May 5th & 6th Class for Growers Canceled

Due to low enrollment, the weekend May 5th and 6th class targeted to those interested in small scale commercial production of shiitake is being canceled. This class may be rescheduled in September of this year but for now consider attending another of our upcoming workshops which are filling up fast.

Our first few classes in the Southern Tier of NY, Western Mass, and the Hudson Valley were a wild success, with mushroom enthusiasts filling space to capacity.

Participants get the basics of shiitake, oyster, lions mane, and stropharia cultivation and get to take home inoculated substrates in all of these classes. Both backyard growers and those intersted in commercial production can have their questions answered.

Upcoming Dates:

May 12 -- Mushrooms in Permaculture Systems: Sandy Lake, PA
May 13 -- Edible Mushrooms for Backyard Growers: Rochester, NY
May 19 -- Inoculation Demonstration: Piseco NY
May 20 -- Mushrooms & Forest Management: Hampton, NY
June 2 -- Mushrooms Wild & Cultivated: Shelburne, VT
June 3 -- Mushrooms Wild & Cultivated: Brookfield, VT
June 10 -- Mushrooms & Forest Management: Watkins Glen, NY

More info: http://agroforestrysolutions.blogspot.com/p/mushroom-classes-northeast-new-york.html


A Beginning Farmers Dream: Shiitake as a Niche Crop

The perfect niche crop?
Beginning farmers young and old have their work cut out for them: while their passion and persistence may be strong, the barriers to getting started can often seem overwhelming and even impossible. These factors may include access to land, start-up funds, and developing a skill set that wasn't taught in school or college. And yet despite these challenges, more and more want in. And its a good thing - with increasing food costs, questions about food safety, and a growing market in local foods, we are going to need all the farmers we can get.

There are a number of wonderful organizations that have emerged specifically to help the beginning farmer. One is located just down the hall from me; the Cornell Small Farms Program, which is a program of cooperative extension, launched the Northeast Beginning Farmer Project site in 2006. NOFA-NY hired a beginning farmer coordinator and offers members a hotline to call in with questions. And in our local area, Groundswell has emerged to support those interested in farming with opportunities to interact and learn from regional farmers. 

Probably the biggest shift for new farms is coming to terms with the reality that farming is hard work, especially when many of us have spend our lives sitting at a desk listening or typing away at a computer. We simply don't have the life experience of hard labor to back up our dreams. The good news is we are built to be active animals, using our bodies to get the job done. While the transition can be a tough one, it seems that everyone who passes this hurdle never regrets it.

Designing a laying yard is key to success.
The other initial shift that needs to occur is patience - too many farm dreamers want it all the first year, or even the first few years of farming. But the reality is that farms take decades and lifetimes to build, and we need to see our work in this context. Inevitably new farmers are dealing with poor soil fertility, low levels of experience, and a lot of upfront cost. Taking time to slowly build a farm within ones means and abilities increases the likelihood of success.

This is where the importance of a niche crop arises. I'm defining a niche crop as four things:

1) OPEN MARKETS: the crop has open local and regional markets and a demand from consumers
2) SCALABLE: the crop can be started small and steadily increased to meet the farmers goals
3) LOW INVESTMENT/HIGH RETURN: the crop has low initial costs and a high market value
4) RESILIENT: the crop can accept a varying and changing environment, and also is forgiving to the farmer's learning curve

Enter Shiitake as perhaps one of the best candidates as a niche crop, at least in the Northeastern US. The markets are more or less wide open, with consumers and chefs eager to get their hands on this tasty and nutritious food. Shiitake can be easily sold at farmers markets, to restaurants, and through CSA models for $11 (wholesale) to $16 (retail) a pound.

Shiitake offers a sound return on investment.
A beginner can start with 100 logs, which yields roughly 10 lbs a week, or $120 to $160 of sales, and add more logs until he/she is satisfied. The cost to inoculate each log is $1.50 - $3.00, which pales in comparison to the $50 - $60 of sales per log that will be gained over it's lifetime. And other than drying out, the crop is forgiving of changing weather conditions, floods and droughts, and even the farmer's desire to take a vacation.

One of my favorite things about being a mushroom grower is that I don't feel like I have to compete to survive. I can both teach backyard growers how to cultivate their own mushrooms while selling them to others who just want to purchase them. I can collaborate with other local growers as the demand is high and none of us will be able to meet it anytime soon. Even if/when more growers enter the market and the price eventually drops, there is still  good profit margin in mushroom growing.

While I'm making Shiitake out to be the wonder crop, I'll return to the key points made above: cultivating mushrooms is relatively HARD work, and you'll perish if you don't enjoy cutting and moving logs on a regular basis. Setting up a laying yard to improve your labor efficiency is key to success. And of course, marketing and branding a product is key to getting customers excited about the product.

We are offering a training on May 5th and 6th for beginning and established farmers looking for detailed information on the particulars of growing shiitake mushrooms on a small scale (200 - 1,000 logs). Included in the class will be:

- Basics of shiitake cultivation & how to do it efficiently
- Designing a laying yard to save time & your back
- Setting up a soaking schedule, harvesting, storing, and drying shiitake
- Marketing to farmers markets, restaurants, and CSAs
- The economics; where are the costs and how can I minimize them?
- Other add-ons: commercial oyster, stropharia, and lion's mane cultivation (experimental)
- Basic forest management and chainsaw safety

In addition to the above topics, participants will get to see two active mushroom yards and talk with experienced growers about the particulars of cultivation.

The class will run from 9am to 4pm on Saturday, May 5 and 9am to 4pm on Sunday, May 6 in Mecklenburg, NY Participants are welcome to camp out on the land or we can recommend local hotels or B&Bs for a more comfortable stay. Cost is $125, which includes several inoculated substrates to take home.

Questions and registration can be directed to steve@agroforestrysolutions.com or 607.342.2825.

Classes are supported by the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and Northeast Mushroom Growers Network.


Video: Mushrooms in Permaculture Systems

Enjoy this 17 minute video, a rebroadcast of a presentation I recently did at Cornell's "Camp Mushroom" on Friday, April 13th. Upcoming classes at Brook's Bend Farm (4/21 in MA), Three Sisters Farm (5/12 in PA), and at the Rochester Permaculture (May 13 - NY) will delve deeper into this topic as well as teach participants how to inoculate Shiitake, Oyster, Stropharia, and Lion's Mane mushrooms.


Mushrooms in Permaculture Systems

Classes take a look at the bigger, integrated picture

Brook's Bend Farm, MA (April 21)
Three Sisters Farm, PA (May 12)
Rochester Permaculture Center (May 13)

The basis of inspiration for my work as a permaculture forest farmer comes from what I observe and learn in natural ecosystems, and at the heart of what I've learned over the last 10 years is that a) no organism survives or thrives without maintaining a cooperative connection to other species and b) sustainable systems are also multi-kingdom, that is, not just plants but a mixture of players from the plant, animal, fungi, bacteria, etc communities.

One of the more inspiring examples of these ideas came across my radar several years ago in the writing of Chris Maser, who describes the intricate evolution of a complex relationship between the Spotted Owl, Northern Flyer Squirrel, the Douglas Fir, and truffle mushrooms:

"...Keeping the above in mind, let's consider the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest in which Douglas-fir and western hemlock predominate in the old-growth canopy. Herein lives the Northern Spotted Owl, which preys on the flying squirrel as a staple of its diet. The flying squirrel, in turn, depends on truffles, which it detects by odor at night and then digs them out of the forest soil.

When flying squirrels eat the truffles, they consume fungal tissue that contains nutrients, water, viable fungal spores, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and yeast. Pieces of truffle move to the stomach, where the tissue is digested; then on through the small intestine, where absorption takes place, and then to the cecum.

The cecum is like an eddy along a swift stream; it concentrates, mixes, and retains fungal spores, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and yeast. Undigested material, including cecal contents, is formed into excretory pellets in the lower colon; these pellets, which are expelled through the rectum, contain the viable spores and accompanying micro-organisms necessary to inoculate the root tips of trees."
FULL ARTICLE: http://www.chrismaser.com/truffle.htm

Permaculture is a design system that focuses on the production of food, fibre, and energy while restoring degraded ecosystems. While designs are often focused around plants, it is essential to include animals, fungi, bacteria, and algae as members of five distinct kingdoms, which all have a unique role to play in a healthy ecosystem.

Mushrooms are but one part in this whole systems approach to gardening, farming, and forestry. Our efforts as gardeners, farmers, and land stewards must all be based in the cultivation of healthy soils, which fungi have a unique role in; they are the only organisms that can digest the tough and fibrous lignin in wood, which then makes the material available for other organisms, whether they be bacteria or animal-based.

Three upcoming mushroom classes will be held at  a wide array of permaculture demonstration sites and highlight how mushrooms can integrate into the "big picture." with discussions and content including:

Mycology 101: The basics
Permaculture Principles Applied: Mushrooms as Waste = Food
Mushrooms & Forest Health
Integrated Systems: Shiitake/Duck, Stropharia Polyculture
Stropharia inoculation on woodchips
Oyster inoculation on paper
Shiitake inoculation on log bolts
Lions Mane inoculation on log totems

We'll also look at the specific context of the site (farm vs market garden/bioshelther vs. backyard) and discuss how mushrooms can be integrated to contribute to overall system health. More about these amazing, evolving demonstration sites in MA, PA, and NY:

Brook's Bend Farm
Montague, MA: April 21 from 10:00am - 4:00pm
$80 includes one inoculated log & paper substrate

Brook's Bend is a 90 acre working farm where multiple enterprises share stewardship of the land's resources.   While the farm produces lamb, woolens and forestry products such as cultivated mushrooms and milled lumber, Clearpath Herbals (www.clearpathherbals.com) trains apprentices in cultivating and preparing medicinal herbs in field and forest gardens, Wolf Tree Programs (www.wolftreema.com) runs mentoring programs for children and youth sharing wilderness skills and nature awareness, and a Whole Systems Education and Training Center is establishing plantings and system designs based on permaculture design principles. In 2012, we anticipate the formation of a 501c3 to help us steward the resources of land and community for many more years to come.

Three Sisters Farm
Sandy Lake, PA: May 12
10:00am - 4:00pm
$75 includes one inoculated log & paper substrate

Three Sisters Farm is a five-acre permaculture farm in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. For more than 20 years, the farm has provided produce for markets throughout Western PA, including Pittsburgh. At the heart of the farm’s operations is the bioshelter. This unique structure is part greenhouse, part chicken coop, part hot tub and all permaculture. This bioshelter is a far cry from the plastic-film covered hoop houses heated with coal, oil or gas. With careful design and attention to the operation of the system, the bioshelter stays productive through the coldest of months. The farm offers regular educational opportunities and tours to the public.

Rochester Permaculture Center
Rochester, NY: May 13 from 10:00am - 4:00pm
Sliding Scale $60 -$100 includes one inoculated log & paper substrate

A program of Seeking Common Ground, Inc., RPC is dedicated to exploring, modeling, and inspiring more conscious, sustainable, and restorative ways of life through the application of permaculture and other regenerative design techniques and principles.  Located in a unique setting, RPC is blessed to have Red Creek flowing across the land, giving us many edges - urban/suburban and creek/forest/neighborhood edge.  The overall site is just under an acre, including the homestead.  As RPC is still in its infancy, at just over one year old, the systems are still young and more are being woven in during 2012, providing a good opportunity to see the beginning stages of a permaculture site.

To register for any of these classes, e-mail your name, phone #, and email address to steve@agroforestrysolutions.com. Please note if you prefer payment via credit card or check.


CU Chronicle: Experts suggest grazing cows, sheep, ducks in forests

From: http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/April12/Silvopasture.html

Ithaca area farmer Steve Gabriel of Work With Nature Design, who is an extension aide in Cornell's Department of Horticulture, is experimenting with the practice in a novel way. With a grant from the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, he is pasturing ducks in a mature sugar maple woodlot, which has the added benefit of providing pest control for another of his agroforestry projects, a shiitake mushroom farm.

"Ducks are currently undervalued as a wonderful animal that has potential to both control pests and provide marketable eggs and meat," Gabriel said. "Integrating them into agroforestry practices would likely get more farmers interested in considering producing niche crops like mushrooms."


Are ramps being overharvested?

Following simple rules may not apply when it comes to a springtime favorite

NOTE: This week the post digresses from our usual mushroom fare, but don't forget to check out upcoming classes on mushroom cultivation in NY, PA, MA, and VT and info about our summer mushroom CSA.

From Jennifer May for the New York Times: click for article
Anyone who has come across the Ramp, or Wild Leek, allium tricoccum, likely can't help but feel a sense of abundance; the spring ephemerals (plants that make a brief spring appearance before forest canopies have leafed out) often show up in clusters that can range from a few square feet to a solid quarter acre or more of green. 

For years I've looked forward to harvesting this tasty, tangy, and nutritious plants and felt I could easily harvest a hearty share without inflicting any harm on the population. I used as a guideline the common "2/3 rule", which suggests that in harvesting one should gather no more than 1/3 of a population to ensure a stable community persists.

But what is this guideline based on? As I thought more about it, the concept sounded nice and simple but I knew better, for plants and ecosystems are rarely able to be summarized in such a way. Further, I imagined an inherent problem with applying a blanket rule to wild plants when I know that the dispersal patterns, regeneration, and regrowth characteristics are vastly different from plant to plant. Some, like ramps, appear to be very fragile by nature, while others, like Stinging Nettle (urtica dioica) is persistent to the point where many consider it a nuisance species. (not me - I love to consume them as a management tool)

A practice I've been working at for the past year or so is to follow the tracks of hearsay and try to see if I can find research and evidence to support a given claim. The very nature of agroforestry systems is that they operate on longer timescales, demanding careful thought and planning for all activities, whether we are conducting a timber stand improvement, cultivating mushrooms, or wildcrafting edibles.

Recently with the promotion of my fifth year of mushroom classes and the first year of a mushroom CSA, I've committed myself to backing up any claims with documentation. I wanted to be sure there was good documentation behind my post on all the nutrition in shiitake, and also that the claim that shiitake can accumulate Vitamin D when dried in the sun was validated. Backing up ideas with fact is a simple concept, something I hear a lot of talk about in permaculture circles, at my job at Cornell, and as I discuss sustainability in the community. In practice well-researched material seems to often be an afterthought much of the time, so I figured I would look a bit closer at Ramps in this regard.

I must give credit to Professor Ken Mudge, whom I've been fortunate to work with for many years, for pointing me to some good literature on the subject. The only previous mention I'd seen on the issue of overharvesting Ramps was a New York Times article from last April that mostly asked the question without providing any answers. The first, a 2004 study entitled, "Population recovery of wild leek Allium tricoccum following differential harvesting in the southern Appalachians" cites a startling conclusion after trials harvesting at various intensities over a four year period:

"Harvesting wild leek is not sustainable except at very modest levels. Using the results of this study to predict recovery times, by assuming that growth rates and concomitant recovery times are affected in a consistent manner by levels of harvesting, the sustainable harvest level is predicted to be 10% or less, once every 10 years."

Another research project comes from the British Ecological Society, who published a 5 year study in Quebec that studied a dense population of Ramps in detail. The conclusion was less dramatic but still highlighted that even a small harvest percentage could have a big impact:

"In a particularly unproductive season like 1985 -86, even a 5% harvest is deleterious, and in all other years a decline is predicted when a 15% harvest is stimulated."

Many questions remain. It is not only that one harvest, but HOW they harvest that could make a difference (see this interesting blog post). It might be more sustainable if just the green tops are cut and the bulbs left in the ground. It MIGHT be more sustainable if care is taken to harvest the more mature bulbs and leave the young ones. These details we don't know. What we do know is that a harvest over 10% is likely detrimental, but to be safe one should aim for a maximum of 5% each year for a given population.

This becomes trickier when harvesting from populations on public lands where multiple people may come through hunting for the ramps. It demands that we take more time to observe, catalog, and note the changes in populations from year to year. And, when in doubt, we should err on the side of caution. 

To further reduce stress on wild populations, those interested in ramps should consider cultivation. This factsheet from NC State is a useful guide for getting started.

Agroforestry is an exciting agricultural prospect because we can simultaneously become stewards of healthy forests and enjoy harvests both wild and cultivated. Yet, as with any agricultural practice, care and attention needs to be given to ensure that our forest diversity is protected, and that we can ensure our forests can be enjoyed far into the future.