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Talking Shiitakes

Three takes — and a plethora of tips — on these lucrative but labour-intensive mushrooms

By JULIE STAUFFER | PHOTOS AHREN HUGHES

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It’s only 9:30 on a Saturday morning at the local farmer’s market, but Ahren Hughes has already sold out of his fresh shiitake mushrooms.
“People gobble them up like mad,” says the organic farmer, who grows them on half an acre of wooded property he rents just north of Guelph, Ontario.
Specialty mushrooms like the firm, flavour-packed shiitake (pronounced SHEE-tah-kay) are increasingly popular—a gourmet indulgence the average consumer can afford. In the U.S., commercial sales this year totalled $48 million, up six per cent from 2007/08.
Shiitakes are what Hughes calls an “entry level” mushroom that’s far more predictable than the oyster mushrooms, maitake, and garden giants he also grows.
Producing them outdoors requires very little: a shady location, a supply of hardwood logs, a water source, and spawn to inoculate the logs in the spring. Over the course of the year, the fungus will run through the logs, colonise them, and produce mushrooms.
Hughes currently has 600 logs with an annual yield of roughly 600 pounds. He sells his harvest at the farmer’s market for $12/lb and to a handful of community shared agriculture (CSA) schemes and stores at a wholesale rate of $9/lb.
By upping his production to 1,000 logs next year, he forecasts an income of $10,000. “I think it’s totally viable,” he says.
On Ontario’s Georgian Bay, Jack Hay is equally upbeat. The retired immunology professor began growing shiitakes on his wooded 150-acre property in 2005. Now, even with 1,000 logs, he has a hard time keeping up with demand from local restaurants and resorts.
“Several restaurants in Toronto have asked me for product, and I never have enough to take down there,” he says.
That’s why he convinced other people in the area to begin producing under his “Moon Bay Shiitake” label and is currently looking for prospective growers in Sudbury and North Bay.
It’s a good fit for many farmers, he says, because much of the labour takes place in the off-season: the logs are cut in winter, while inoculation occurs in early spring, before the soil is ready to be worked.
It’s also a fairly foolproof crop, he notes. Hay started with 125 logs and harvested mushrooms from 124 of them. “It’s kind of embarrassing to say how simple it is,” he laughs.
Shiitakes aren’t for everyone, however. Stephan Hederich and his partner had an 800-log operation for several years on their mixed farm near Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. Growing them wasn’t the issue, nor was commanding $14/lb.
“We talked to chefs who claimed they had never seen better shiitakes than ours,” he says. “We had a beautiful product.”
But with livestock, a market garden, and a bed and breakfast business all requiring attention, he decided the labour involved simply wasn’t worth it.
Cutting the logs clashed with their busy maple syrup season. Inoculation was no small task, with 40 holes that had to be drilled, stuffed with spawn, and sealed on each log. And throughout the season, monitoring the logs, soaking them regularly, and harvesting the resulting mushrooms took up a significant chunk of time.
“It’s a beautiful thing to do,” says Hederich, “but we had to step back.”
He suggests that would-be growers ask themselves some hard questions before jumping in. Do you have markets nearby? Will you be able to consistently meet their needs? Can you supply your own wood to keep costs down? Is the climate suitable?

Words of advice – A shiitake advisory

If shiitakes make sense for your operation, keep the following tips in mind:
Do your research
Books, spawn suppliers, and other producers are all good sources of information.
Start small
As with any new crop, it takes time to learn what works and what doesn’t. Start with 50 or 100 logs. Then, once you’ve got some experience under your belt, think bigger. “One old guy like me can easily handle a thousand logs,” says Hay.
Get good wood
Make sure to use hardwood logs. The wood should be cut from healthy trees in winter, when carbohydrate levels are highest and the bark adheres well to the logs.
Oak is an excellent choice (shiitake literally means “oak mushroom”), but other options include sugar maple, ironwood, hornbeam, and beech. Hederich successfully grew his on birch, but the logs expire after just three to four years, compared to at least five years for oak.
Select the right spawn
When it comes to spawn, choose a strain that’s suitable for your area. Some are better suited to cold weather, for example, while others thrive in warmer, drier conditions.
Go easy on yourself
You’ll need to move the logs from time to time, especially if you choose to soak them (see “Add some shock value,” below), so make sure they’re a manageable weight. “You get a log that’s five feet long and eight inches in diameter, and the thing’s like 60 or 70 pounds,” says Hughes. He quickly learned to specify a maximum of four feet long and six inches diameter. “It really makes a difference when you’re dealing with hundreds of logs,” he notes.
Work smart
Time spent tending your shiitakes is time not spent on other aspects of your farm, so create a system that is as efficient as possible. If you’re not careful, there’s a real danger that shiitakes can create more labour than money, Hederich cautions.

Add some shock value – Soaking logs adds to productivity

Although logs will naturally produce two crops of mushrooms a year, one in spring and one in fall, you can “shock” the fungus into fruiting more frequently. The most common way to do this is through soaking.
While hefting logs in and out of water troughs may seem like a daunting task, Hughes discovered it was well worth the effort. After several years of relying on natural yields, he set up a rainwater collection system that feeds a cattle trough where he now soaks each log for 24 hours. As a result, they explode with mushrooms.
“It’s totally impressive,” he says. “Soaking is the key.”
By setting up a staggered soaking schedule, you can create steady yields throughout the summer. Just be sure to let the logs rest for six weeks after each harvest.
Using cold water will increase production even more. Hay draws water from Georgian Bay, where the water is relatively warm in the summer. Adding a block of ice to the trough boosted his yield by 50 per cent.
He also likes to physically knock the logs as he tosses them into the soaking barrels — another way to shock the fungus and stimulate more production.
Manage moisture levels
The moisture content of your logs is key. If conditions are too wet, you run the risk of mould, while a long dry period could kill your fungus. Weighing a sample log regularly will help you judge whether to sprinkle your logs, shelter them from the rain, or simply let them be.
Don’t share the wealth
Slugs and snails can eat into your harvest — and your profits. Sprinkling lime or wood ash around your logs will discourage them, and if the forecast calls for long periods of rain, consider putting up tarps to keep the soil surface dry.