Producing mushrooms is not easy, but with the right growing conditions, a harvest can be both profitable and beautiful.
By Patricia Brhel
Mushroom farming, like any other agricultural enterprise, requires study, experience, controlling the growing environment as best you can, a certain amount of intuition and some luck. Edible mushrooms are the fruit of certain kinds of fungus. To grow edible mushrooms profitably isn’t all that easy, nor is it overnight success. It takes about 15 to 16 weeks to produce most varieties as a crop, with only the last three weeks or so dedicated to sowing the seed and the actual growth of the mushrooms. Most of that time involves a lot of hard work up front. Compost must be made, the beds prepared, spawn (seed) ordered, the growing medium (compost) seeded, and then there’s the patient wait for the first signs of growth. All the while the temperature and humidity of the compost and the growing room must be maintained as close as possible to that preferred by the mushroom. The national average for mushroom growers in 1980 was 3.12 pounds per square foot. Depending on the type of mushroom, that’s not bad, but it’s not a get rich quick scheme.
Even before you create that first compost pile it’s best to have your potential customers in mind. Will you be selling to restaurants, to stores, at farmers markets or directly from your farm? Is this going to supplement the income from your other crops or will it be your main focus?
Blue Oyster Cultivation, owned by Joe Rizzo, his wife Wendy and their children, is a small farm near Ithaca. Right now they use the mushrooms to supplement their income, though they hope that it will eventually evolve and become more than that. Currently they sell mushrooms and vegetables at the Ithaca Farmers Market, other markets and from their farm. They also sell mushrooms to seasonal restaurant, the Copper Oven, which specializes in wood fired pizzas topped with hyper-local meats, cheeses and produce.
Rizzo grew up working on the family farm and selling at the New York City Greenmarkets. After college he taught botany and life sciences to inner city school children in Brooklyn. Switching from public school teaching to raising his own children and growing oyster mushrooms in a sustainable, environmentally conscientious, way shows his willingness to accept challenges.
Right now the farm produces shiitakes, blue oyster mushrooms, golden oyster mushrooms, phoenix oyster mushrooms, turkey tails, white elm mushrooms (Hypiszygus ulmarius) and horse mushrooms. In addition to selling the mushrooms fresh they also sell them dried and in gourmet products such as teas. They also sell mushroom kits to those interested in growing their own. Rizzo and family have teamed up with experienced mushroom hunter Carl Whittaker to found the Finger Lakes Mushroom Consortium, an organization that will warm the hearts of all mycophiles. The organization is planning to offer a 2014 CSA to those who enjoy dining on these delectable fungi.
Mushroom growing is a family affair on the Blue Oyster farm, with all hands at work turning compost, pasteurizing straw, manning the booth at farmers markets or posing for pictures, a special job for daughter Jillian, who is featured on the web site along with the crop. Each variety of mushrooms needs its own growing medium. Shiitake, for instance, grow on blocks of oak that have been soaked in water, whereas oyster mushrooms are much less picky, any form or cellulous will do. Both mushroom varieties take matter indigestible by humans and turn it into protein and one of the ingredients for a very good meal or an interesting drink. Still, there is temperature and humidity that needs to be attended to, no matter what the growing medium or variety of fungus it is. Too hot a temperature will kill the spawn, and too cold a temperature can slow the mushroom growth to a halt. If the growing medium dries out, that too, can kill the spawn.
Wendy says, “Our mushrooms are almost too pretty to eat and our customers keep coming back for more. We pride ourselves on customer service and on offering the best product available that money can buy.”
Blue Oyster Cultivation recommends that people buy mushrooms from an experienced grower or harvester. If you want to grow your own, buy spawn from a reliable source. If you harvest mushrooms in the wild, make sure that you have a very good guidebook and some training with an experienced mushroom hunter. Some poisonous mushrooms look almost exactly like the edible varieties.
For more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the Blue Oyster Farm web site which features mushroom pictures, more information and several recipes, blueoystercultivation.com. The Copper Oven, 6800 Route 89 in Ovid, just north of Ithaca, will reopen on May 10th, 2014. Call them at 607-220-8794 or e-mail email@example.com.