MIDDLEBURY — Eight piles of hardwood logs stacked on the grounds of the Eddy Farm in Middlebury don’t appear to be crucial parts of a lucrative farming operation.
But the logs are part of a three-year joint project of Cornell University and the University of Vermont that examines the viability of shiitake mushrooms as cash crops. They have been inoculated with shiitake spores, and, if all goes well, will begin fruiting next year.
Andy Bojanowski and his wife, Margaret, are among 20 participants throughout New England taking part in the research project. Bojanowski is optimistic that the experiment will help him and others in the Northeast start unique — and income-generating — mushroom businesses.
Bojanowski doesn’t run a farm; he currently works for the facilities department at Middlebury College. But he attended Cornell to study natural resources, and he said when he heard about the project from Nick Laskovski, who owns Dana Forest Farm in Waitsfield, he jumped at the opportunity to participate in the sustainable farming study.
The project received funding from a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant, and participants receive mushroom spores and attend workshops with experienced mushroom growers. In return, they must log data on mushroom production and sales over the course of three years.
The program seeks to help the participants get started with shiitake farming on a commercial level, but according to the project summary, it will also help the two universities collect information that will allow others to start growing shiitakes in the Northeast.
According to UVM’s project summary, “researchers hope to ascertain the viability of a fresh and dried shiitake mushroom market.”
While the initial setup of the logs is time consuming, the logs lay dormant for most of the year and must only be kept moist and free of slugs. Though his logs have not yet begun fruiting, Bojanowski said it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that growing mushrooms is cost-effective, especially for those who already have hardwood on hand.
“This climate is very conducive to (growing mushrooms), and I have the wood for it,” he said.
Bojanowski estimated that each log would fetch around $1 apiece if it was sold for firewood. Fresh shiitake mushrooms, on the other hand, can fetch between $12 and $16 per pound.
And according to UVM, participants in the research project can expect to harvest about one pound of shiitake mushrooms each year from each log.
This spring, Bojanowski drilled holes into some 300 hardwood logs, filled the holes with shiitake spores, then sealed them with wax.
The strategy is one that’s been used in Japan for many hundreds of years, but it is only just gaining ground in the United States.
“It’s an ancient art,” said Bojanowski. “It’s one of these things where we’re rediscovering it.”
Now that the logs are all inoculated, the waiting process will be a long one. Next spring, when temperatures are warm enough, Bojanowski will shock the logs by soaking them in water for 24 hours.
The soaking lets the mushrooms know it’s time to release spores — environmental changes, said Bojanowski, trigger mushroom growth and reproduction. It is hoped that each log will almost immediately sprout mushrooms that can be harvested.
The logs can be shocked twice each growing season, and can last up to five years.
And Bojanowski said there is room for growth in his relatively small mushroom operation. Dana Forest Farm, he said, has 1,500 logs.
He compared the mushroom farming business to the state’s maple industry — it’s a lot of work during specific times of the year, but it can yield a substantial payoff.
“I foresee it being a very viable crop,” he said.
And Bojanowski said there’s no comparison between fresh, outdoor mushrooms and the ones found on grocery store shelves, many of which are grown hydroponically. As a vegetarian, he said fresh mushrooms provide a welcome addition to his diet — and he expects that once he begins selling shiitakes next year, others in the area will appreciate them as well.
“Mushrooms are extremely high in proteins,” he said. “This will help provide my family not only with food, but with income.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]