Thursday, September 29, 2011

Falling for an Autumn Log Inoculation 
at Field and Forest Products
Written by Joe

A change in leaves means it's almost time for fall inoculation here at FFP.

Autumn has definitely arrived here in the Northwoods. Our first killing frost was the week of September 12th. The geese are starting their journey south, and the bracken fern on the forest floor has browned and is beginning to topple over. This all adds up to dreams of late season brook trout fishing in the morning, coupled with a ruffed grouse hunt in the afternoon, but alas reality dictates otherwise.

I guess we have no one else to blame other than ourselves for our new found log inoculation schedule. In February of 2010 Mary Ellen and I took a tour of log grown shiitake operations in Japan and noted that the large operations (100,000 plus logs) did all of their inoculations in the fall of the year, and either held the logs inside for incubation or outdoors in plastic wrapped piles. Unlike growers in our southern states who preferentially inoculate in the fall and through the winter, we tend to lay low in the late fall and toss back cheese curds to bulk up for the onslaught of winter weather. However, last November when the kids were home for Thanksgiving break they begrudgingly agreed to help with a fall inoculation trial. We had several large oaks and oak branches become available as a result of stormy weather in September, and having the firewood larder filled, we thought it would be a good test to fall inoculate this wood and incubate it inside over the winter. In one day we knocked off about 60 logs using thimble spawn. The logs were crib stacked, covered with cardboard and then sealed in black plastic. The logs were held in our fruiting room where the temperature is generally 65-68°F with a relative humidity of 90-95%. The logs were placed outside in late May when winter finally ended (or so it seemed!)

This wide range strain, WR46, was inoculated Thanksgiving 2010.

The results this past growing season were favorable. We had volunteer fruiting at seven months of age, and logs were forced fruited at nine months with good results. It dawned on us, as we were finishing our 2011 inoculation in late June(!) that due to the nature of our business, it would make much better sense to fall inoculate logs when time and staff were readily available.

This past spring we met a local landowner who is in the process of thinning a hard Maple stand and expressed an interest in selling us shiitake logs as most of the wood being cut is between 3-6 inches in diameter. After a moment’s thought, of course we said “Yes, and please cut 500 of them for us.” It dawned on us later that perhaps there isn’t enough room inside for incubating 500 logs in our limited area, but with the help of a tape measure and some assumptions on log diameters it was calculated that we have enough room for just under 1200 logs in our allotted space. We assumed approximately 18 logs per lineal foot at breast height.

The logs are being cut in the next week or two and we will start inoculating by late October. We are hoping for an extended autumn with mild temperatures and rain falling other than during work hours, as we plan to inoculate outdoors as much as possible. The bet is on, that the weather will not cooperate, and there will be a million and one other things to do. We will probably end up inoculating indoors, but that is alright too.

This Japanese grower is showing us the spawn run on the ends of his indoor incubating logs.

We will be using thimble or waxless spawn for the inoculum because if we do have to move the inoculation process inside, we will not have to deal with wax smoke filling the workspace. We also like waxless spawn for this application because other than eliminating the waxing step, spawn rebound is excellent when logs are held in a warm humid environment. Wide range strains will be used for the most part as we would like to get some production from these logs for late summer farm markets next year. We will also be using WW44, a warm weather/greenhouse strain, as it has been shown to do well in Sugar Maple.

The inoculation flow will be set up in such a way that the logs will move from the stacked piles outdoors to the inoculation bench and then into a dead pile (logs simply stacked horizontally atop one another, ends all in the same direction), all placed on top of palettes set in long rows. The exception to this is the pallets at the row's ends where the logs are stacked in a crib (log cabin style) to shore up the rows. Once all logs are inoculated the dead pile will be covered with cardboard on the top of the pile to act as a sponge to collect moisture, and then the whole shebang will be covered with black plastic. The plastic will be stapled to the palettes and then the waiting begins. We did not water the logs last year during incubation and probably will not do so this year.

It is always hard to ignore logs in piles, particularly when they are in your way. So from time to time we will take a peek inside the plastic to see what’s happening. Visible spawn run on the ends of the logs is always a good indication that things are progressing.

For growers in the upper Midwest and northeastern U.S., fall inoculations are less encouraged because the window of time (cutting at first blush of leaf color and achieving inoculation at least 3 weeks prior to daytime highs settling into the low 40’s) is almost impossible to achieve. However, a variation on this fall inoculation theme could help make a fall inoculation with OUTDOOR incubation more feasible. Once the logs are inoculated, they are dead piled and covered as above, but outside where they will receive daytime solar heating. This will provide some additional growing time for the spawn to get established in the log. The plastic/cardboard will have to be removed and the piles broken apart and placed in their permanent outdoor yard in the spring of the year when daytime temperatures start to reach the 70°F mark.

These logs are incubating through the year with a winter inoculation in Japan. Notice the crib stacked logs on the end to stabilize the piles and the covering of cardboard, then plastic, then rice mats to provide shade during the summer months. Take note that the temperatures in Japan's main shiitake growing region rarely get above 80°F and cloud cover is generally the norm.

Meanwhile, maybe mushroom growing Packer fans can rest easy and don their cheese hats come January, knowing that most of the work is done for spring. Me, maybe I’ll get out opening day of trout season for the first time in a decade (or more) instead of schlepping in logs!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sawdust to 'Shrooms
Written by Jasen

Shiitake block production starts with the hauling of about 800 lb. of slightly aged (about 6 months) oak sawdust into our building from large covered piles outside. The sawdust is then hand shoveled onto a shaker table to sift out all foreign objects and large pieces of wood. I can honestly say I have lifted, by shovel, 50 tons of sawdust a year for 6 years and counting.

Our state-of-the-art shaker table.

These pieces of wood have been removed from the sawdust. They will later be used as mulch in the garden as a base for Wine Cap Stropharia and in various other places around the farm.

Once the substrate is sifted to the desired size it is loaded into garbage barrels and weighed to 300 lb., which is a full blender load. It is then lifted into a blending paddle autoclave to rehydrate and sterilize the sawdust. After one hour of cooking the sawdust is ready to be cooled, inoculated and bagged into 5 lb. blocks. Each blender load produces around 60 blocks. At two loads a day, that's about 31,000 blocks a year...all by hand. 

Once the blocks are inoculated, weighed and sealed they are rolled, on carts, into the incubating room where they will age for about four months. During the incubation period, the blocks go through a decomposition process. They go from brown sawdust to white as the  mycelium takes over, breaking down the wood. The mycelium ages and the blocks return to a dark brown color. At this stage any fluctuation in their environment stimulates them to fruit. Either a large temperature change or physical movement brings on this force, so climate control is very important.

Pictured here are the stages of sawdust into a fruiting block. Clockwise: starting with the loose sawdust, a one day old block in bag, one week old, 2 months old, 4 months old, and finally a fruiting block.

The blocks are then removed from their bags and placed on racks in the fruiting room, where the temperature is slightly cooler and the humidity is around 90%. In one week's time, the blocks form pins, and within 10 days the crop is usually picked. Once the blocks cease to fruit they go into large compost piles to break down further and, eventually, are reused in the garden.

These Shiitakes have waited over four months to grace us with their presence. They stand proud in front of the sawdust pile where it all began.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Lesson on Wine Cap Mushrooms
Brought to you by Team FFP

This is the time of year for wine cap (Stropharia rugosa-annulata) mushrooms to start popping out. Well suited for outdoor cultivation, these burgundy capped wonders grow on both hardwood substrates (chips or dust) and/or straw. They grow particularly well when grown between corn or asparagus rows, or even among shaded landscape plantings. Planting can be done this fall or early spring for a late summer fruiting. Interested? Check out wine cap on our website. Also, watch our video on wine cap identification below.

Friday, September 2, 2011

In the Market for Mushrooms
Written by Phoebe

For most people my age, Saturday means a blissful morning of sweet sleeping in. For me, however, it means the farmers' market. Preparing for, and participating in the Green Bay Farmers' Market is quite the process, and if you’re interested, you can read all about it in the next few paragraphs!

This is the basic look of our set up at the farmers' market in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The market is not just a Saturday morning event. In fact, the market more or less starts with the harvesting of the mushrooms up to a week before. To keep the mushrooms fresh, we pick them, place them in large plastic storage tubs, filling them only half full. We then immediately put them into a walk-in cooler until they are completely chilled, and then put the tub lid on until they are ready to be sold. This allows quick cooling and less condensation on the tub lid, keeping the mushrooms dry and fresh. The night before the market, we go through the process of grading mushrooms, separating out damaged, stained or wet mushrooms for our own use, then load the truck with the displays. We used to avoid selling the small “baby” shiitake (something all too common in the hot summer for log grown shiitake), but have found that many people prefer the smaller ones. A box of babies looks like A LOT of mushrooms, plus people like the “chef ready” benefit because if the baby mushrooms are tender enough, you can eat them stem and all; no chopping required!

The next morning the alarm will go off at 5:00 am, at the very latest (5:15 if you happen to be an older brother down for the weekend to help out). First on the agenda is, of course, starting the coffee maker. We then trudge out to the cooler to finish loading the truck up with the chilled mushrooms. A half an hour after I wake up, with coffee in hand, we set out to Green Bay. The market starts at seven, but we have to leave with enough time to get to the market and set up our booth, which usually takes 30-45 minutes.

This lively chap, Nik (son of Joe and Mary Ellen), is enjoying a lovely morning at the market.
After struggling to set up our slightly dilapidated tent that offers shade for both the mushrooms and ourselves, we set up our folding banquet table, table cloth and wooden display rack which my dad built to put all the mushrooms closer to eye level. Our “city certified” scale and orange crate holds the bags and cash box. Finally, we get around to weighing out the mushrooms. I enjoy simplicity in prices, so to make early morning life easier, we weigh out all of the tills to a quarter pound. We weigh them into plastic mushroom tills for display that can be emptied into brown paper sacks that have detailed mushroom handling and recipes printed on the outside (Field and Forest Products sells these great market bags). We sell the shiitake and oysters for three dollars a box, and the wild mushrooms, maitake, and lion’s mane for four dollars a box. I often try to bring out my creative side when placing mushrooms in the tills by putting three different colored oysters in one box. It makes the display very pleasing to the eye. We also sell a mixed “sampler” till that has a few of each kind of mushroom that we have available that day, so people can try new varieties.

Pictured here are three color variants of our oyster mushrooms: Grey Dove, Pink and Golden.
If the forecast is calling for fiendishly hot weather, we freeze ice cube sheets several days earlier. We constructed a box-shaped sleeve out of Cool Shield insulated bubble wrap, which can cover 4 tubs, and by layering the ice cube sheets between tubs and covering the whole works with Cool Shield, the mushrooms stay chilled for the whole morning.

As much as we are tempted to bring our other garden produce to the market, we stick to mushrooms. We try to bring as much of a variety of mushrooms that we can. Sometimes this is limited to only shiitake and oyster mushrooms. If the weather cooperates, we bring lion’s mane, maitake and king oyster, and if we get lucky while mushroom hunting, we will bring morels, chicken of the woods, or chanterelles.

We also try to have a few fun displays to make the market educational and bring in kids. The “Mushroom of the Week” display, especially during the wild mushrooming times of later summer and early fall, always brings people into the booth and we get to hear lots of mushroom stories. We also sell our ready-to-fruit shiitake mushroom kits; people like these because they are discounted and they don’t have to pay for shipping. We display a fruiting kit to attract attention; people just have fun looking at it whether they buy one or not! We’ve also noticed that a lot of Field and Forest Products’ spawn customers sell ready-to-fruit shiitake logs at their markets; they almost do better in total selling with those than the mushrooms themselves.

With the bizarre varieties of oyster mushrooms, ranging from gray to pink, we often draw eyes, and get the question, “Are these real?” or “Are these poisonous?” Well, yes to the first question, and definitely a no to the second. As my dad always says, “We like repeat business!”