Erie’s mushroom kingdom: exotic mushrooms abound
ERIE, Pa. — Pennsylvania is far and away the largest producer of mushrooms in the U.S., mostly the white “button” variety, grown on 68 farms mostly in the Philadelphia region. That’s been true for generations.
Now, for many reasons – Americans’ widening interest for food grown and produced locally, a focus on low-carb diets, and encouragement of farmers by the USDA to monetize their forests – exotic mushrooms are sprouting up in this neck of the woods.
Harry Leslie, former manager of Presque Isle State Park, retired to his family farm in Conneaut Lake in 2015. The farm includes 40 acres of commercial crops, such as corn and soybeans, and 60 acres of forest.
“I knew I was retiring, and my son and I went to a workshop at (Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio) on sustainable forest farming,” Leslie said. “I wanted to know what I could do with the woods.”
So they learned to inoculate oak logs, salvaged from around their farmed land, to grow shiitake and oyster mushrooms, both edible and fetching $5.50 to $7 a pound at grocery stores. That entails drilling holes in the logs, stuffing them with sawdust and “mycelium,” the living filaments that produce mushrooms, sealing the holes with wax, and waiting.
It takes about a year for mycelium to colonize a log and start producing mushrooms. But produce they did. Now, if you get on Leslie’s list, he’ll tell you when the mushrooms are in a “flush,” or growing, which happens about once every six to eight weeks in the summer for his shiitakes, depending on rainfall. You tell him how many pounds of mushrooms you want and he harvests, packs them up and hauls them to the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, where you can pick them up.
He charges a dollar or two less per pound than the stores, adding that he doesn’t really raise mushrooms for the money.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a hobby for me.”
He does plan to expand by 100 logs in 2019. “It’s a neat process because it’s cradle-to-grave,” he said, meaning he’s using logs cut from around his farmland and keeping his woods in constructive use.
Gordon Post, of Post Apples CSA, fills bags with produce he grows and delivers it to subscribers throughout the growing season. He started growing mushrooms four years ago.
“We just did it to get more variety for the CSA,” he said. “It really worked.”
Like Leslie, he has shiitake and oyster mushrooms. Oyster mushrooms came on before his shipments this spring (they are a late-spring mushroom), but he’s still waiting on shiitakes.
“The first year we didn’t get anything,” Post said. “The second year we had a huge crop and our third crop was huge. This year was huge early, but now we’re waiting for (the shiitakes) to flush.”
He said it has been pretty dry at his farm, so they’ve been irrigating water over the logs every few days.
Big little farm
A farmer at Green Heron Growers, 2361 Wait Corner Road in Sherman, N.Y., has a pretty large shiitake mushroom operation compared to Leslie and Post, with 2,000 logs in production. He takes them to farmers markets in Lakewood, N.Y.; Jamestown, N.Y.; and Chautauqua, N.Y.; as well as at his farm store.
Steve Rockcastle, who co-owns the farm with his wife, Julie, started growing shiitakes in 2008 in the same woods where the annual The Great Blue Heron Music Festival takes place. He said it all started when his son came home to visit from Cornell, where he was studying landscape architecture.
“We were walking through woods and came to a hemlock grove,” Rockcastle said. “(My son) said it would be great for growing shiitake mushrooms. I was looking for ways to use the woods and it turned out we had the right conditions, so we jumped into it.”
He said the market for fresh, local shiitakes is steady and growing “There’s not a lot of supply, so generally, the market’s good in summertime,” he said. “The longer we stay involved, we get repeat customers who try the product and like them. We also give samples to get people encouraged to try it, and once they do, they come back.”
Feel like a walk?
There’s another, more adventurous way to get your exotic mushroom fix: Go out in the woods and look for them.
Now, no one is suggesting you do this by yourself with no idea what you’re doing. There are tens of thousands of mushroom species and while the vast majority are perfectly safe, some are dangerous. And, frankly, most just don’t taste all that good.
You also have to keep in mind whose land you’re hiking and what their rules are for wild mushroom harvesting.
But finding the right wild mushroom at just the right time can feel like finding buried treasure, especially if you like to cook. Easy to identify, tasty wild mushrooms in this region include chicken of the woods, lion’s mane, maitake (also called hen of the woods), the ever-coveted springtime morels and chanterelles.
It’s best to befriend and go out a few times with a mushroom expert such as Garrett Taylor, a mycologist (mushroom expert) with the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club, who can show you how to spot the good ones and appreciate the beauty of the not-so-tasty ones, and point out a patch of Destroying Angels or Deadly Galarina when necessary.
Taylor can identify hundreds of mushrooms, and show you cool things about them, such as the tart taste of the water that seeps out of it, the bright blue it turns when you break it open and the milky droplets that appear when you stroke the gills.
He can show you what kinds of trees to look for when hunting edibles (cherry, oaks) and the beauty of the tiniest “birds nest” mushroom, that looks for all the world like a 1/4-inch nest holding three eggs.
Taylor is also a chef at Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino, which is kind of how he wound up traipsing around in the woods.
“I read a book by (chef) Jacques Pepin,” Taylor said. “I was training myself to cook and the book said to find a mycology society.”
He now likes to go on mushroom hikes with the mushroom club, especially the identification process. “It gets kind of competitive,” he said.
Walking a trail behind the Woodcock Creek Nature Center near Saegertown, he saw and identified mushrooms such as amanitas (mostly harmless, though not all), russulas, boletes, trametes, polypores, pointing out mushrooms that crafters like to use as natural dyes.
How did he get to be a mycologist? He learned to identify 10 mushrooms, then 25, then 100 and finally in the 500 range. While hiking up a hill, he offered culinary advice for using a good-sized chicken-of-the-woods.
“Cook it for a really long time, like ribs,” he said. “Leave it whole and eat it like a barbecued chicken sandwich.”
He said while food was what got him into mushrooms, he’s now hooked on the subject from every angle. And he’s seen that happen to a lot of people.
“More people are interested in what they can eat,” he said. “Now I’m interested in whatever is out there.”
From Bradford, Taylor said he thinks the Erie area needs its own mushroom club because the WPMC is centered in Pittsburgh, though it travels to the peninsula once in a while.
“(Mushroom hunting) is something anybody can do,” Taylor said. “It’s not hidden from the world. It’s out here for anyone to enjoy.”
Later, up by the nature center, he poured over a patch of bright, pure white mushrooms. “Destroying Angels,” he said, picking one out of the ground to point out the bulbous base, with assurances that you can’t get sick from touching it. “Don’t want to eat these.”