Wisconsin Landowners’ Nixed Opportunity Spurs Shiitake Mushroom Biz
Glenn Rosenholm, U.S. Forest Service, Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry
About 25 years ago, the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a planned rural community in Wisconsin excited Ingrid West and her husband, Rae. Friends of theirs planned to start the development project about 100 miles northwest of Madison.
Eager to start their new lifestyle, the Wests purchased 50 acres of mostly wooded land from their friends in Vernon County. Unfortunately, the community development project later fell through.
When asked if they lived on their land today, Ingrid replied, “We do not. Unfortunately the community plan didn’t work out.”
She added that family issues also kept them tied down away from their forest land. Today, she and Rae live about half way between their land and Chicago, each roughly 100 miles away from their home. “We have family in the Chicago area, and we’re originally from the Chicago area. I got a job in Madison. I moved to Stoughton, Wisconsin, in 2006 and started working for the University of Wisconsin Extension Office,” she said.
“I worked for the University of Wisconsin Extension in their Conservation Professional Training Program, training State and Federal employees. We did soil conservation and other training programs like forestry and related conservation issues.”
The Wests’ landholdings currently include the 50 acres in the Driftless Area in Vernon County, along with another 1.3 acres that they live on south of Stoughton near Madison, WI.
Of the Vernon County land, she said, “We’re at the headwaters of the Pine River. The area just north of us is called the St. Johns Ridge where three watersheds come together. It’s an area that’s heavily Amish. We have Amish neighbors on two sides and a traditional farmer and a hunting consortium on the other two. The hunting consortium has about 600-700 acres.”
In terms of neighbor helping neighbor, she said, “We let our Amish neighbors use our maple trees for maple syrup and our pastures for grazing.”
The 50 acres in Vernon County include 15 acres in pasture and another 35 acres in a managed forest program. The forests on the Wests’ land are made up mostly of red and sugar maples, basswood, hickory, and oak, as well as a white pine plantation that they planted.
The Wests support the notion of working forests, and they have been actively managing their forest for decades to improve their land and to make better use of it.
“In Wisconsin we’ve been doing the Managed Forest Law (MFL) program. It includes a management plan and stewardship element that’s similar to the Forest Stewardship Program. Under the Managed Forest Law program, we are required to do logging twice, once at 10 years and once at 25 years when the agreement expires. When we signed onto the program we were allowed to determine our goals. We have these three:
Diversifying our stands (timber stand improvement),
Creating more biodiversity and food sources for wildlife, and
Protecting and improving water quality.”
Improving the Land
They undertook a variety of projects over the years that served to improve their land. By participating in the MFL program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), they also reduced the costs they incurred to implement their goals.
Ingrid described their projects. “We did a release cutting. Because the red maple created so much shade, we wanted the sunlight to get down to the forest floor so that we would get more oak regeneration.” The areas of dense red maple are where they did the timber stand improvement.
“We also built an access road for our timber harvest. We’re always working on the invasive plants issue. We’re getting barberry, multiflora rose, and some autumn olive, all invasive plants. There are also those native plants like prickly ash and poison ivy that you want to control,” she added.
She works with foresters from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to gain advice for making improvements to their land.
“I work primarily with the DNR foresters, but I also sit on the forestry technical advisory committee with the Natural Resources Conservation Service [NRCS], and they represent all kinds of different groups, including the U.S. Forest Service. The committee’s goal is to try to direct and determine management strategies for EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Under the program, landowners can sign up for different cost-share programs to help manage their forests.”
“We got money when we first started logging,” she added. “The NRCS EQIP money was used for building our logging road and a stream crossing (fjord), so we could drive over the stream on gravel. Especially for smaller landowners, it’s helpful when implementing management strategies where there are costs involved.”
Since it is a cost-share program, about 50 percent of the costs of doing the work is saved, but that varies for each EQIP practice. Sometimes almost all of the costs are covered. There are many different programs available to help manage your forests.
“Right now we’re looking at signing up for another State [or] Federal program to manage invasive species,” she said. “When you open up your canopy, invasive plants can come in, and the program helps to mitigate those impacts,” she said.
The Wests also join groups. “Being a lifelong learner, it is great to take advantage of all the programs available. We take part in workshops and meetings to learn more about ways to improve our land. We are members of the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association. My husband and I also took a 3-day class to help manage your woodlands for wildlife. I took part in a weeklong agroforestry class sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Extension and the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri,” she said. “I learned about shiitake mushrooms through the agroforestry course. We also learned about windbreaks, berries, mushrooms, things you can grow in the forest during the course.”
“With trees and forests you’re in it for the long haul,” she added. “However, when you don’t live there, it makes it more difficult to accomplish those goals. Since doing the release cutting we’re seeing more sugar maples come in. About 20 years ago my husband, daughter, and I planted over 9,000 trees and shrubs. We planted mostly a white pine plantation, but we also planted red pine, white oak, basswood, and shrubs like hazel nut.”
Unfortunately, when the Wests returned to their land months later, they found the deer had browsed some of their planted trees, including the hazelnut, hemlock, and white cedar. “On those, we had almost zero survival rate due to the deer,” she said. “We are still adding new trees, but since we are getting older we are doing most of our planting now by broadcasting seed.”
Next, Ingrid went into business to try to make some money off their land using parts of their trees. She started the Misty Dawn Farm on their property in 2014 in response to the Wisconsin Managed Forest Law program that required that their woods in Vernon County be harvested.
“In 2014 we had to do our timber harvest as part of our Managed Forest Law program,” she said. “We had all the tops of our trees left over, and we wanted to see if there was something we could do with that wood.”
“That’s when we got involved with the Shiitake Growers Association.”
Shiitake is a tasty variety of mushroom that is native to Japan. “People in Japan have been growing shiitake mushrooms commercially for thousands of years,” Ingrid added. “Shiitake log-grown mushrooms are more robust in flavor compared to sawdust-grown shiitake mushrooms. They are even more robust than portabella and button mushrooms, two varieties that are in the same family and grow on composted manure.”
About 30 years ago, some enterprising American mushroom growers started to grow and sell the same Japanese-grown shiitake mushrooms here in the United States. It turned out they could successfully do this, and some of them later started the Shiitake Growers Association, a.k.a. ShiiGA, as a means for growers to encourage the industry.
Although oak is the preferred wood used for growing shiitake mushrooms, “Most of our timber harvest was red maple, a kind of tree that’s not usually used for shiitake growing,” Ingrid said. “We decided to do a study through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program about whether shiitake mushrooms could grow on red maple. The results were positive, and we had a very good outcome the first time growing mushrooms.”
The Wests had plenty of logs available on their property, and so they decided to jump into the shiitake mushroom-growing business. As of today, growing shiitake mushrooms is the focus of their business, she said.
“The first couple years we used red maple, which is a little softer and the mushrooms will fruit more quickly, but the bark doesn’t last as long. With red maple you can get mushrooms in 6 months, but the logs only last for 3 years. With oak logs it takes over a year to get mushrooms, and the logs last 5-10 years. So inoculating both types of wood was a good business model. We got early production on the red maple, allowing us to start selling mushrooms sooner, and we get long-term production on our oaks.”
Ingrid detailed the process for growing shiitake mushrooms. “We cut a 4- to 8-inch diameter log to a 36- to 40-inch length. You drill holes in the logs in a diamond pattern to get good spawn runs, fill them with shiitake spawn plugs, and cover them with wax. After a year the mycelium shows up white on the ends and the mushrooms are ready to bloom. Because we commercially grow them, we actually force fruit our logs to accelerate mushroom growth. To force fruit we put the logs in cold water for 24 hours and then take them out. Within a few days we see pinning, and with a few more days we have mushrooms.”
Ingrid said her family loves to grow and eat the mushrooms. “We get to use the waste wood product from our timber harvest and we get food from our trees. The thing about log-grown mushrooms, the texture and flavor is different. My husband says our mushrooms are beautiful. We are eating lower on the food chain, and they’re highly nutritious.”
Despite the time and effort they’ve put into their family business so far, they remain a smaller supplier in the local mushroom market, she said. “We’re considered a hobby farm. We have about 500 logs and we break even cost wise. They say to make money doing this you need a minimum of 1,000 logs to cover the costs of the spawn and logs, as well as the time and money put into the business. We are farmers, and our produce are logs and mushrooms.”
“There’s a growing market for shiitake mushrooms,” Ingrid added. “The Shiitake Growers Association in the Midwest has been around for 30 years. But 30 years ago people didn’t eat many mushrooms. Today, however, there are so many more mushroom varieties available, but we’ve only scratched the surface. Shiitake, oyster, maitake, and reishi (medicinal) mushrooms and many other varieties are becoming popular. We’re getting requests from farmers markets. People want them on the menu for restaurants, to cook at home, and to use as medicinals. The healthy eating push has also generated demand for mushrooms.”
Cornell University has a big mushroom division, and they put out a lovely publication about shiitake mushrooms, she said.
The fun and potential profit of growing mushrooms are just two of many reasons why the Wests enjoy owning their patch of the Earth. “We love our land. For us it’s a place where we can feel spiritually connected. It’s our safety valve. My husband used to work in IT, which can be high pressure,” she said.
“Owning the land helps to ground you,” she said. “I’m 58 and my husband, Rae, is 60,” she added. “It gives us purpose if we do something to improve our plot of land. We feel like we’re making a difference.”
Read more information about growing mushrooms in an article in My Wisconsin Woods.
All photographs courtesy of Ingrid West.