Farming is hard

I know, I said I’d regale you all with stories about how to keep mushrooms at the right temperature and humidity. I changed my mind – sorry to disappoint!

It’s been a hard couple weeks on the farm. As I mentioned briefly last week, we lost an employee so we’re down one worker on the farm. Just as I was sending the newsletter out last Friday night, our brand new Farmers Market employee quit. This person runs every other Saturday market and all the Sunday ones, so Sunday at Kingfield might be canceled for a little while. Do you know anyone in the Twin Cities who loves the farmers market and would like to work at the farmers market selling mushrooms? We’re looking for someone!

For a couple of months Jeremy has been working to get into more stores and just last month we excitedly announced that we were in Kowalski’s and Lunds & Byerlys. Last week Kowalski’s dropped us, after just a couple weeks, because the mushrooms just weren’t selling. This was a blow and it makes us worry about other new stores we’re working to get into, and the stores we’re already in.


It’s pretty cool to see our mushrooms for sale at the co-op!

When it comes to selling mushrooms I feel like we’re up against a lot. First is the pervasive message in our society that “cooking is hard.” It’s too hard, too hot, too messy, takes too much time, etc, say the marketers for restaurants, fast food, frozen dinners, and all manner of prepared, precooked, packaged, and convenience foods. Probably most farmers face this hurdle to some extent, some more than others. I think we have an additional hurdle to this: for those people who do choose to cook, there are a lot of people who don’t know what to do with mushrooms. Or mushrooms seem sort of exotic and they aren’t easily thought of when ingredients for a meal are gathered. Or, worse yet, people have had bad experiences with mushrooms and are just sure they hate mushrooms! How many of you grew up with spinach cooked horribly and you assumed you hated it, till you had it cooked a different way?

Another problem is cost. People want the absolute cheapest possible food they can get. We balk at the price of milk and bread and apples. How could those cost so much!? How soon will they be on sale? Is there a store that sells them for cheaper? The part of my brain that budgets for grocery shopping understands. But the rest of my brain now knows how much work goes into all this food. Raising animals, planting and nurturing seeds, months or even years of work before you finally have something to sell. And then all the costs for processing, packaging, shipping, the costs for paying for the appropriate government-approved storage facility or washing facility or packaging facility, the costs for inspecting the farm and the buildings, the costs for licenses, permits, and all the other paperwork. The way our farming system is set up right now, you almost have to be a gigantic farm in order to make any money. Think about how many middle men are demanding a chunk out of the 99-cents you paid for those eggs. How much is left for the farmer?

Cost affects mushroom farms too. Where do all your super cheap mushrooms come from? Most likely China or the east coast, from gigantic farming operations. How can a mid-size (or even small) mushroom farm compete? We can’t of course.

And: farming is hard work! We’re finding there aren’t a lot of people who want to do it. It can be back-breaking, monotonous, exhausting. You’re working outside when it’s blazing hot, or pouring rain, or freezing cold. I guess it takes a special sort of crazy person to sign up for that!

So if farming, and mushroom farming in particular, is so darn difficult, why do we keep doing it? Believe me, we ask ourselves that question a lot! Sometimes the answer is: because we have so much time and money sunk into this, we can’t stop now! Sometimes the answer is: well, what else would we do? And sometimes the answer is: because it feels like the right thing to do. We’re being good stewards of this little piece of land we have, finding ways to use it responsibly and not hurting the earth. We’re growing food that is high quality, nutritious, and beautiful. We’re helping to provide a local source of mushrooms for this region so those who choose don’t have to buy them from thousands of miles away. Though it comes with a lot of difficulties, it’s fun to be doing a kind of farming that’s pretty rare.

We are grateful for the support of our community – all of our family, friends, and regular customers at the farmers market. We keep doing this for you too. You all seem to love these tasty mushrooms.  So keep eating mushrooms, and tell all your friends and family  how amazing mushrooms are!

Recipe: Basil Gnocchi and Oyster Mushrooms

This recipe is adapted from something we saw in Saveur Magazine a few years ago. It walks you through making the gnocchi from scratch (of course, it’s Saveur!) but you can probably find pre-made gnocchi at the store if you’re not feeling so adventurous.

Serves 4 to 6
6-8 oz. oyster, shiitake, or other mushrooms
1 lb. russet potatoes, unpeeled
Kosher salt, to taste
4 oz. basil
1 1/4 cups semolina flour or all purpose flour, sifted plus more
2 eggs, beaten
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 tbsp. olive oil
8 tbsp. butter
2 to 3 tbsp. canola oil
2 to 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 to 6 tbsp. finely grated Parmesan or crumbled Friesago cheese

Put potatoes into a 4-qt. pot of salted water; boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes. Drain; let cool. Peel potatoes; pass through medium plate of a food mill into a bowl.

Finely chop basil, then stir together with potatoes and semolina and form a well in center. Add eggs and salt and, using a fork, beat eggs into potato mixture. Transfer dough to a work surface dusted with semolina; knead to combine. Divide the dough into 6 portions. Roll each portion into a 1/2″-thick rope. Cut ropes into 1/2″-wide pieces; transfer to semolina-dusted sheet tray.

Working in 4 batches, add 2 tbsp. butter and 1 tbsp. oil to a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat. Add dough pieces and cook, flipping once, until golden brown, 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet. Wipe out skillet and repeat with remaining butter, oil, and dough pieces.

Wash mushrooms as needed and trim off dirtiest spots, as well as stems. Pat dry. Heat canola or another heat-tolerant oil on high. When hot, add enough mushrooms to cover bottom of the pan. Sear each side of the mushroom caps, then set aside. Wipe out skillet and repeat with remaining canola oil for second batch of mushrooms if necessary.

Toss dumplings, mushrooms, and garlic in the skillet until hot. Serve sprinkled with Parmesan. You may have more dumplings than you need; if so, reserve for another recipe.

Recipe adapted from Saveur Magazine.

Log jams

Sometimes a task is small, but the longer you wait to do it the more important it gets – or at least the more of log jam it creates. A few years ago Jeremy joined a farmer journey-person program through the Land Stewardship Project.  During one weekend, they brought up the idea of “weak links” and “log jams” – those things, little or big, that block production or slow things down.

As we settle into the new farm, there are plenty of weak links and log jams we know about and others we’ll undoubtedly discover along the way.

One small one is that the only place to wash hands was in the house, so people had to walk all the way back to the house from the pack shed or high tunnel or wherever they were. We always wear gloves when picking and sorting mushrooms, but we still want to wash our hands. Jeremy picked up a little hand washing sink last week and got it installed in the packing shed.  Yay! That will save a lot of walking.


One task that has grown larger and larger in importance over the months is electricity. Jeremy ran an extension cord out to the high tunnel and that’s all the electricity we’ve had out there for over a year. Finally this last week we got a sub-panel out there which gives us more power for running lights, drills, and, most importantly, our big 30-inch agricultural fan.  Basically a giant box fan, it  sits at the top of the high tunnel and draws the warm air out. This helps us regulate the temperature in there so it doesn’t get too hot for the mushrooms. In fact, there are so many issues around making just the right environment for happy mushrooms, I think that will have to be the subject of next week’s update.


Here’s the giant fan. Stay tuned for a video next week!

Yet another project we’re working on is how to keep the humidity at the right level. Jeremy dragged out a system he had from way back when we were in Maplewood.  It was set up for a different space and for sprinkling instead of misting, so we need a bunch of new parts. That particular solution is on hold until we get those parts. For now, Jeremy has installed some sprinklers that have a moisture senser and timers. This saves a lot of time as farm workers don’t have to go out to the hoop house a couple times a day and spray down logs by hand.


Laying out the misting system, looking for all the parts!  And below, sprinkling the logs.


All this time we’re saving we can put into all the other projects that still need to get done! Like: getting a computer set up in the pack shed for tracking mushroom production, getting another hand washing sink and first-aid station set up in the hoop house, lots of organization, and, most importantly, snuggling with Spore.

This last week we also said goodbye to one of our employees so we are looking for a new person. There is housing available. If you might be interested, drop us a line! More details here.

Moving piles around

Back in May we attempted a little contest over on the Facebook page: when are we going to (finally) finish inoculations for the year? The post was:

This is how we keep track of how many logs we’ve inoculated. It’s nice to know how far we’ve come when there are 5,000+ logs to inoculate!
We are nearing the end though. Last Friday we had finished 4,345. Today we’re at 4,620. We’re nearly done with the logs we have now and our last load of logs will arrive early next week. We’ll probably end up doing 5100 to 5300 logs in the end.
So, let’s have a contest! With prizes!
In the comments, enter your guesses as to what date you think we’ll reach 5,000 logs, and what date you think will be the last date of inoculations for the season.
(Hint: we cannot possibly reach 5000 this week, but it’s possible we might make it next week.)


The whiteboard Jeremy uses to track inoculations.

Unfortunately, the last load of logs from the logger never came, so we never got up to 5,000 logs. But we got close! For the last month and a half or so we’ve been working on getting all the inoculated logs out of the high tunnel so we can use it for fruiting.  As of yesterday afternoon, these were the logs still left to move:

rest of the logs

The last of the logs! The tarp, etc, is to keep moisture in the logs.

Just this morning, these last logs were moved! Our trusty workers (Seth, Roxi, and Merrill) loaded them up and took them off to the laying yard.

Out of the high tunnel and down that road you can just barely see:


Down and around the road:


And finally to the laying yard!

The nearly 5,000 logs will hang out in this sun-dappled forested area through the summer and fall while the mycelium spreads through the logs. It feels great to have all the inoculations done and all those new logs finally out in the woods. Now we can focus solely on fruiting mushrooms…. and picking, and sorting, and packing… and selling, and the Farmers Markets, and making mushroom butters and spreads! Just a few things!

Recipe: Oyster Mushroom and Spinach Quesadilla

Serves 4
4 to 6 oz. chopped oyster or shiitake mushrooms
1 medium red onion or 1/2 cup garlic scapes, chopped
3 oz. fresh spinach or other greens, shredded
3 to 4 Tbsp oil
salt and pepper to taste
4 flour tortillas – 8 inch
4 oz. grated or crumbled cheddar, cotija, jack, or other cheese

Clean oyster mushrooms with brush or cut off dirty sections, then chop or slice, removing tough sections at base of stem.
Heat 2 Tbsp oil on medium-high heat and add onion or garlic scapes.
Cook for 5 minutes or until softened and transparent, then add mushrooms. Reduce heat to medium and cook for an additional 5 to 10 minutes, or until tender. Add spinach and cook an additional 2 minutes, or until just wilted.
Assemble quesadillas, spreading out a quarter of the onion, mushroom, and spinach mixture on one side, as well as cheese on each flour tortilla. Fold over to make a half-moon.
Heat remaining oil in pan on medium heat. Add two of the quesadillas to the pan at a time and heat until golden brown. Remove to the oven to keep warm, or to finish melting the cheese. Serve with green salad or slaw.

Inoculating mushroom logs (again!)

You may not even know that we’ve been inoculating logs for the past month, but we’re now finished! Every year we inoculate mushroom logs.  This is because mushroom logs do the vast majority of their production in the second, third, and to less extent their fourth year of their lives – at least the way we do things.  So we’ve got to keep replacing the logs that become unproductive.

Inoculation is the process of transferring mushroom mycelium from one growth medium to another.  In this case, we expose fresh logs to sawdust spawn – which is mycelium (the mushroom organism) growing on sawdust.  I’ll say more about how we do that later in this post.  During the months after that, the mycelium grows from those inoculation sites into the rest of the wood in what we call incubation.



Getting Logs

The first step however is to get logs.  For shiitake you should pick logs that are green and live, and harvested when they are dormant – or about September through March in Minnesota.  Oak works particularly well for shiitake.

This February we picked up a batch of burr oak logs – 500 to 600 – near Malaca, MN. I bought them from a logger up there who had won a contract with the DNR for a few weeks of cutting.   He uses the largest equipment I’ve ever seen for this, so he had no difficulty navigating our deep snows of February.  On the other hand this sort of hauling and cutting equipment is geared to cutting 8 foot – 6 inch logs, so we had a lot of cutting to do even before we loaded to cut them down to manageable 4 foot lengths.  Oh, and because of the equipment he used, the bark (which holds in moisture and protects the log from drying out) was heavily damaged.   But no one else volunteered to cut logs for me in February!


power washing

Cleaning new logs

We packed the logs into a moving truck, and drove them down to a warehouse in Bloomington, where we unloaded and stacked them. That day I figure my helper and I each moved about 30,000 pounds of logs! The following few days my team and I power-washed the logs in the warehouse. The photo here is from last spring, but this year it had to be inside, since we were processing the logs early. Washing removes lichen and moss from the logs – which can lead to mold problems.   Our washer was pumping out 3 to 5 gallons per minute though, and our floor drain just couldn’t keep up with the sludge of water and bark debris!

Once they are clean of that, we stack them in such a way that they will dry off in a day or two. Once dry, we moved them to the Ham Lake farm, where we stacked them in preparation for log inoculations – whew!  This year we’re doing the work in a garage at the new Ham Lake farm. Thank you members of the Sannerud family and the Sandbox Coop for a great space and hospitality!



Log  Inoculations – drilling

The first step in inoculation is to drill holes in the wood.  We use an angle grinder with an adapter because of it’s high speed and power, and a special drill bit used for this purpose that has a stop so that the hole is just the right depth.  I use a diamond pattern so that all parts of the log have an equal chance of getting colonized by the mushroom mycelium. Each log may have between 50 and 250 holes in it, depending on the diameter of the four foot log! And with the spacing and logs that I use, we often are only able to inoculate 7 logs per 5 lb. bag of spawn!



Log Inoculations – inoculating

The next step in inoculations is to insert spawn into the holes we’ve just drilled in the logs. To do this we use a tool – oddly enough called an “inoculator”! – that picks up the sawdust spawn, and releases it with when you depress the end of the tool. Our goal is to insert the spawn firmly and cleanly, so that it doesn’t stick up above the bark, yet completely fills the hole.


Log Inoculations – waxing

The last step to inoculations is to seal off the holes – in order to protect the spawn from drying out and to deter pests from eating it! We use cheese wax to do this, which must be heated enough that it starts to steam. Then we apply it with a piece of wire with a ball of cotton at the end called a “dauber.”

When the log has been inoculated we stack them up in preparation for being laid out for incubation. But more on that later, when our most recent (and hopefully last!) snow has melted.

have farm stuff – need place to put it all

About a month ago – in early December 2013 – I learned that I’d need to move from my Maplewood farm. I’ve been leasing that space for about two and a half years, but the owner had found a buyer who took possession the beginning of 2014.

It was a scramble to find a new location, but I found a farm space in Ham Lake where I was able to locate logs, trailer, and other farm stuff. Either I’ll stay there next year or I’ll be moving on to another space in the spring. Yes, my on-and-off employee and a wonderful team of volunteers came to the rescue and we moved at least 2500 pretty heavy logs, plus piles of much larger supporting logs and pallets, storage tents, farm trailer, hoses, tools, shade fabric, shade structure cables and posts, and more! Thank you so much!

Below is a parting picture of the Maplewood farm site (goodbye!) and then another of logs stacked up in Ham Lake and protected with shade fabric for the winter (hello!).
farm move maplewood
farm move ham lake2