Quantifying the capacity of Wine Cap mushroom cultivation to enhance soil health, improve vegetable crop value and increase farmer profitability

Progress report for FNC20-1208

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $9,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Field & Forest Products
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Lindsey Bender
Field & Forest Products
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Field and Forest Products grows mushrooms commercially for farm markets and co-op accounts and has also been producing mushroom spawn and providing growing supplies to commercial cultivators and hobby growers for over 30 years. Field and Forest Products also supports its farmer customers by answering grower questions about how to grow specialty mushrooms profitably. The 41 acre farm grows and markets Shiitake and Wine cap as well as other specialty fungi, with special attention to polyculturing Wine cap and Almond Agaricus in the garden and high tunnel setting. Field and Forest Products Inc. is co-owned and operated by Mary Ellen Kozak and Joe Krawczyk. The couple are authors of several mushroom cultivation related publications, most notably, Growing Shiitake in a Continental Climate. Field and Forest Products recently teamed up with mycologist Lindsey Bender who specializes in soil microbial ecology, experimental design, and statistics. She comes from a diverse ecological background and has a strong interest in research and development focusing on sustainable practices and improving soil health.

The farm operates on a foundation of sustainable-focused practices. We strive to reuse and recycle as many resources as possible including, but not limited to: water, food scraps, paper materials, packaging materials, and other wastes generated by the business and farm operation. We participate in outdoor composting and indoor vermicomposting, utilize paper materials and other waste products as substrate for mushroom cultivation, heat our facility with sustainably harvested on-site firewood and exhausted shiitake logs, recycle gray water, reduce printing, and many more. The nature of fungi as environmental recyclers enhances our abilities as a company to operate as sustainably as we can.


Soil health is critical to sustainable agriculture and nutrient dense food production. Many agricultural soils are unhealthy and standard practices like tilling, fertilizing, soil compaction, and over production, are exacerbating the problem.  In order to improve the health and potential of our soils to ensure our future food demands are met, we need to make sustainable changes.  This project proposes to evaluate the use of an innovative method for soil improvement while increasing crop productivity, food nutritive value, and income revenue for farmers.  The use of the Wine Cap mushroom as a soil builder shows promise from previous research.  New research in nutrition indicates that mushrooms contain Ergothioneine, an important antioxidant linked to longevity and healthy aging.  While mushrooms are the primary source of Ergothioneine, evidence suggests plants grown in healthy soils or alongside fungi have increased Ergothioneine concentrations. Wine Cap (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) is simple to grow, highly productive, and has significant potential for farmer crop diversification.  This study is a collaborative effort between experienced mushroom farmers, University researchers, and the agricultural community.  This project will provide quantitative data and a project-based avenue for educating farmers about the benefits and ease of mushroom cultivation, which evaluating the application of mushroom growing to improve soils and plant crops. 

Preliminary Results:

Preliminary soil tests examining soil biology (Total fungi, fungal activity, bacterial biomass, etc) from each of the five replicates indicate no statistical differences.  These data will serve as the baseline for comparison to soil tests taken at the end of the two year project in order to determine if our treatments impacted soil biology.

Baseline soil tests from each of the treatments (5 replicates) showed no statistical difference in soil biology.

We measured bed depth in the two mulch treatments (Straw plots and Straw plots with Wine Cap mushroom) and found that plots with the mushroom were statistically significantly shallower.  This is a good indication that the Wine Cap mushroom was actively and very quickly breaking down the organic mulch layer.

Bed depth differences between the Straw treatment and the Straw with Wine Cap Mushroom (SRA) treatment. Bed depth measured 3 months after establishment. The Wine Cap mushroom contributed to faster decomposition of the mulch layer than the beds without the mushroom.

Bed temperature was also measured in beds and found to be significantly different between mulch treatments.  Beds with Wine Cap mushrooms were 2.1°F warmer than mulch only beds.

Bed temperature was statistically higher in beds with actively growing Wine Cap mushrooms than in mulch/straw only plots (p=0.03).

Tomato plants were planted into treatment plots (2 plants/plot).  Plant overall health was visually evaluated (greenness, size, fullness, presence of disease) on a scale from 0 = dead to 10 = healthiest.  Plants in plots with Wine Cap mushrooms were the healthiest with an average health rating of 8.0 (p=0.001).

Plant health was evaluated in all plots (2 plants per plot, averaged) on a scale from 0-10 (healthiest). Plants in plots with the Wine Cap mushroom were statistically significantly healthier than plants in non mushroom plots (control, straw mulch only).

All tomatoes were harvested from each plot at peak ripeness. Yield was recorded and subsamples from each plot were frozen at -80'C for Ergothioneine testing.  Overall, tomato plants in plots with the Wine Cap mushroom (SRA) yielded more tomatoes (6.85lbs) compared to straw mulch only plots (4.59lbs) and control plots (2.38lbs).

Tomato plants grown in plots with the Wine Cap mushroom were the highest yielding.  All tomatoes were harvested from each plot at peak ripeness.

Research still in progress.  Complete results to be included in final report.

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to evaluate the use of the low cost, organically grown Wine Cap mushrooms to improve soil health, reduce the need for tilling, weed control, and watering while increasing crop health, productivity, and value (increased through increased nutrient density and Ergothioneine content.

Our objective are:

  1. Test changes in soil health in response to Wine Cap mushroom cultivation through field testing
  2. Measure Ergothioneine content in response to Wine Cap
  3. Evaluate the economic benefits of this innovative approach
  4. Involve and educate farmers to promote mushroom industry growth through field days, social media, and consulting


Materials and methods:

Part A: 2017 experimental field: Transplant heirloom tomato plants into each of the established and active treatment plots from previous FNC17-1070 grant. We will monitor plots biweekly throughout the growing season. Harvest mushrooms and tomatoes and track yield, visually assess plant vigor, disease, measure bed temperature, depth, and soil moisture. No watering unless necessary. End of year assessments made in fall. Spring 2021 re-plant second year crop of tomatoes and monitor plots throughout second growing season.

Part B: 2020 experimental field: Establish 15 individual plots total in spring 2020 (3 treatments (control, mulch only, mulch with Wine Cap x 5 replicates), 2m x 2m in size with 2m rows between plots. Preliminary baseline soil samples were taken from the center 1.0m2 area of each plot (to limit edge effects) to a depth of 10cm. A minimum of 10 cores/plot were harvested, homogenized, then sent off for testing. Treatments were planted using straw only based on previous grant results indicating straw beds were healthier and more productive. Straw was soaked, drained, and layered with Wine Cap in treatment plots. Mulch only treatment plots were planted with just straw. Control plots plants only, no mulch. We monitored plots biweekly as described above and data was collected throughout the first growing season.


Delineating plots July 7th, 2020
Taking the first round of soil samples to serve as the baseline.

Soil sampling diagram.

Soil samples taken from each plot (multiple cores to 10cm deep combined per plot).
Soil samples from each plot were homogenized, labeled, and sent off for analysis. These data will serve as the baseline.
Soaked straw layered into Straw and Straw/mushroom plots.
We planted the Wine Cap spawn to each of the mushroom bed plots. Then covered the spawn with a second layer of soaked straw to cover the mushroom spawn.
Second layer of soaked straw.
We added woodchips to the top layer of all Straw and Straw/Wine Cap mushroom plots for added moisture control.
Evaluating the plots August 12, 2020. Control plot (no mulch on the left) compared to a Straw plot (with mulch on the right).
Evaluating bed temperature and mushroom spawn run on August 20, 2020.
Evaluating tomato plant vigor in each of the plots. Two plants per plot individually evaluated and averaged.
Measuring bed/mulch depth for each plot and harvesting Wine Cap mushrooms October 1, 2020.
Wine Cap treatment plot (replicate 4) early summer. Wine Cap mushrooms ready to harvest. Yield taken per plot. Tomato plants assessed for disease noted on lower leaves.
Plot assessment day. Evaluating plants for disease and overall health, measuring their height, and harvesting any mushrooms present.
Tomatoes were harvested at their peak ripeness regularly. Subsamples of tomato tissue were collected and frozen at -80'C until Ergothioneine testing.

In spring 2021, we re-planted tomato plants and monitored the plots throughout the second growing season.  We took yield from all harvests and recorded labor hours for economic evaluation. Due to covid, we were unable to host field days, so we filmed footage of plot assessments and created videos to promote the research and share progress. Soil and plant tissue samples were collected from all plots at the end of the 2021 growing season will be sent out for testing. Data was recorded on data sheets and compiled into Excel. Statistical analysis were performed using Systat and interpretation of results will be discussed with supporting professionals.  Complete results will be reported in the final submission.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools

Participation Summary:

3 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

We had to cancel our field day events in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID, so we really focused on digitally promoting our research and creating videos that we could share and build upon.  We produced the first two video installments and will continue to produce more as our research project enters its second and final year.  We intend to host in person events in 2021 if we are able, but will also be doing live digital events or online workshops to reach a larger audience and provide a more interactive experience.  


Wine Cap Research SARE Grant Series: Part 1. Video released July 9th, 2020, received 1,233 Views on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVNx6qgz5bE&feature=emb_logo

Wine Cap Research SARE Grant Series Part II: Soil Tests, Data Measurements and Plot Maintenance. Video released September 3rd, 2020, received 600 views on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yezl-x-hORI

We've promoted the research we are doing and shared these videos through our Facebook page (2,705 people reached from 3 posts), our webpage (https://www.fieldforest.net/research),  and Field and Forest Products' newsletters to thousands of growers. 

August 2020 Newsletter: https://mailchi.mp/fieldforest.net/august-2020-newsletter-080620?fbclid=IwAR2jucb9QYQfi39xt_w_bRfNAqgD8mDU73_n378Coz5o6vE8q3IA-phuC-0

September 2020 Newsletter: https://mailchi.mp/fieldforest.net/september-2020-newsletter-091720?fbclid=IwAR1V825mjy-Slxjp3oyDyi1a3OmVLdhtF7Ccf2AvIoX8NKaV3b2ZnweCIYo

Wine Cap Research SARE grant Series Part III: Year 1 Plot Observations. Video released April 2, 2021, received 1,142 views on YouTube.

Wine Cap Research SARE grant Series Part IV: Plot progression and data collection. Video released September 10, 2021, received 395 views on YouTube.


Learning Outcomes

Lessons Learned:

Grant still in progress, will expound upon in final draft.

Project Outcomes


We evaluated the potential benefits of Wine Cap mushroom cultivation on Tomato crops, however, it would be beneficial to examine the impact mushroom cultivation can have on other agricultural crops.  In addition, this project and growing scale is gardener to small farm and labor was done manually.  We recommend examining the potential to scale up mushroom cultivation to benefit large agriculture where machinery is used to plant, fields are used exhaustively, crop rotation is limited, and there is increased pressure on the soil.  

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.