| Jul 02, 2009

Back to HomeFeature Article - July 2, 2009 Farming the Shiitake mushroomby Greg Williams

Rick Dawson displays some inocculated logs

If given the opportunity to go overseas and teach English, or to stay in Canada and farm on the Canadian Shield, what would you pick? Facing this question myself, in late April, the choice was easy: farming.

My name is Greg Williams, and this is my story about my time working on Pat and Rick Dawson’s farm, Desert Lake Gardens, and working in their restaurant, the Mill Street Café. They have welcomed me into their home as I spend the season learning all aspects of organic farming, marketing and cooking local and organic food.

Now it would have made much more sense to go to Korea, or Japan and teach English, as that ability comes more naturally. Yet, in my mind, learning how to grow food – while being difficult and requiring endless hours of hard work – was nonetheless the best choice.

Coming to Frontenac County from the suburbs of Ottawa is not as much of a change as going to Korea or Japan, but it is still a change. This is especially true in that I have no farming experience. Since my arrival, I have learned a lot, and expect to learn more.

Desert Lake Gardens is a quaint farm north of Sydenham. Its soil is sandy so they mainly grow salad greens, but the attraction is the shiitake mushrooms. The grocery stores back home sell shiitakes but they cannot compare in size, taste and colour to the ones here.

“It’s a rich brown colour, ranging in size from one to ten inches in diameter,” said Pat Dawson. “With a more substantial meaty texture compared to a button mushroom.”

My first few weeks involved inoculating the logs. Mushrooms are a bit different from everything else in the garden because they don’t have seeds. Inoculation is the same idea as sowing seeds, just much different. It’s a laborious job but once done, it does not have to be done until the following year.

First, we have to get a log from one of the stacks, or go out and chop more trees that already been earmarked for the mushroom harvest. These logs are cut into arm-length pieces and then have holes drilled into them in alternate places, allowing the spores a place to spread within the log. The hardest part of the job is the process of putting in the spores, a sawdust mixture in the shape of a plug, into all of the holes. The logs then get stacked in rows. They remain in those rows until the next season when it will be time to start picking the mushrooms.

After over a week of doing this back in May it was reassuring to know that this only had to be done once. All that’s left to do in regards to the mushrooms is soaking and picking.

Soaking involves taking the inoculated logs from the previous year and putting them into a tank that that is then filled with water.

“This simulates spring and shocks the logs into fruiting,” says Rick Dawson. This triggers the mushrooms to start to come out of the logs, and within a few days, the first signs of mushrooms begin to appear. Within a few more days, they are ready for picking.

Picking is easy. You simply walk around and when you see that the underside of the mushroom, or gills as they say, is three quarters of the way open, you cut the stem from the log and put it in a basket.

All that’s left to do is find people who want to buy them.

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