Cultivating Mushrooms at Hawk Meadow Farm
story and photos by Phillip Bonn
A rather unique place lies tucked into the forested hills of Schuyler County, near the southern edge of the Finger Lakes National Forest. Once land on which the town of Hector provided housing for the poor, it’s now home to Hawk Meadow Farm, where log-grown woodland mushrooms – like shiitakes – are cultivated.
Owner Steve Sierigk once studied insects as an entomology student but, inspired by permaculture and a love of nature, he took a left turn and decided to become a farmer.Growing mushrooms is the heart of the business at Hawk Meadow Farm; however, Steve and his wife Anne also sell maple syrup and medicinal tinctures made from their homegrown mushrooms.
To forest farm shiitake mushrooms, one must first inoculate the hardwood log on which the mushrooms will grow, introducing pure cultures of the shiitake fungus. My friend Jim Ziemba invited me to join him and his two sons at Hawk Meadow Farm to learn how.
Early on a Sunday morning, we arrive at a quaint farmhouse near Trumansburg, situated at the end of a dusty back road. We meet Steve and Anne, and head to the work site. Everyone gets busy preparing for the day’s labor, while I observe, take photos, and lend a hand now and then.
First to get started is 10-year-old Cadan, who chops up blocks of wax to melt down. This food-grade wax (typically cheese wax, beeswax or paraffin) is used to seal the logs. The wax is heated to around 350 to 400 degrees before it is daubed over the inoculation sites on the bolts (short sections of logs, generally 36 to 48 inches).
While Cadan chops, Steve is busy drilling holes into bolts, and everyone else sets up the work bench for inoculating the logs. The logs come from various types of trees, and depending on the type of tree, certain flavors can be imparted to the mushrooms. One would have to be a connoisseur to notice, however, choice of trees is important and not to be overlooked.
In addition to imparting different tastes to the mushrooms, the number and size of the mushroom is affected as well. Oak logs are considered the gold standard. Growers can typically get eight flushes (harvests) from oak before retiring the log – which is a pretty good return for the time invested.
To inoculate a log, “spawn” or “inoculum”– which is oak sawdust infused with mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus) from the strain of shiitake we want – is packed into the drilled holes. A brass injector is used to pound the spawn into the bolt holes. (What a good way to work off some inner frustrations!)
I join Jim’s youngest son, Fenton, who is enthusiastically pounding spawn into the holes. We pack the mixture into the numerous holes that Steve drilled, and then use the melted paraffin to seal each packed hole. All the while, carefully trying to avoid burning our fingers! This part takes the longest, so everyone joins in packing the spawn to get the task quickly done. A tag marking the date of inoculation and mushroom strain is nailed on the end of each bolt, and they are taken down to the laying yard to be stacked.
The Laying Yard
As my eyes slowly adjust to the deep shade under the trees, I begin to make out the piles of logs in the laying yard. All around me, logs are stacked into cribs, each packed with mycelium just doing its magic. Some logs lean up in an A-frame style, and on closer inspection, a profusion of mushrooms is seen sprouting from them. This is the heart of the mushroom farm!
Everyone, including yours truly, grabs bolts off the truck and brings them down to stack in a crib, just like firewood. This stacking method is simple and allows for the best circulation of air and use of available land under the tree canopy. Freshly inoculated bolts are stacked so that the mycelium injected into the bolts colonizes the wood, consuming the wood cellulose and building a mycelial network. It takes 6 months for the mycelium to fully colonize the log – this is called a “spawn run.”
During this time, the farmer needs to ensure optimum moisture content and necessary shade. Shade is essential because bolts need to maintain a minimum moisture level of 30 percent. Laying yards with coniferous trees are best because they provide deep shade year round. If one has only deciduous trees, plastic sheeting is used to help regulate exposure to sun and rain. During the spawn run when bolts are being colonized, if it hasn’t rained at least a 1/2-inch in a week, bolts may get two-hour hydration soaks to maintain moisture levels.
The logs remain in the laying yard for their entire productive life. After the first year, bolts start to fruit bi-annually for three to four years (depending on various factors) and generate a half-pound or more of mushrooms per flush (crop).
If there’s been no growth on a log after having had around a year to mature in the laying yard, the log can be force-fruited or “shocked.” Soaking the log in cold water overnight helps the mycelium to start producing mushrooms. This requires a trip to the stream! We carried down a crib of bolts that needed to be shocked so their mushrooms could be harvested in the next few days. (Not every shiitake grower is fortunate enough to have use of a stream for forcing logs, but a trough or trashcan works just as well.) Once the bath is over, the bolts are stacked in an A-frame style to await the fruiting bodies and for ease of picking.
Steve has 1,200 active bolts currently in his laying yard and adds approximately 400 bolts each year as others are retired. Bolts last three to four years; they are removed when they get “tired,” and tossed (returned) into the woods or used to line the paths. Steve forces or “fruits” 150 bolts a week to meet the demands of his clients.
He offers us some tips on harvesting the mushrooms and we all pitch in. I learn that there is a technique to removing the mushroom: First, slide your fingers around the cap and feel if the veil is right for picking. (The veil covers the gills on the underside, and Steve prefers it’s picked at precisely the right moment – just after the protective veil has broken to expose the gills.) Then slide your fingers down the stalk to where the mushroom is attached to the log and give a sideways tug. That’s all there is to it! Toss them in a basket and keep going.
Once the morning’s work is done, we head back up the trail to the farmhouse and sit down to a delicious lunch prepared for us by Anne. We dine well on pasta with a ramp pesto (absolutely fantastic), fresh-from-the-garden salad, and to top it off, blueberry and rhubarb pie!
Steve and Anne offer tours of their farm, reservations are required. For more information, visit hawkmeadowfarm.com.