Appalachian foodies will be interested to hear that the forests in Appalachia could be an ideal environment for growing mushrooms on logs in your own backyard.
The catch? It’s labor intensive, and if you want to sell your mushrooms to the public, you’ll need to show proof that your mushrooms are edible.
Still there are a handful of people in Appalachia who have been growing shiitake mushrooms for decades.
Just outside the town of Milton West Virginia, Bob Maslowski owns a small forest, where he grows and collects wild mushrooms to eat.
His dogs run circles around us as we make our way up a hill under the shaded canopy of maple and oak trees.
“This is kind of a small scale agro forest. I have 140 acres here; it’s all woodland. We like to collect mushrooms. We collect about 21 different edible types of mushrooms here.”
Maslowski and his wife Susan have what is called a forest farm. Aside from mushrooms, they also harvest elderberries, raspberries, and wild onions called ramps from their forest.
“These are ramps. We grow ramps on this same hillside. These are all transplanted.”
This doesn’t look like a traditional farm with rows of crops. This is full of tall shadows from the trees, with birds chirping above our heads. It's quite idyllic, and not a tractor in sight.
But sometimes you might hear the sound of Maslowski drilling holes into oak logs, on the edge of the forest. He uses the logs to grow shiitake mushrooms.
Maslowski orders shiitake spawn from Wisconsin. The plugs look like these little erasers from a pencil, and inside each one are tiny dormant mushrooms.
Maslowski then sticks these plugs into an oak log from his forest.
“These logs will last about 4,5, 6 years. And they’ll produce several spawns of shiitake each year.”
Then he leaves the shiitake logs on the ground in his forest.
“It’s close to the house so we can check them every day. And it’s on the north slope, in a wooded area. And you don’t want a log in the sun or they’ll dry out too much.”
Maslowski has been growing shiitake mushrooms for about two decades. This is all mostly a hobby for him and his wife. He’s a retired archeologist and she’s a potter. They also have a small business where they sell home brew equipment for craft beer and wine hobbyists. They don’t raise shiitakes for the money.
“Basically, when we have a really good spawn run, we’ll take 9-10 bags to the farmers market. And sell them for about $3 a bag. It’s about three ounces. But when we’re not going to the market, these are plenty to feed us with enough shiitake. We dry some and we freeze a lot.”
Bob and his wife Susan love to cook with shiitake mushrooms. They make Hungarian mushroom soup and shiitake pizza. With each mushroom harvest, they invent new recipes. They share their latest inspirations at dinner parties and potluck gatherings with friends who also grow and cook local shiitakes.
Aside from a few customers at the farmers’ market, and other friends who also grow shiitakes, Maslowski says he doesn’t meet many people here who’ve ever been exposed to specialty mushrooms.
Maslowski used to teach an anthropology of food course at Marshall University- where he talked to his students about mushrooms.
“I had one guy from Kentucky, and this is graduate school, said he’s never had a mushroom before.”
However, there is one wild mushrooms that is popular here.
“Appalachians really love the morels. And they’ll pick them, you know, sometimes you can get a bushel of them in a good place. And they just deep fry them, and in Kentucky it’s called Dry Land Fish. Whereas you go into the expensive restaurants, and these chefs are buying them for $20, $30 $40 a pound. Around here, more and more of the chefs are buying them. But most of them come from California. One of the problems is you’re not allowed to sell wild mushrooms at the farmers’ markets. I’ve seen wild mushrooms for sale at the markets. Nobody really questions them.”
The Health Department doesn’t want people like Maslowski to sell wild mushrooms at farmers markets because there isn’t a way to inspect those mushrooms to make sure they are safe for human consumption. The reason he can sell cultivated shiitake and oyster mushrooms is because they are grown from spores. At the farmers’ market, he has to show proof that he bought the spores-- and that his mushrooms didn't grow wild in the forest.
It can be difficult to sell wild mushrooms to restaurants, too. Under state law, chefs who want to use wild foraged mushrooms have to have a mushroom identification expert inspect every mushroom that is served to the public. But the law doesn’t specify what a wild mushroom expert is. The West Virginia Department of Health suggests that local restaurants should reach out to extension agents, and mycological societies to find experts who can help identify mushrooms in their restaurant.
Another problem for chefs who want to serve wild mushrooms is there just aren’t enough people selling them.
Maslowski collects morels on his own land - along with other wild mushrooms, like chanterelles - but he doesn’t sell those. They’re too precious. He only collects enough for him and his wife to eat.
His hope is to encourage more farmers to start growing shiitakes because he’d like to see the community of mushroom farmers continue to grow in West Virginia.
"What we were hoping by selling shiitake and doing demonstrations at farmers market, that we would get more local farmers into it, and so on. But the local farmers are very conservative.”
By conservative, Maslowski means most farmers he meets aren’t interested in growing exotic, or different crops, like shiitake mushrooms.
But some people want to see more mushrooms farmed from the forest.
Brad Cochran is an extension agent with West Virginia State University.
“There is a lot of demand, especially here in the Charleston, Huntington, Metro area, because there are so many up and coming restaurants and really cool chefs around town that are just dying to get ahold of some good locally grown mushrooms."
Cochran is working to encourage more farmers to tap into growing shiitake mushrooms, which he says could be perfect for West Virginians who are looking to make a bit of extra cash.
“And if people aren't considering it already maybe they should be. The growing areas that we have here in West Virginia are perfect. We're right at about 75% forested, which is a perfect place to grow shiitake mushrooms on logs, is prime territory for mushrooms. ”
Forest farmers are generally folks who grow ramps, hazelnuts, maples syrup, and shiitake mushrooms as a hobby- not as an income. But some people would like to see more forest grown products sold at specialty food stores and at restaurants that serve local ingredients.
Extension agent Brad Cochran believes there’s a lot of potential to grow this industry in Appalachia. Cochran studied forestry in college, and he isn’t against timbering. But he believes that forests can grow lots of products, not only trees.
“So if a landowner is wanting to do a timber harvest, say in 15 years, to help send their kid to college, traditionally they would just wait 15 years for a timber harvest. If they look at mushroom production, in those 15 years, you can have hundreds of thousands of pounds of production that they can sell at the local market for $10-15 a pound. You start looking at that, and you might not even have to do that timber harvest.”
That vision for forest farming is shared by a small group of professors, farmers, and researchers who are scattered across the country. They wonder, if people can make a living off the forest by making maple syrup, couldn’t they do it by growing ginseng, ramps and mushrooms?
Cornell University in New York has a forest on their campus where they are experimenting with forest farming. I attended a forest farming conference there last fall.
Rodney Webb was attending the conference. Webb is a farmer from Madison County, North Carolina. He grows about 1,000 pounds of shiitake mushrooms each year.
“I originally got into growing shiitakes, my wife had cancer, about 17 years ago, Hodgkins Lymphoma, and and we started doing some alternative diet type things. And shiitake mushrooms were one of the things that were recommended for us. And she was supposed to have that twice a week. And we were buying dried shiitakes from Japan. If you’re buying them in small quantities, the price worked out to be, you know, $100 a pound."
"So I started growing them, and I think they’re very beneficial. They’re high in protein, can get up to 18 percent protein, for shiitakes, so if you’re a non-meat eater they’re a good source of protein. I really want to get them out to people to help make a healthier society.”
At this time, there isn’t a lot of research to support the cancer fighting power of shiitake mushrooms, At least there haven’t yet been enough studies done on humans.
Lino Stanchich is a licensed nutritionist and a macrobiotic health counselor who recommends eating shiitakes for their rich nutrient content. Stanchich was the one who suggested shiitakes to Rodney Webb’s wife 17 years ago. Stanchich was born in Croatia and Italy, and grew up eating wild mushrooms from the forest:
“The best mushrooms are the ones that grow in the forest or on logs, naturally. Another thing too is they have a lot of vitamins. They have a lot of vitamin B 2 B 3 B 6, B 4, zinc, and fibers. So it’s a food, and a medicine at the same time. It’s a very good investment in health."
Extension agent Brad Cochran says there are more and more studies being done that show the health benefits for eating mushrooms.
“Some of the other things that we are starting to see in the research are that all of them have a lot of cholesterol lowering abilities. While it may not be any kind of percentage that it cuts out cholesterol medication, but it can potentially lower it to where you have a lower dosage. They're very organically grown, so they’re honestly some of the healthiest things you can eat."
Cochran says he first fell in love with shiitake mushrooms in forestry school, because they are cool to grow and because they taste delicious.
"You know it’s really really cool, and having the ability to grow them right here in West Virginia is really awesome.”
Cochran says that he’s tried dozens of shiitake recipes, but his favorite is the most basic: he sautés mushrooms in some butter with a little garlic.
He’ll use shiitakes from the grocery store, if he has to. But he says the dish is really the best when the mushrooms come from a local forest, or even his own back yard.
You can buy shiitake spawn to grow on your own logs on websites like Field and Forest. You can also contact a local mushroom expert. In West Virginia, Paul Goland teaches workshops about how to grow shiitake mushrooms: 304-358-2921.
You can buy shiitake mushrooms that are Appalachian grown at: