Connecting Farm and Forest with Fungi
by Hawthorn McCracken | WFU Communications Intern
When Ingrid West first started caring for her forest land in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, she had no idea it would turn into a culinary and medicinal adventure. As a fisheries manager and water quality expert, she intimately understood the connection between soil conservation and water health. Her Vernon County land is enrolled in Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law program to support wildlife habitat and watershed protection. Individual trees are carefully selected for harvest, and Ingrid is left with a plethora of red maple logs that might otherwise go to waste. Her interest in permaculture and herbal medicine led her to explore log-grown shiitake mushrooms. She attended a workshop with renowned mycologist Paul Stamets in 2014 and left inspired by the potential of fungi to change people’s approach to food, medicine, and agriculture. She founded Misty Dawn Farm in Stoughton, Wis. the same year.
Chinese writers mention the log cultivation of shiitake as early as 1209 CE. The mushrooms are grown as food crops, but are also renowned for their medicinal properties. They occur naturally on decaying hardwood trees and are especially fond of oaks. Many commercial shiitakes are now grown on sawdust or other artificial substrates. This produces a faster crop and does not involve as much heavy lifting, but the mushrooms grown this way have a different quality. Ingrid calls them “shiitakes on steroids.” They get very large very quickly but are softer and sweeter than log-grown specimens. She prefers the log-grown shiitakes because of their higher nutrient content, firmer texture, and small growers’ ability to cultivate them simply with harvested lumber.
Much of Ingrid’s work with shiitakes has been grant-funded and supported by volunteer labor. On-farm workshops of 12-20 participants provide training on inoculation methods. A large group can process dozens of logs in a short period. Alone, it would take farmers days to complete this heavy labor, but many hands make the work light and enjoyable. Interested participants learn what it takes to grow commercial mushrooms, share a delicious fungi-filled lunch, and often leave with a log of their own. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has put workshops on hold this season, Ingrid has continued nurturing the partnerships she’s built with local restaurants, education organizations, and landowners that will support Misty Dawn into the future.
In 2015 Ingrid received a SARE grant to research the viability of shiitake cultivation on red maple logs. This species is common in Wisconsin forests that have not experienced fires since European settlement. Maples tend to create excessive shade and crowd out the seedlings of previously-dominant oaks. Forest managers can end up felling many middle-aged maples in their restoration work. These trees provide 6-8” diameter logs that are ideal for mushroom growers. Supported by staff from Field and Forest Products, a leading Wisconsin mushroom cultivation supplier, Ingrid’s report and accompanying video details how to best process red maple logs for shiitake cultivation. The results of this study were shared with MOSES conference attendees. Further research into red maple cultivation is still underway, but the results look promising.
Ingrid has spoken about her growing experience at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service annual conference, the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, Madison Mycological Society, and many other local events. She works closely with Friends of Silverwood Park in Dane County to lead mushroom cultivation workshops and cooking demos. She also serves as a board member of the Shiitake Growers Association of Wisconsin (ShiiGA). As part of ShiiGA, Ingrid travels around the state to promote shiitake cultivation to farmers and foodies, and she learned of the Wisconsin Farmers Union while tabling at a Soil Sisters event in 2018. She joined WFU to continue cultivating her connections with local farmers. She values being able to support other local growers in building a sustainable food system.
Ingrid believes that there is great potential in log-grown mushrooms for both farmers and forest managers. ShiiGA is working to provide a log supply network, connecting interested growers with folks who can cut and deliver logs. Members of ShiiGA get access to this network, as well as a lending library of mushroom cultivation tools and expert grower support. Mushrooms provide a unique addition to CSA boxes, and growing on logs gives a relatively relaxed timeline for veggie farmers. It can take from 6 to 18 months for a log to fruit, depending on the species of tree and the mushroom being grown. This slow crop helps ease a new grower into the field and can provide a nice end-of-season product for diversified operations.
Various species of medicinal and culinary mushrooms thrive on logs from different types of trees, and some mushrooms can be grown in compost, straw, and mulch. This resource from Field and Forest details some of the species that are viable for outdoor production in Wisconsin’s climate. Sustainable log cultivation can encourage more mindful harvesting practices and provide landowners with an extra income source from their woodlots.
Cultivating fungi encourages biodiversity on the farm, and can be a great use of shady areas that might not be productive otherwise. Interest in fungal foods grows every year, and there are many opportunities for direct marketing and wholesale contracts with local restaurants. The potential for fruitful connections between farmers and land managers is immense. Even microscopic fungi have an exciting role in agriculture. Farmers and researchers learn more about the importance of fungi in soil biology every year. Understanding fungi helps folks look at the forest and farm ecosystems from a new lens, and mushrooms can provide an excellent opportunity for diversified income on farms of any size.
Photographs courtesy Ingrid West