Mushrooms as a byproduct of Forest Health

Sugaring at the Cayuga Nature Center, 2007
My interest in mushrooms didn't stem (pun intended!) from the desire to be a farmer or to have more mushrooms growing around me than I knew what to do with. It came from a sincere interest in looking for incentives to get woodlot owners to manage their woods. Over harvesting for timber is unfortunately ravaging healthy forests who are recovering from centuries of abuse. And many young forests also need thinning to improve the health of the residual stand. It was the combined idea of the landowner making an income (and thus reducing pressure to log the big trees) and the idea that mushrooms could make good use of small diameter wood (as a byproduct of thinning) that led me into the world of mushrooms.

Several years ago I served as Land Use Manager for wonderful place located outside of Ithaca, the Cayuga Nature Center. I was hired to work on land use planning and programming related to good management of fields and forests, including permaculture. One of the traditions we continued was tapping maple trees each spring and hosting Maplefest, a two day festival that promoted sugaring and the history of the practice, from the time of native americans to present day. During my tenure there we tapped about 100 trees and for the first time in the 30 years history of CNC bottled and sold our syrup as a fundraising mechanism.

Where the mushrooms entered was the action we undertook to thin some of the sugarbush (the grove of trees we tapped) to improve the health of the trees we were tapping. This left us with a pile of small diameter wood, which inevitably was headed to the firewood pile, which was plentiful. I had heard of a local man in Hector (Steve Sierigk) who was growing mushrooms on logs, and thought we should give it a try. In 2006 we had our first mushroom class at the nature center, which was also to be the beginning of my career as a mushroom grower and forest farmer, though I didn't know at the time.

Done right, thinning benefits the woods.
The key point in the story is that the mushroom logs were a byproduct, a "surplus" of a necessary activity if we wanted to keep the forest at an optimal health. The logs we cut down, as well as the ones I continue to cut down each winter are all in this category. Often they have some rot, are mangled, and aren't very straight. But were I to select the perfect logs - the straightest, the ones free from disease and defect, I would at the same time be taking out the best genetics - the best trees - in other words, the trees that should be left on the stump to grow old.

As for economics, I did some figures for a presentation I gave at the 2011 NOFA conference that compared the income generated from cutting older trees for timber vs younger trees for mushroom logs.

Let's say I decide to cut a 100 year old White Pine, which might yield 500 board feet. At current prices, log is worth maybe $250 at mill but you have to subtract the expenses for the forester, logger, fuel, etc, which means there might be a one time profit of $75 for that log. That 100 year old tree. Surely there is more value in leaving that tree standing to seed numerous generations of new pines for decades to come. (these figures are based on talking to multiple foresters and loggers)

Compare this to a 25 year old Sugar Maple, which might yield ten three foot mushroom logs. These ten logs over lifetime will yield at least 20 pounds of mushrooms, which can be sold for $240 ($12/lb). The costs of harvesting, transport, inoculation, management equal about $2/log, or $40. This means that over the lifetime of the logs (about 4 years), this ONE and very young tree offers a $200 profit, more than twice the above.

And again, a 25 year old tree is a world away from a 100 year old tree. These young trees, especially sugar maple, are reaching the PERFECT size for mushroom logs at about this age. They often grow in thickets and this is a perfect time to intervene, leave the best, and use the rest for mushroom production.

To me, shiitake production is just the beginning of the potential for agroforestry products to both be better in terms of forest health as well as economic vitality.