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Farm aims to mushroom State grants loan to boost growth industry -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- By Marcus Green email@example.com The Courier-Journal
SALT LICK, Ky. ? Each spring, Bill and Becky Webb begin the seasonal cultivation of shiitake mushrooms on thousands of oak logs shaded by a canopy of poplar trees.
It's work best suited to warm weather, so Sheltowee Farm moves some logs to a greenhouse starting in late fall to continue the meticulous growing process.
Because Sheltowee supplies gourmet mushrooms to more than 30 upscale restaurants in Kentucky, demand remains steady during the winter months. But the 3-year-old Bath County farm doesn't have the capacity to move a considerable number of logs inside or to wait for them to sprout.
The Agricultural Development Board last month approved Sheltowee for a $37,750 forgivable loan, which the farm will use to add a 4,650-square-foot building and equipment for year-round shiitake production.
Sheltowee also plans to buy mushrooms from smaller growers and educate farmers about mushroom production. The state envisions the farm as a model for other specialty-mushroom producers, including farmers looking to replace lost tobacco income.
"We're going to be teaching mushroom-growing training classes, 4-H classes, and we'd be available for tours," Bill Webb said.
But mushrooms are a small part of Kentucky's new farm economy at best. The federal agriculture census released this year reported the number of Kentucky farms growing mushrooms under glass or other protection increased to 19 in 2002 from four in 1997. The survey did not track farms raising shiitake mushrooms outdoors.
Sales of $889 million for the 2002-2003 domestic mushroom crop were flat compared with a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agaricus mushrooms, used on pizzas and in salads, comprised most of those sales ? $852 million. Shiitake, oyster and other specialty mushrooms had sales of nearly $38 million.
The Kentucky Shiitake Growers Association has grown to about 20 farms since its inception last year, said Sandi Deutsch, an Okolona grower and the group's president. It's estimated that hundreds of people are raising shiitakes for their consumption, but only a few are doing so seriously.
One obstacle facing growers is a marketplace mainly limited to local farmers' markets and white-tablecloth restaurants.
"We need a large distribution system in order to get something going," Deutsch said. "So that's what this growers association has been really working on ? trying to get some kind of a wholesale market going for the people that are not interested in promoting their own mushrooms."
Deutsch said possible buyers would include large wholesale companies that supply supermarkets. The association is using $53,000 in state and federal grants to develop a distribution plan so growers won't put a sizable investment into shiitakes only to be left without a market.
"Very few are going to do it to the scale that Billy and Becky (Webb) did," Deutsch said.
The Webbs' Sheltowee Farm raises log-grown shiitakes and several gourmet oyster mushrooms cultivated in a climate-controlled setting.
Sheltowee delivers mushrooms six days a week, including two trips to Louisville restaurants. Demand for the farm's mushrooms has averaged about 260 pounds a week this summer. The Webbs say weekly demand rises to more than 300 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year's and around the Kentucky Derby. Sheltowee mushrooms sell for about $8 per pound.
"They are pretty popular" at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel's Oakroom and Otto's Cafe, said Duane Nutter, assistant to Chef de cuisine Todd Richards. The Seelbach uses Sheltowee's oyster and shiitake mushrooms.
Inside the greenhouse, the Webbs combine 20 pounds of wheat strain and sawdust with mushroom seeds in plastic bags, then hang them in a temperature-controlled room for two to three weeks. Once little oyster mushrooms begin to poke out of the plastic, the bags are moved into a warmer room to sprout.
Outside, oak logs are prepared by packing pre-drilled holes with shiitake spawn, and incubation occurs in six to 18 months. After incubation the mushrooms are immersed in water to encourage sprouting.
Most of the farm's shiitakes will still be grown outside, but the new building will allow for year-round cultivation. Natural logs that are moved inside take about five weeks to sprout mushrooms.
For winter production, the Webbs plan to raise shiitakes on small, sterilized sawdust logs. They say it will take less time to shift part of the overall shiitake process inside than it would to transport cold logs inside and wait for sprouting.
Getting Sheltowee started involved significant costs, including about $80,000 to build the greenhouse and another $28,000 to run electricity to the building.
The Webbs said they could not have started the farm without their savings and Bill Webb's pension from the Navy, from which he retired six years ago. The farm has posted a profit in only three months in its history. Its sales goal is $8,000 a month.
"We have been breaking even this year," Becky Webb said. "We're starting to pull ahead this year. With the (board) financing we're getting, it's allowing us to build and stay in business."