sustainable methods was appealing.

The couple started growing the mushrooms as a hobby, but what began as a hobby quickly turned into a commercial business. “It literally mushroomed,” Nicola says.
Native to eastern Asia and used in Oriental cuisine for centuries, shiitake mushrooms have increased in popularity in the United States thanks to their rich, hearty flavor. However, obtaining fresh shiitakes in Missouri used to be a challenge.

“Before the summer I met Nikki, the only shiitake mushrooms I had ever seen were the dried ones in crinkly cellophane bags from Japan that you had to re-hydrate,” Andy recalls. “There were some obvious drawbacks with that, and they had an unusual consistency. I just wasn’t crazy about them.”

Nicola Macpherson, right, and her husband, Dan Hellmuth, grow shiitake mushrooms on 4- to 7-inch-diameter branches left behind after timber harvest.

Although Shannon County may not look like northern Japan, the Ozark forest provides both the raw material and the ideal environmental conditions for the traditional cultivation technique of growing shiitake mushrooms outdoors on logs. But making food from wood is very much a hands-on, labor-intensive process.

“You want to rot the logs, but it can be a battle,” says Nicola, a former high school science teacher originally from Bristol, England. “You need to keep the logs moist, but not too moist. Essentially, we’re turning what would be waste from a commercial timber harvest into a high-value foodstuff.”

Between December and March, loggers selectively harvest dormant oaks from the farm. The largest logs go to the sawmill, but the treetops and smaller branches remain. These are cut into 4-foot-long cordwood and range in diameter from 4 to 7 inches.

“Branch wood is great for growing mushrooms because it has a higher percentage of sapwood, and that’s what provides the nutrients,” Nicola says.

In nature, shiitake mushrooms would grow from spores carried by the wind. However, this method is too unreliable for commercial production. Instead, Nicola inserts a product called spawn, the mushroom farmer’s equivalent of seed, into half-inch-deep holes that are drilled in a diamond pattern around the oak logs. Spawn contains actively growing shiitake fungus.

Logs are stacked in 50-log batches. Each will produce as many as 30 pounds of mushrooms in its first fruiting.

Once the spawn is inserted, melted cheese wax is daubed over each hole. This keeps the spawn in the holes and prevents other fungi from entering the logs. For the next six to nine months, the logs are stacked horizontally in 50-log batches and left alone until the shiitake fungus colonizes them completely. Then, the logs are ready to produce mushrooms.

To produce a more consistent mushroom crop, Nicola employs a technique called forced fruiting. A stack of 50 logs is submerged in a tank of cold water for 24 hours, and then the logs are stacked vertically under the shade of the forest canopy and covered with a humidity blanket.

“The shock of the cold and moisture simulates fall conditions and stimulates the logs to produce mushrooms,” Nicola explains. “Depending on temperature and humidity, the mushrooms will be ready to pick in as few as four or five days.”

A 50-log batch may produce as many as 30 pounds of mushrooms in its first fruiting. After the logs produce a crop, they are allowed to rest for about eight weeks. Then, it’s back to the tanks for another soak. Each log can fruit about four times a year for up to four years, at which time the fungus exhausts all the nutrients in the logs. Then, it’s off to the firewood pile.

Three years ago, with the assistance of a grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, Nicola and Dan built a greenhouse and expanded their operation to include wintertime mushroom production. A wood-burning stove — fueled with spent shiitake logs — warms the radiant heat floor.

Mushroom await packaging.

For Andy and Nicola’s other customers, the ability to obtain fresh, locally grown shiitakes in the winter has been a culinary treat.

“For years and years, if we had shiitakes for Thanksgiving dinner, we felt like it was a great, long season,” Andy says. “Now that Nikki’s developed the indoor greenhouse system, we have shiitakes all year long. For the last three years, I’ve never called her and had her say, ‘Sorry, no shiitakes.’”

Adding the greenhouse also meant that Ozark Forest Mushrooms could expand its product line. Nicola now grows and sells nearly a ton of oyster mushrooms each year.
While most of her customers are restaurants, Nicola does sell fresh shiitake mushrooms to a number of grocery and health food stores in the St. Louis area, including Schnucks grocery stores in Ladue and Frontenac, Whole Foods in Brentwood and Natural Way in Webster Groves. She also packages and sells her own line of organic gourmet meals that feature dried shiitakes.

When she has extra mushrooms, Nicola sells them at the Maplewood Farmers Market at the Schlafly Bottleworks on Wednesdays.

As demand for locally produced food has grown in recent years, Nicola and Dan increasingly have found themselves speaking at alternative farming workshops and conferences, much like the one Dan attended so many years ago. Nicola says she doesn’t mind sharing her secrets of success.

“I don’t worry about competition,” she says with a smile. “Most people just aren’t going to do it. It’s simply too much work.”

Nicola and Dan will display their products at the annual Best of Missouri Market event, Oct. 6-7, at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. For directions or more details about this event, call (314) 577-9400 or visit www.mobot.org. You can reach Ozark Forest Mushrooms at (314) 531-9935 or nicola@ozarkforest.com. The Web address is www.ozarkforest.com.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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