Friday, August 26, 2011

Intrusion of the Fowlest Kind
Written by Laura

Last week tragedy struck the FFP farm. With Joe, Mary Ellen, and the kids gone out West, the homestead was more quiet than usual. During the late hours of Sunday night and into Monday morning, five of our ducks and four chickens were killed. Natalie and I had arrived at the farm earlier than usual so that we could leave for the DGA Conference in Chicago. Little did we know that just across the yard our fine feathered friends had been laid to rest. It was Rachel who made the horrifying discovery. This is her account:

"Upon arriving on the farm Monday morning, I intended to feed the fowl as I usually do when the Krawczyk's are away. However, when I approached their enclosure, I was met with an eerie silence. Rarely are the chickens and ducks quiet, especially in the morning when they want their breakfast. I was surprised to find a huge pile of sand and a large hole at the base of the fence. Then came the real surprise! All of the birds were gone except for three carcasses left buried inside the pen. Dirt began to fly from the hole under the fence, so I peered into it and found myself looking eye to eye with a badger. Needless to say, I made myself scarce and went back to the main building."

The two females in the lead and the male in the back were three of the victims. The others were no longer residents of the farm during the attack.

Peach and Ruth, two chickens that were lost.

Aside from Rachel's first hand sighting of the badger, they were also caught on the deer camera, which Jasen had put out Monday night. He anticipated a return since some of the kill had been left behind. Tuesday morning, when going to gather the camera, Jasen made visual contact. There was not one, but two badgers! One was much larger than the other, and they were coming out of the weeds near the bird enclosure. Jasen startled them and they fled back to where they had come. 

Had these badgers not been seen by Rachel, Jasen, or the camera, how would we have known we were dealing with badgers? Unlike fox and raccoon attacks, which the farm has dealt with before, this attack was clean. There was no blood and very few feathers strewn about the pen. The birds appeared to have no physical damage to their bodies whatsoever, not even broken necks. What we still don't know is if the birds were killed before being buried, or if they were buried alive. Perhaps the badger's strength alone was enough to smoother them during the attack. The birds were packed tightly in holes head first with only their legs and feet sticking out. This may seem strange and bizarre, but it is truly a learning lesson about an animal that most of us know little or nothing about.

The smaller badger, right above a hole along the fence, at night.

This big badger is no doubt looking for the food it stored the night before.

The destruction was devastating to all of us, but one female duck and one hen were lucky enough to escape. This leaves us with hope. We broke the news to Joe and Mary Ellen the day before they arrived home from vacation. They asked if I could take the duck home with me so that she could be with her own kind and recuperate from the ordeal (earlier this year I had taken two of the farm's male ducks). My general love for animals and my fear for the duck's safety made this a no brainer decision for me. She fit right in with my clan, and immediately began telling her story to the other ducks. The "chit-chat" she displayed to them brought a smile to my face. Who really knows what she was telling them, but it was obvious she was happy. The surviving hen went to Rachel's house to live with her own kind too. She was accepted with no incidents, and is equally content with her new life.  

Our sole surviving red hen.

The surviving female duck (furthest to the left) stands with her new friends.

With all of this said and done we are left to think about what happens next. As with anyone who has lost poultry to wild animals we have decisions to make. Do we get more birds? If so, how do we prevent this from happening again? An invasion from badgers was completely unexpected and unheard of by any of us. Although the fence here was fox proof, it certainly was not badger proof. 

Two layers of fence buried a few inches underground and out nearly a foot was not enough to stop the badgers from digging this hole. What is not visible in the photos we took are the amount of holes that were dug. There were not only holes all around the pen, but also holes inside the pen.
By doing a small amount of research, and from some personal experience, I have compiled a list of precautions to take when securing small animals, more specifically poultry, outside.  
  • Be aware of the surroundings. In the weeks prior to our catastrophe, Joe had noticed large holes scattered around the property: clear evidence of new wildlife in the area.
  • Roosts for chickens should be up high. Be sure the chickens have to flap their wings to get up to them. Predators will have a difficult time getting up this high.
  • Put a chicken wire top on any pens to keep skyward predators and climbing varmints from getting into the enclosure.
  • At night, put animals into some type of secure coop or structure with a floor.
  • Pick eggs daily. Leaving eggs in the coop will encourage critters to get inside.
  • Don't skimp when buying fencing. Badgers are incredibly powerful animals, and can get through most fences with no problem. Bury heavy duty fencing at least one foot below the ground, and out another foot at a 90 degree angle, creating an "L" shape.
  • Install an electric fence or net. For larger predators, like badgers, this may be the only option. Be sure the fence is suitable for the animals living within. Talk to someone at your local hardware store or feed mill about which fence is right for you and your animals.
  • My personal suggestion... have a family dog. Its barking and mere presence may just be enough to deter other animals from lurking around. Since getting my dog over a year ago, raccoon traffic in my yard has been greatly minimized. Please be aware that dogs, just like chickens and other livestock, come with a whole separate set of responsibilities.
I hope this information is helpful, and I wish everyone with outside animals luck in all of your efforts. When so much time and love goes into raising and caring for our animal friends, losing them can be hard. Feel free to share your personal stories and/or offer any additional advice on pen construction.

Please, keep in mind that the badger is a protected animal. If you have a persistent problem with a badger or any other animal, even after all precautions have been taken, contact your local DNR to discuss your options. 

For more information on badgers visit or The American Badger belongs to one of three sub-families of badgers, the other two being the Eurasian Badger and the Honey Badger. For a great blog that follows the Eurasian Badger visit . I found this site informational and helpful.

"Thanks for this day, for all the birds safe in their nests, for whatever this is, for life."
- Barbara Kingsolver

Friday, August 19, 2011

Growing Excitement

This week Natalie and I attended the DGA (Direct Gardening Association) summer conference in Chicago. Arriving at our hotel was nothing short of amusing, especially to the locals. Not only did we try to go through the revolving doors in the wrong direction, but we also managed to become briefly stuck in the elevator (having to use the room key card to get the elevator to go up was new to both of us). Although slightly out of our element, we definitely had a great experience (and more than a few laughs). The objective of the conference was to give business owners (and their employees in some cases, like ours) new ideas and information to enable them to manage smarter while also learning ways to engage new customers. It was also a great opportunity to network with other businesses. We will be sharing what we learned with Joe and Mary Ellen when they return, and hopefully begin putting a few of those great ideas to work for FFP soon! 

Even in Chicago they tell you to GO to Peshtigo.

Managing a business and having to make decisions while the bosses are away is a huge responsibility, just ask Natalie! She has been managing the office for the past two weeks... that adds up to a lot of phone calls, a lot of order processing, a lot of work, period! For me, and no doubt the rest of us here at FFP, there is a sense of admiration. Admiration for Joe and Mary Ellen, who have kept this business going strong for 28 years. It's not always easy, but it is definitely rewarding. Especially on a day like today. A customer called with absolutely wonderful things to say about our mushroom spawn. He was sincerely impressed with the amount of oyster mushrooms that are currently fruiting at his home in Minnesota. As a first time grower of oysters, there was real excitement in his voice. Yes, mushrooms can be exciting! As with flowers, vegetable gardens, Chia Pets, and even businesses... watching something grow bigger and stronger and knowing you had at least a small part in it brings about a rewarding sense of accomplishment.


These Almond Agaricus mushrooms, Agaricus subrufescens, just popped up
under one of the farm's pepper plants. Talk about excitment...I had never seen one before!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Fruits (or fungi) of Labor

In the summer season of Northern Wisconsin, growing shiitake takes a lot of extra work. The unusually hot weather we’ve been experiencing as of late doesn’t help matters. Not only must we keep tabs on temperature and humidity, the swamp cooler runs most of the day and the mister runs all night. Due to the humidity level in the fruiting room, mosquitoes run rampant and picking turns into a battle of epic proportions. The mosquito is the Wisconsin state bird, after all.

Those of you unfamiliar with the mushrooming process may be wondering what goes on in the fruiting room here at FFP. Not only do mushrooms grow, but it is also a prime area for used coffee cup storage. We just can’t seem to keep track of our multiple refills!

The coffee mug, Needus refillus, an elusive species here at FFP.

The basic fruiting process begins by opening appropriately aged ready-to-fruit shiitake blocks (typically, an older block = higher yield). Seven to ten days later, the first flush can be harvested and the blocks are significantly lighter; they are then loaded into a livestock tank along with a little bleach and soaked in cold water for 6-8 hours. This cold water “shocks” the blocks and stimulates a second fruiting, which is ready in about 5-7 days.

These shiitake blocks have just been drained after a good soak.

Whew! After all that, the mushrooms are graded (1’s and 2’s, not A’s and B’s) and sold to our bulk consumers. We even get to take home the leftovers... given that there are some... and, in my case, experiment. Seeing as chanterelle season is upon us, the newest recipe uses these tasty wild-growing mushrooms. Never having tried chanterelles previously, I had no idea what I would do with these beautiful fungi. After one failed attempt, I stumbled upon a recipe for Mushroom Bread Pudding and altered it to incorporate the chanterelles and shiitakes sitting in my refrigerator. If you’re in the cooking mood and feeling adventurous, take a look! (It's under the Recipes tab.)

The chanterelle, although not grown at FFP, is delicious on its own or in combination with the shiitake. Try it in Rachel's Mushroom Bread Pudding. 

On another note, Mary Ellen, Joe, Nik, and Phoebe will be traversing beautiful mountains for the next 2 weeks, leaving Laura, Jasen, Natalie, and I to our own devices (what happens at FFP stays at FFP). It’s only Tuesday, and this is already our second food day (Laura was right! 75% of our posts will be about food. On today’s menu... fresh Kringles). In all seriousness, work goes on as usual. There are orders to pack, mushrooms to pick, and gardens to water. So, given that, I leave you today hopefully with a better understanding of the fruiting process, the work it incorporates, and a hunger for all things fungi. Stay cool, and keep mushrooming!


Joe, Mary Ellen, and the kids having a wonderful time on vacation.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Something Worth Celebrating

Today we are celebrating the launch of our highly anticipated blog. How exactly do you celebrate such an event at Field and Forest Products? With food of course! We find every possible reason to make food here at FFP. Food, without a doubt, will be the topic of 75% of our posts (this percentage was completely made up by me just now on a whim, there is absolutely no science or planning behind that number). Anyway...the menu for today's launch lunch: ultimate chili nachos with guacamole, salsa and sauteed vegetables followed by a yogurt fruit salad.

Rachel's exquisite blend of savory fresh vegetables.

Now these are some ultimate nachos!

Phoebe's phenomenal fruit salad, with berries straight from the FFP garden.
Food days here are usually a group effort. Each one of us is responsible for bringing certain ingredients, and once a meal is complete Joe eats it. Alright...I suppose I'm exaggerating a bit...he does share. This business, much like the meals we make, does require a group effort to function effectively. We all do our part here at FFP, and although the mushroom business may be unfamiliar to some, I assure you we are fairly normal people running a fairly normal business. However, I stumbled upon a quote that stated, “The only normal people are the ones you don't know very well.” So...perhaps after following this blog you will come to find out we are not so normal after all. I will leave the guess work up to you, the reader. Enjoy!

Taking the Heat: Up Close with 
Ozark Forest Mushrooms

July temperatures sizzled into the record books in many places in the Midwest. Those of us growing Shiitake mushrooms on logs outdoors and Oyster mushrooms indoors on straw through July have had to stay cool to make it happen. Over the July 4th weekend we had an inspirational visit to Ozark Forest Mushrooms in central Missouri (see more at, where heat and humidity are, ridiculously, a part of everyday summer life. We learned what we could from these veteran farmers who face temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s (F) every summer.

Owners Nicola MacPherson and Dan Hellmuth have created a unique and fascinating business over the 22 years they have been growing mushrooms. We were very privileged to get a personal tour. Okay, so it was a busman’s holiday (to the mushroom yard at 6 am), but that allowed us an inside view of how Nicola is able to manage picking 400 lb. of mushrooms on a typical July weekend. “You’ve got to be finished picking early, and the mushrooms must go directly into the cooler,” she says of the 80 cases of shiitake we had just picked. Ozark Forest puts the mushrooms directly into cardboard mushroom boxes and stacks them into the cooler to allow maximum air flow and cooling. “Around here, planning for heat is essential. You’ve got to have a back up in case your cooler goes out.” This means befriending someone in the produce business who also has a big cooler. “You’ve also got to work fast,” she says, as she demonstrated the two-handed picking technique where mushrooms nearly “fly” off the log. Nicola also said, It is essential to keep those outdoor fruiting mushrooms overhead misted every day. They are still producing mushrooms now in August with this unrelenting heat!

Nicola demonstrates the two-handed picking technique.

Nicola's son and summer laborer, Henry, has also mastered the two-hands technique.

Ozark Forest daughter, Charlotte, and Field and Forest Products daughter, 
Phoebe, are less inclined to speed picking.

Mary Ellen from Field and Forest and Nicky from Ozark Forest. Master Mushroom pickers.

Our story actually began many years ago in the early 1990’s when we first met Nicky and Dan while we were making a circuit through a group of the southern states visiting our spawn customers. We are from hill and lake country of the Great Lakes, so just finding the farm after navigating rocky back roads and low water bridges crossing unpredictable creeks was a gas! Meeting them in person was immediately fun and the similarities between us quickly formed a strong personal and professional connection. Nicky has always been interested in the natural world. When she met Dan she was a science teacher in Wales who spent weekends gardening and raising goats on her country estate back home. Dan is a “green architect” and co-owner of Bicknese and Helmuth LLC, a sustainable architecture firm. Dan's knowledge was a definite plus when designing their mushroom house and farm layout.

Log incubation shade house and winter fruiting greenhouse/oyster mushroom fruiting room.

2010/11 inoculations incubating in shade house. Water is a big part of keeping things cool and moist in the hot summer. This shade house has an automatic watering system over head.

The Oyster mushroom grow room is a structure installed within the greenhouse, and is kept as cool as possible with water and heavy fabric walls that are kept damp. Mushrooms are grown on pasteurized straw in polyethylene bags. Golden Oyster is a popular strain that can tolerate the heat. They have since moved their Oyster mushroom room into a structure built partially into a limestone rock face to keep temperatures cooler, which is helping.

Nicky hosing down oyster room.

Field and Forest Products kids picking golden oysters.

For Nicky, who is interested in food for its social, artistic and nutritive qualities, the mushroom business was the perfect start up for this inventive and creative pair interested in building a business on Dan’s forested property in the Ozarks. The result, forever evolving, is a fascinating mix of mushroom cultivation, value added product development, marketing and innovation. In effort to bring her European home to the Ozarks, they are also installing a truffle orchard in cooperation with truffle reseacher Dr. Johann Bruhn at the University of Missouri. (You can find out more about Dr. Bruhn at

Nicola manages day to day operations and also has a unique ability, perhaps because of her intuition for food trends and artistic way for presenting fresh produce, to sell her harvest and other cultivated and wild mushrooms to area chefs and farm markets in the St. Louis area. Ozark Forest also vends at area shows such as “Best of Missouri” and has a food booth during the Japanese Festival at the St. Louis Botanical Gardens, serving up hundreds of plates of Shiitake teriyaki.

You, too, can visit Ozark Forest Mushrooms by booking an “Ecological Holiday” through A tour of the farm comes with the rental of their Beaver Lake Guest House. They are close to major canoeing areas famous to the Ozarks (very family friendly), and the lodging is right on their farm within walking distance (by walking the creek, of course) to their shiitake yard. If lodging is not desired a tour of the outdoor, organically certified Shiitake Mushroom Farm is available for groups of 12-30 people in season with advance notice. Mushroom cultivation workshops are also available for groups during the spring and fall inoculation season. For availability, pricing & reservations on any of the above, please call 314-531-9935 or email nicola@ozarkforest.comWhile we were there, we met a young couple on holiday who helped pick for awhile. You can bet they took back some mushrooms to cook at the house on Beaver Lake!

- Joe and Mary Ellen

Visitors to the Beaver Lake Guest House, just a creeks walk down from the farm, enjoy picking fresh shiitake mushrooms.