Fungi farming: Couple add shiitakes to their harvest

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OWLS participants Lori Ambrose and Vicki Carolan apply hot wax over the spawn that has been inserted in holes all over the log. The wax keeps the spawn in and seals the log to prevent the log from drying out before the mushrooms begin to grow.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor



ungus spawn, a few logs, and plenty of patience—that’s all Natasha Hegmann and Pete Kerns needed to start growing shiitake mushrooms in their timber near Elkport.

“Mushrooms are a good fit for our location and add diversity of the mix of locally produced foods that we offer,” said Hegmann. “And on top of all that we love eating them!”

The couple, co-owners of Turkey River Farm, recently hosted participants of the Older, Wiser, Livelier Souls (OWLS) program, a spring-to-fall series offered by the Osborne Conservation Center. With assistance from Will Lorentzen and Adrian White of nearby Jupiter Ridge Farm, they demonstrated the mushroom inoculation process and also served lunch.

Versatile, meaty shiitakes are the second most consumed edible mushroom in the world. Though relatively new to some U.S. kitchens, they’ve long been a staple in Asian diets and have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 6,000 years. Rich in nutrients, they’re loaded with compounds that are believed to help support immune systems, fight obesity and lower cholesterol. And, as Hegmann noted, they taste good!

Mushrooms are a fairly recent addition to the couple’s agricultural repertoire.

“When Pete and I started Turkey River Farm we both had experience growing vegetables and working with livestock, but growing mushrooms was relatively new to us,” Hegmann said, adding that her stepfather, Matt Lang, has been experimenting with growing shiitakes and oyster mushrooms for years. 

“When we moved from Montana to Iowa to start our farm, we started learning from him,” Hegmann continued. “It’s neat to produce a product that thrives in the hardwood forests of Northeast Iowa.”

Shittake mushrooms are produced in pieces of logs called bolts. Hegmann and Kerns have about 200 bolts in their mushroom production yard. They use primarily oak, sugar maple and ironwood logs.

“Oaks are related to the Japanese trees traditionally used to grow shiitake mushrooms so they work well,” Hegmann said. “We harvest bolts from freshly felled trees in the winter when the trees are still dormant, and allow them to rest for several weeks before we begin the inoculation process. This year we were able to partner with local landowners who were harvesting oak trees for lumber. All of our oak bolts were cut from the top of those trees.”

After the appropriate time has passed, holes are drilled into the bolts, which are then inoculated with living shiitake spawn.

“The spawn is a carbon rich substrate full of living mushroom mycelium,” explained Hegmann. “When the holes in logs are plugged with the spawn, the mycelium begins to spread and consume the log. Freshly inoculated shiitake logs may not be ready to fruit for 6-9 months. We will allow the mycelium to spread and grow inside of our spring batch of bolts all year and begin fruiting the following spring.”

Hegmann and Kerns plan to sell their mushrooms at the Guttenberg Farmers Market as early as mid-May.

“The strains of shiitake mushrooms that we grow prefer the milder spring and fall weather and have a harder time in the intense heat of midsummer,” Hegmann said. “In the past we’ve been able to offer shiitake mushrooms in May, June, September and October. If we grew mushrooms in a climate-controlled environment inside we might be able to produce year round, but for now we enjoy the seasonal nature of growing shiitakes in the hardwood forest.”

Hegmann and Kerns, who share an unwavering commitment to local food production, met while serving as Food Corps members in Montana. A shared dream of returning to their Midwestern roots to farm brought them back to Northeast Iowa two years ago. They rent 5 acres from a non-profit group. Both work as full-time farmers. In addition to selling their produce, they donate directly to the Clayton County Food Shelf, volunteer at the Central Community School garden, and raise heritage breed hogs. They also manage the county’s only  Community-Supported Agricultural program or CSA that uses a subscription service to put their fresh produce on their customers’ tables.

For more information on Turkey River Farm, visit their Facebook page. 



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