In a wooded valley just outside of Wooster, Ohio, alien-looking growths of yellow, pink, and blue sprout from hanging plastic columns. It may seem like an unusual organic farm, but to Thomas and Wendy Wiandt of Killbuck Valley Mushrooms, the fungi kingdom is the future.
“Mushrooms should be a critical part of agriculture—they’re the recyclers,” says Thomas. “We’re growing all kinds of fibers and we’re throwing them out and dumping them in landfills. I can grow oyster mushrooms on shredded soy-ink newspaper.”
The Wiandts produce a variety of mushrooms in just a few small buildings nestled among an old-growth forest. They have made this pursuit economically viable enough to leave their former careers, and they contend that in an ideal society, mushrooms—grown on entirely waste products—could provide an extremely efficient protein source.
Four years ago, the two were sitting unhappily behind desks—Thomas was an engineer, and Wendy was a medical technologist. Looking for another kind of life, the two saw potential in their mushroom-collecting hobby. “We were both professionals with desk jobs and wanted to get the heck away from that,” Thomas says. “I grew up on a farm and I always wanted to get back to a small farm type of living.”
“We did a lot of research and looked at several different possibilities,” he recalls. “Mushrooms are a good fit. Everything always breaks and I’m always fixing everything—so that suited me. And this is probably the most laboratory intensive kind of farming there is.” That suited Wendy, who had spent time working in a medical laboratory.
Though they still hunt and market wild mushrooms from their 46-acre, organically-certified woods, they now specialize in homegrown oyster, shiitake, and lion’s mane mushrooms. These go to farmers' markets, retail outlets, and restaurants.
A different kind of farming
The process of growing mushrooms begins with mycelia, which the Wiandts isolate from the wild or, more often, purchase in a test tube from a laboratory. As beer brewers do with yeast, the Wiandts drop bits of mycelia into a malt sugar solution. They leave them there for a couple weeks until the concoction looks like tapioca pudding.
Once the mycelia are mature, they put small samples of the liquid broth into bags of sterilized rye grain, seal the bags and transfer them to a room held at 75 degrees. After about two weeks, when the mycelia have spawned, the Wiandts distributed the rye through bags of packed straw or sawdust. After another two weeks, the mushrooms begin fruiting out of holes poked in the bags. The mushrooms fruit up to five times and Thomas and Wendy harvest them twice a day.
The most difficult thing about the process is keeping out contaminants, such as molds. If contaminants enter the bags, the mushrooms will not fruit and weeks of labor are wasted. Each transfer must be done in a sterile environment—by using laminar flow hoods and sterilizers, and an electronic filtration system for removing spores from the air. “A lot of the work is more difficult than the work Wendy used to do in the hospital laboratory,” Thomas says.
The Wiandts are experimenting with growing hen-of-the-woods and shiitake mushrooms outdoors on rotting logs, which seems to be as efficient as growing them indoors. The process is the same except that they inoculate dowel plugs with mycelium, instead of rye. They insert these into the logs and seal them with beeswax.
Pest control is the biggest factor separating Killbuck Valley mushrooms from those that are conventionally produced. Conventional mushroom producers use large amounts of pesticides because mushrooms attract many pests, including birds and insects. But the Wiandts are strongly against using chemicals. “Mushrooms are so absorbent—they’re sponges,” says Thomas. “How can you put pesticides on something like that? It's just not acceptable.”
Without chemicals, the Wiandts must control pests manually, and this is much more labor intensive. They use a rotation schedule in rooms, separating new bags from older ones, so that pests don’t spread. They also use screening and filtration to keep insects out of rooms and sticky strips to catch those that do get in. If a column gets too contaminated they throw it out prematurely instead of treating it with chemicals.
Sizing up the mushroom market
Unfortunately, because mushrooms are such an unusual product already, the Wiandts don’t receive a higher price for being organic. There are two outlets that buy from them because they don’t use chemicals, but they don’t pay any more. “There’s a lot of added expense in being organic,” Thomas says. “It’s just something that we happen to believe in.”
Nonetheless, the Wiandts are doing well economically. This is in part because they are the only small-time grower in the region. Since mushrooms don’t transport well, Killbuck Valley's products look much better than those from large commercial producers.
The Wiandts get their highest price at farmers' markets, which make up more than half of their sales in the summer. They receive $7.50 a pound for oyster mushrooms and $9.50 a pound for shiitake. To reduce waste, Wendy has begun pickling the mushrooms they don’t sell. They now have a licensed cannery and sell the pickled mushrooms at market.
The Wiandts feel that contributing to farmers' markets is important. “Organic or not, there are no commercial producers at the farmers markets,” Thomas says. “They’re all small farmers, good people, very ethical people. If you go there you’re making your society a better place—automatically.”
The markets also give the Wiandts a chance to promote and educate people about their product. “We can sell tons more products at the farmers' market, at a higher price, because we’re there educating people and talking to people and developing relationships,” Thomas explains. “And putting out samples so folks can try them." Offering samples is critical, the Wiandts say, because people are are naturally reluctant to pay for a premium product they may have never tasted before.
The Wiandts seek to dispel the myth that mushrooms don’t contribute to a healthy diet. Mushrooms are actually high in carbohydrates, contain up to 30 percent protein—including important amino acids—and are high in mineral content. There are also studies being conducted on the immuno-stimulus properties of mushrooms such as oyster and shiitake.
“Everybody thinks mushrooms have no nutritional value because the USDA doesn’t have them on their charts,” Thomas says. “They need their own category,” Wendy suggests. “The fungus category.”
After having promoted their products at farmers' markets for years, the Wiandts have now had more success with retail stores and restaurants because customers are beginning to recognize their products. While they only receive about 70 percent of the market price from restaurants and retailers, the loss in profit is about the same as the extra expense they put into selling retail. Selling to these venues also increases their efficiency at market because they can sell more when they go only once every two weeks.
The Wiandts feel that producing year-round is a key to their successful restaurant trade, accounting for over 50 percent of their sales during the winter. Though they make no profit during these months, due to increased labor and decreased sales, they maintain customers.
“If we were just producing in the summer the customers would go elsewhere and we wouldn’t have the good relations with restaurants,” says Wendy. “That’s a huge issue with the chefs. They want somebody they can rely on. If they have an item on the menu, they want to make sure that they can leave it on the menu.”
“Chefs aren’t looking for a bargain,” Thomas agrees. “Chefs are looking for good reliable products, and good, long-term relationships. They’re willing to pay a little extra if they know it's going to be good stuff all the time and they don’t need to worry about it.”
Tending a business, and attending to community
The Wiandts pay close attention to the economic side of their business so that they won’t have to return to their old desk jobs. They also stay active in the agricultural community. They have recently hosted wild mushroom hikes for chefs and public events for the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
Thomas is also a member of the Ohio Farm Bureau – a lonely place for someone with his values. “It's extremely unusual for an organic farmer, because the Farm Bureau has an anti-organic agenda,” he says. “But I figure you can’t have any say if you’re not there. The more organic farmers abandon it, the worse it’s going to get. So I try to stay active and put my two bits in.”
The Wiandts believe that mushrooms have an important role to play in the future of our society, noting that several Asian countries make widespread use of mushrooms because they don’t have the space to produce more conventional commodities like beef.
“What we’re working on is a fundamental shift in the way we use food and the way we think about agriculture,” says Thomas. “We try to change the world in our own little way.”
Jason Witmer is a freelance writer and photographer in Pittsburgh, Pa., with his eye on the future of agriculture.