Why Mushrooms?

I've been reflecting a bit lately on my reasons for becoming interested in mushrooms as they relate to small woodlot management and I've realized that I can't recall if the forest brought me to mushrooms or if the mushrooms have brought me to the forest.

I'm sitting in a motel near Potsdam, New York on a cool August morning. Today I will complete my visit to the Cooperative Extension office in St Lawrence county and then have some time to visit the local St Lawrence nursery and then trek through the Northern part of the Adirondack park en route to my next destination. Being up here brings backs a flooding of memories because it was this time of year that my father and I would pack up our crude department store camping gear and head into the mountains for a weekend of father/son fun. It was during these years that my senses, my very self, witnessed the calm and beauty of a forested landscape. I was hooked.

I've since continued the tradition of visiting the Adirondacks annually as much as I can, but also taking the time to walk and learn the woods of the Finger Lakes. There is something that shifts for me each time I enter a forest, no matter where I am. It doesn't seem to matter what my reason for being in the woods; whether I am carrying a backpack or a chainsaw; the feeling still resonates.

On to the mushrooms...these organisms have entered my life only relatively recently, first as a curiosity when looking for permaculture programming; we had Steve Sierigk, of Acorn Designs, come to our site and demonstrate his technique of inoculating oak and maple logs with shiitake mushrooms. I managed the remnant logs from the class and loved working in the woods, soaking, and harvesting fresh mushrooms. Something about it felt so basic, simple, normal - and yet the implications of this practice are quite profound.

Last year I decided to being building a small mushroom production enterprise; after five years of working with the logs on a hobby basis, it seemed like a good next step. An exciting discovery has been how well incentives for mushroom production can support good forest management.

When I started I was mainly looking for the "perfect" trees to fell for logs; those that were free of disease, straight, and giving the most 4" - 8" diameter logs per tree (depending on the tree you can get anywhere from 4 to 16 logs per tree). I quickly realized that these specs were also characteristic of good genetic specimens, and that while the literature recommended pristine specimens in the end I could make do with twisted logs, I could cut out portions that were diseased; essentially I could remove problem species from the woods and get production materials; a win-win situation.

When i began to crunch the numbers things really started to look enticing. Let's assume I select a 25 year old sugar maple for mushroom logs and it gives me 10 mushroom logs. Each log can be inoculated for $1 to $2 worth of materials and another $2 - $3 worth of labor (assuming $10/hr) over its lifetime. Assuming then the cost per log is $5 to establish, I can reasonably count on 8 flushes of mushrooms over the life of the log, which ranges from 3 to 5 years. Each flush generates 1/4 to 1/2 pounds of mushrooms; therefore 4 to 8 lbs/log, which equates to $48 to $96 per log - which means a single tree could produce several hundred dollars in revenue.

Confused? Let me break it down again....using the low numbers on the range.

10 logs x 2 lb mushrooms per log = 20 lbs (over several years) = $240 per tree of gross income
minus expenses ($5 per log X 10 logs = $50)
= $180 in net profits

$180 per tree is pretty significant, especially when we consider a young (20 - 25 y.o) tree that is also removed from the forest to improve health. Let's compare this to current logging practices.

A local forester I know recently pointed out to me a 100 year old White Pine, a beautiful tree that would be best left on the stump, spreading seed to support future generations. This log would typically be cut and sent to the mill, providing maybe 500 board feet at best, translating to maybe $250 at the mill, if the log has NO imperfections. While this sounds like some decent income by the time expenses are taken out for the forester, landowner, logger, equipment, hauling, milling, etc the profit at best might be $50 to $75.

This is a low profit margin for a high value tree - remember that the mushroom wood is only 25 years old vs. 100 for the timber tree, and that the removal of the mushroom log can greatly improve forest health while the removal of a maturing White Pine greatly diminishes the forest health into the future. Removal of these high value "seed trees" is a huge factor in why our forests are of low quality these days.

Ok, enough math. The point for me is that while for much of my life I can track a relationship to the forest, it remained mostly recreational and appreciative. While that is all well and good, it means two things for me; that first I cannot spend as much time in the forest as I'd like, since I need to work a wage job to meet my needs to then afford time off to enjoy the forest; and second, that forest health does not improve if all I do is walk through a random patch now and again; if I want to have healthy forests to enjoy down the line, I need to be actively participating in good forestry.

And, as much as I want to participate in good forestry, if I cannot do so on a significant scale if doing so cannot contribute to my need for stable income.

Mushroom cultivation is really just the beginning, and its a really good start on rebuilding a working relationship to the forest. Even if folks don't want to manage mushroom logs (which does, by the way, require a lot of lifting and moving of logs), they can harvest and sell "bolts", or logs for mushroom cultivation, at about $1 to $2 per log. While the profit margin per tree is much less than growing mushrooms, when you look at the per unit value of wood it is still a competitive price compared to what you would get for firewood or timber.

The catch? We need more folks growing mushrooms. And not just Shiitake. I am experimenting also with Oyster, Lions Mane, and others. The network is growing. I've been working with folks at Cornell and the University of Vermont on a grant received through Northeast SARE to promote the cultivation of mushrooms around the northeastern US. We are currently engaged with 20 farms around the region who have inoculated 100 logs and are trying out the management requirements, to see if they want to scale up and take on cultivation as an agricultural practice.

I'd love to hear from any folks on this topic; farmers, foresters, etc to discuss some of the particulars of this system, and how it might support our collective ecological and economic goals into the future.