Wednesday, August 3, 2011

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.

1 comment:

  1. so much fun.