Many farmers in Appalachia are cultivating food not in big open fields but deep in the forest — where ramps, hazelnuts and maple trees for syrup thrive.
But some would like to see the region producing even more forest-grown products — in particular, mushrooms — to meet growing demand at specialty food stores and restaurants that serve local ingredients.
The catch? Cultivating mushrooms is labor-intensive, and if you want to sell them to the public, you’ll need to show proof that they’re edible and safe.
A handful of people in Appalachia have been growing shiitake mushrooms for decades.
Just outside the town of Milton, W.Va., Bob Maslowski owns a 140-acre forest where he grows and collects 21 different edible types of mushrooms.
Maslowski and his wife Susan have what is called a forest farm. Aside from mushrooms, they also harvest elderberries, raspberries, and wild onions called ramps from their forest.
This doesn’t look like a traditional farm with rows of crops. This is full of tall shadows from the trees, with birds chirping above our heads. It’s quite idyllic, and not a tractor in sight.
But sometimes you might hear the sound of Maslowski drilling holes into oak logs, on the edge of the forest. He uses the logs to grow shiitake mushrooms.
Maslowski orders shiitake spawn from Wisconsin. The plugs look like little erasers from a pencil, and inside each one are tiny dormant mushrooms.
He then sticks these plugs into an oak log from his forest. He says the logs last between four to six years and give him several spawns of shiitake each year.
Maslowski has been growing shiitake mushrooms for about two decades. This is all mostly a hobby for him and his wife, Susan.
“Basically, when we have a really good spawn run, we’ll take 9-10 bags to the farmers market,” he says. They sell the three-ounce bags for about $3 each.
The Maslowskis love to cook, and with each mushroom harvest, they invent new recipes. They share their latest inspirations at dinner parties and potluck gatherings with friends who also grow and cook local shiitakes.
Aside from a few customers at the farmers’ market, and friends who also grow shiitakes, Maslowski says he doesn’t meet many people who’ve tried specialty mushrooms – except for those who know and love morels.
“Appalachians really love the morels. And they’ll pick them just deep fry them.” In Kentucky, he says, that dish is called Dry Land Fish.
But Maslowski says he isn’t supposed to sell wild mushrooms at farmers markets because to the Health Department can’t inspect them to make sure they are safe for human consumption.
He’s allowed to sell cultivated shiitake and oyster mushrooms is because they are grown from spores. At the farmers’ market, he has to show proof that he bought the spores — and that his mushrooms didn’t grow wild in the forest.
Maslowski collects morels on his own land along with other wild mushrooms, like chanterelles. But he doesn’t sell those. They’re too precious. He only collects enough for him and his wife to eat.
His hope is to encourage more farmers to start growing shiitakes because he’d like to see the community of mushroom farmers continue to grow in West Virginia.
Brad Cochran is an extension agent with West Virginia State University who’s working to encourage more farmers to grow shiitake mushrooms, which he says could be perfect for West Virginians who are looking to make a bit of extra cash.
“There is a lot of demand, especially here in the Charleston-Huntington metro area, because there are so many up and coming restaurants and really cool chefs around town that are just dying to get a hold of some good locally grown mushrooms,” Cochran says.
Cochran says there are more and more studies being done that show the health benefits for eating mushrooms.
His favorite recipe is the most basic: sautéed mushrooms in some butter with a little garlic.
He’ll use shiitakes from the grocery store, if he has to. But he says the dish is really the best when the mushrooms come from a local forest, or even his own back yard log.