Mushroom grower discovers profit in specialty fungi
A conversation with Linda Spain might sound more like some fictional story than farming — topics such as spawn, working in the shade and using cut timber rather than soil for production don’t resonate with your typical grower.
But Spain, of Spain Farms in Raleigh, N.C., is not your typical grower. She raises and sells shiitake mushrooms, a highly desirable, meaty fungi that is considered a delicacy in kitchens and gourmet restaurants alike.
“We might have to deal with a couple of snakes,” Spain says, laughing, “but we’re the only farmers who get to work in the shade.”
• There are thousands of mushroom types; a handful are easier to grow in N.C.
• Growing mushrooms, for the most part, is labor-intensive, but has low overhead.
• Yield is 18,000 pounds of mushrooms per year; the Spains also sell niche products.
Along with her husband, David, and son, Patrick, Spain lives on a portion of the family farm where she was raised. While David works in pharmaceutical sales and Patrick is still in school, all three pitch in to help with the operation.
There are thousands of varieties of mushrooms. In addition to shiitake, the Spains are experimenting with others as well, and three types in particular: pearl oyster, maitake and lion’s mane (also known as hedgehog).
“These are the ones that local restaurants want, and they are easier to grow in this area,” Spain says.
The family first got interested in the mushroom business three years ago, when they were trying to keep the former tobacco farm intact, as it had been for decades.
“I saw an ad in [a rural life magazine], and about that time, North Carolina A&T University [in Durham] was looking for people to grow mushrooms,” Spain says. “It was a little different, and it would help us to be different.”
Spain Farms started with 200 logs the first year and then sought out customers. David was in sales already, so he was comfortable with cold calling, but last year, the family underestimated production and ended up with an excess of mushrooms and not enough places to sell them.
“A farmer’s biggest negative is that they don’t know how to go out and sell,” Spain says. “It is not a case of ‘If you grow them, they will come.’ ”
The downtime between seasons gave them a chance to regroup and make sure they wouldn’t have that problem again. The Spains have five restaurants that make up the core of their business, and other periodical buyers that can run that customer list up to 20 at times. Their mushrooms travel across the state, from Winston-Salem to Greensboro and Greenville as well as the Triangle, and can be purchased at farmers markets in Durham, North Hills and Cary. A market customer can buy as little as 1 ounce at a time, or a pound for $12.
“The buying local movement has helped,” Spain says. “Ours are totally different than what is in grocery stores — ours are much meatier. Chefs are already using these types of mushrooms, and they want to buy local. They can change orders on short notice, and they can also market on their menus that they use local mushrooms.”
It is a multistep process to setting up a “line” for mushroom production. Spain Farms purchases 4- to 5-foot oak and sweet gum logs from a forester in the eastern part of North Carolina.
Holes are drilled in the logs in a diamond-shaped pattern and then filled with spawn, a mixture that looks like sawdust, from which the fungi will sprout. A device known as an inoculator embeds the spawn.
Cheese wax is used to cover the holes to keep insects out, and it takes about two-and-a-half hours to prepare 25 logs.
“That is the most labor-intensive part of the process,” Spain says.
The logs are then stacked in the woods for about a year as they await their place in a production line. When they are ready to produce, they go into a water bath to soak for 24 hours. In the spring, when nighttime temperatures hit the high 60s, they are ready to sprout. The log-soaking process shortens the life of a producing log to about three years, Spain says. It then becomes so rotted that it is used as mulch.
Instead of a “Lincoln log” stack, the Spains use old metal ladders propped on cinder blocks in the woods on their property to make their lines. The lines are equipped with a misting system so they can be kept damp as needed. In five to seven days, the mushrooms start to appear, covering the entire log at peak growing periods.
There is a short spring season, then not much growth in the hotter summer months. Full swing comes in the fall, when the growing period runs until the first frost. Fall production runs roughly twice that of the spring.
“It is a trial and error process,” Spain says. “North Carolina A&T holds workshops every year, and you learn a little bit, then find out what works for you. When we started, we heard that a log should last seven to eight years; but in reality, to grow around here, outdoors, you have to soak — and that drastically cuts the production life of the log.”
Spain Farms has 1,600 logs in production this year and plans to run that total to 2,000 in the near future. They had approximately 6,000 pounds of shiitakes in the spring.
“It has been immediately profitable,” Spain says. “There is low overhead, and the biggest expense is in setting up the logs and irrigation system. The labor-intensive part is in the setup and getting the logs ready. But you only [embed] the logs once, so all of that is up front.”
In addition to expanding the mushroom business, Spain Farms is going to make some other “different” additions to its 20-acre property. The Spains have started a fig tree grove and also a pawpaw section. Pawpaws are a cross between mangos and bananas. Plans are to add persimmons next year.
They’re also getting into the livestock business, with the recent addition of meat goats, and a late-summer start on laying hens. They are also considering honeybees.
“Full-time farming would be nice,” Spain says. “We don’t know if that’s possible, but we may find out soon.”
Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.
This article published in the April, 2010 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.