The oft-heard advice to bloom where you’re planted came to mind recently when I interviewed CWEnder Nicola MacPherson, above, to learn more about her business, Ozark Forest Mushrooms. The Wales native was attending the University of Yorkshire when she met St. Louisan Dan Hellmuth, who was at the university for his junior year abroad. They married and MacPherson moved to St. Louis, a place she had never been. At first, she said, it was not only a huge adjustment but she was also lonely. Twenty-seven years and 2 children later, she has put down strong roots in the Central West End as well as on the Hellmuth family farm, Timber Farms The Sinks, in the Missouri Ozark Big Springs region. She still visits family in Wales as often as she can.
Shortly after they were married, the couple participated in an alternative farming workshop in Kansas City where they learned that their heavily timbered 500-acre property located 3 hours southwest of St. Louis (between Salem and Eminence) was conducive to growing mushrooms, a timber product. The area, according to the website, is “designated one of the ‘Last Great Places’ by the Nature Conservancy and abounds with crystal clear springs (always 55 degrees) and vast areas of forest.” The area is also known as the Irish Wilderness as it was populated by immigrants from Ireland and England.
In the photo above, MacPherson is shown with boxes of yellow oyster and shiitake mushrooms that were to be delivered later that afternoon to chefs in area restaurants.
The couple also discovered that the micro-climate on the farm is similar to areas of Japan where shiitake mushrooms are grown. In Japanese, “shii” means hardwood, like oak (which is in abundant supply in the Ozarks), and “take” means mushroom. Last year they toured southern Japan to gain more knowledge of farming techniques growing shiitakes, which in Japan are believed to be medicinal. “A shiitake a day, keeps the doctor away,” added Nikki MacPherson.
Photo courtesy of Timber Farms The Sinks website
MacPherson, above, started the agro-forestry crop (growing food out of trees) on 20-4′ white oak logs which were inoculated with mushroom strands (mycelium). Twenty-five years later, the business has grown so that she now employs 4 local “wood people” full-time, and other workers part-time, to tend to 20,000 logs (see crib stacks above) on which 4 varieties of shiitakes, 3 varieties of oyster mushrooms, as well as many other types of organic mushrooms are grown. To get an idea of the work involved in mushroom production, the crew first drills 1/2″ holes every 2 to 3 inches and then inoculates 6,500 logs with mushroom spawn each year. As Nikki said, farming “tree to table” is not an easy business, but she seems to thrive on it.
While I took copious notes about mushroom farming when we had lunch at Bowood Farms, for more detailed and accurate information I suggest you read reporter Andrew Shelley’s excellent article published in The Salem News last June. (more…)