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.