Sustainable agriculture is gaining interest in cities due to its ability to reclaim polluted land, minimize food miles, mitigate food deserts, and create entrepreneurial opportunities. Yet, small margins and an over-reliance on vegetable production affect the long-term viability and resiliency of small-scale urban farms. Outdoor mushroom production is a low capital, low overhead, high margin crop, well suited to urban space constraints. Utilizing low productivity areas (flood-prone, shaded, intercropping), small-scale production can be maximized using low-cost waste stream substrates and enhancing soil health. To our knowledge, Indiana has no outdoor mushroom market producers, limiting support for farmers seeking to diversify through this market. The overall goal of the project is to foster farmer collaboration that leverages shared interest, expertise, and experience to create a model of low input diversification that maximizes profitability for small-scale urban farms. Local best practices for outdoor mushroom production in Indianapolis will be explored and trialed at four sub-acre farms in Indianapolis by providing partner farmers with production expertise, start-up resources, and cohesive marketing. This project will more broadly benefit urban farmers throughout the North Central Region by applying expertise from indoor and rural mushroom operations to test viability and profitability in small-scale urban contexts.
The project’s overall goal is to help resource-limited urban farmers trial outdoor mushroom production to diversify crops, income streams, and the local food economy. The following objectives will be pursued:
Objective 1. Reduce barriers to outdoor mushroom production through training and resources for four Indianapolis urban farmers.
In March 2017, farmer partners will participate in a 2-day workshop, led by Mark Jones, Sharondale Mushroom Farm. Topics include fungal biology and ecology, tissue culturing, spawn production, growing methods for various mushroom species, post-harvest handling, marketing, mushroom mycelium revenue, food safety, compliance with USDA-GAPS and organic certifications, value-added products, and customer education—focusing on shiitake, oyster, and king stropharia. Mr. Jones will assist each farmer on-site to determine the ideal location(s) for mushroom production and provide site-specific guidance. Mr. Jones will serve as a project consultant throughout the project.
Objective 2. Determine feasibility and local best practices for mushroom production in Indianapolis’ urban setting and climate. After the workshop, each farmer partner will determine the waste stream products available (wood chips, logs, sawdust, straw) and order appropriate spawn and supplies. Inoculations will occur in April 2017, with fruiting expected 6-18 months. Each farmer will report to the group: inoculation date, mushroom strain and substrate, site location, shade type, variability in temperature and relative humidity (instrumentation provided by Butler), watering dates, forcing dates (if used), fruiting date, flush yield, and sales revenue.
In year 2, farmers will conduct new inoculations, if desired, continue to monitor production, and compile best practices on: mushroom species and strains for best yields, obtaining substrates, and manipulating microclimates. Farmers will meet quarterly to discuss trial status and to create collaborative documentation for best practices, marketing, and presentations.
Objective 3. Research the local market and create cohesive marketing materials for mushrooms in Indianapolis.
From April–August 2017, farmers will explore the local market for mushrooms by polling customers and retail outlet. Farmer partners will likely sell through four existing main channels: farmers markets, farm stands, CSA programs, and retail sales.
From September 2017–February 2018, farmers will collaboratively create marketing materials for mushroom products that advertise the new local product in Indianapolis by IndyGrown partners—a network of urban market farms. Minimally, stickers and flyers will be created to promote “Grown in Indy” products and each market farm individually and will highlight the superior taste, freshness, nutritional density, and shelf life of naturally grown, local mushrooms. Materials will be distributed at local farmers markets, farm stands, retail outlets, social media, and using Purdue Extension and Indy Food Council partnerships. Each farmer will also undertake individual marketing efforts.
Objective 4. Disseminate findings to regional farmers through field days, the Indiana Small Farms Conference, and online documentation.
June 2018–August 2018, farmers will host field days for Indianapolis’ 130 growers. Best practices documentation and factsheets will be posted onto the Butler University, IndyGrown, and Purdue Extension websites by February 2019. Farmers will present outcomes to other local farmers at the Indiana Small Farms Conference in March 2019. Because all farmer partners have a mission to educate the Indianapolis community about local, sustainable foods, the benefits of mushrooms will be shared with K12 students, community gardeners, and college students through farm tours.
This project will have positive outcomes for farmer partners, other regional growers, local consumers, and Indianapolis and regional urban food systems. Farmer partners will forge deeper collaborations with one another while acquiring new skills, will benefit from collaborative marketing, and will increase economic viability through low-input product diversification. The expansion of products offered will enrich the local food system by providing nutrients unique to non-animal products. At the end of the project, farmer partners will complete a survey to determine how this experience changed their knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Success will also be measured quantitatively through measurements of yield and revenue and the development of best practices.
This project will develop best practices and reduce barriers in the North Central Region for mushroom production in small-scale urban operations, with unique resource constraints. Product diversification via mushrooms will enrich local markets, provide financial stability, and enhance nutritional offerings in local communities. The impact of the project beyond the four participating farmers will be determined by the number of individuals attending field days and conference presentations as well as working with Purdue Extension to monitor urban agriculture in Indianapolis to determine if others try mushroom production.
Objective 1. Reduce barriers to outdoor mushroom production through training and resources for four Indianapolis urban farmers.
The CEO of a mushroom farm in Virginia, led a 2-day mushroom biology and production workshop hosted at Butler University in March 2017 for four farmer partners. All four farmer partners run sub-acre, highly diversified operations in urban Indianapolis. The first day of the workshop focused on fungal biology and ecology, tissue culturing, spawn production, growing methods for various mushroom species, post-harvest handling, marketing, mushroom mycelium revenue, food safety, compliance with USDA-GAPS and organic certifications, value-added products, and customer education—focusing on shiitake, oyster, and king stropharia. The second day of the workshop was devoted to site visits to each farm to assess the unique benefits and constraints for on-farm locations for mushroom production as well as farmer access to waste stream products for mushroom substrate. After site visits, farmer partners learned how to inoculate wood chips with king stropharia sawdust spawn and inoculate Ailanthus altissima logs (aka tree-of-heaven, a non-native invasive in Indiana) with yellow oyster sawdust spawn. Inoculated logs were divided equally amongst farmers so they could determine prime locations for log production on their farms. Inoculated wood chips were located under the partial shade of seaberry bushes on farm 2 and allowed to run for 3-4 months. Once the mycelium ran, the substrate was shared amongst all farmers so that their farm soil quality could be enhanced by king stropharia. At the end of the workshop, farmers were given the opportunity to select from a variety of spawn, log inoculation starter kits, and education materials to jump-start their production trials.
After the workshop, the mushroom farm in Virginia served as a consultant to Indianapolis farmers primarily via online communication. The farmer partners determined that the online platform Slack, which can send notifications to smart phones in real time, would be the best way to communicate, especially with limited access to email throughout the day. On this platform, farmers have shared successes, challenges, and coordinated equipment and supply use with one another. For example, the farm 2 has a truck with a reinforced bed that can transport heavy substrate materials that can be used by the other farmer partners, two of which do not have access to a truck. Farm 1 quickly constructed the equipment for straw sterilization to produce inoculated mushroom bags. Use of this facility has been offered to the other three farms to minimize the need for repetition of these facilities and to help educate and minimize barriers for other farmers who wish to set up this operation. One farmer frequents the area of the consultant’s mushroom farm and has made site visits to see the operation there and to pick up mushroom spawn and supplies at reduced cost for the other farmer partners. These synergies have reduced the barrier to entry for the farmer partners by creating a community working together on site-specific mushroom production.
Objective 2. Determine feasibility and local best practices for mushroom production in Indianapolis’ urban setting and climate. After the workshop, each farmer partner determined the waste stream products available (wood chips, logs, sawdust, straw) and order appropriate spawn and supplies. Each farmer was instructed to report to the group: inoculation date, mushroom strain and substrate, site location, shade type, variability in temperature and relative humidity, watering dates, forcing dates (if used), fruiting date, flush yield, and sales revenue.
Objective 2. Determine feasibility and local best practices for mushroom production in Indianapolis’ urban setting and climate.
Given that each farmer partner has different site opportunities, access to different substrate types, and production scales of interest, it is no surprise that each farmer has selected a different approach to mushroom production. This will help strengthen the network of knowledge in Indianapolis on mushroom production over the long-term. Year 1 of the grant was focused on trailing mushroom production at four urban Indianapolis farms. 3 of the 4 farms have produced a small yield of mushrooms as part of the trial and plan to scale up in the 2018 growing season. At this time, farmers will closely track: inoculation date, mushroom strain and substrate, site location, shade type, variability in temperature and relative humidity, watering dates, forcing dates (if used), fruiting date, flush yield, and sales revenue.
See “Success Stories” under “Project Outcomes” for specifics on each farm’s production trials.
Educational & Outreach Activities
In February 2018, farmer partners met to discuss the coordination of a field day/field days to showcase mushroom production best practices. Farmers decided to capitalize on an existing urban farm tour organized by the Purdue Extension Service in which they all participate each fall: the Harvest Ride. The farmers are working with the event planners to ensure that the marketing reflects this new project for the fall 2018 tour. Each individual farm will include their mushroom efforts as they host tour groups on that day. Individual farms will also share their mushroom efforts with additional tour groups that frequent their operations, including the Purdue Extension Master Gardeners Program, Urban Agriculture Certificate program, and/or their Urban Farm Incubator Network, Future Farmers of America, and other interested groups.
In spring/summer 2018, farmers will also begin documenting best practices and creating factsheets. The project coordinator will be presenting the project at the Our Farms Our Future conference in April 2018.
This project has already seen much success in bringing needed knowledge of mushroom production (both indoor and outdoor) to central Indiana and to resource-limited urban farmers. The biggest success of the project so far has been the collaborative network that has been built among farmer partners. Farmers sharing equipment, knowledge, and support has been integral to project success and will continue to help support these and other urban growers into the future. The online platform, Slack, utilized to enhance communication amongst farmers played a large role in maintaining communication between farmers. On this platform, farmers get real-time updates on their phone of incoming messages.
On a more practical level, two of the four farms have sold mushroom products so far, with a third close to having enough product to sell at the Indy Winter Farmer’s Market. This diversification of product offerings will increase farm revenues and diversify local food offerings in Indianapolis. Each farm is producing differently, which will facilitate the creation of a comprehensive assessment of site- and substrate-specific best practices for mushroom production. Further, farmers learned the soil quality benefits of inoculating vegetable beds with mushroom spawn (such as king stropharia), with each farm benefitting from the initial inoculation conducted at the CUE Farm during the workshop which was subsequently shared amongst farms and integrated into their growing beds.
Given that each of four farmer partners on the funded work has different site opportunities, access to different substrate types, and production scales of interest, it is no surprise that each farmer has selected a different approach to mushroom production. This helps strengthen the network of knowledge in Indianapolis on mushroom production over the long-term. All farms as sub-acre urban farms.
Farm 1 has the goal of producing mushrooms year-round. After the workshop, Farm 1 quickly set up equipment for straw fermentation to inoculate straw bags placed in a shaded hoop house. They inoculated on March 31, experienced first fruit of oysters on May 2, and first full flush on June 6. Once the summer became hot and dry, they experienced difficulty getting fruiting due to climate control.
In early October 2017, Farm 1 fermented two additional bales of straw. Two weeks after fermentation began, the straw was inoculated with blue grey oysters. The bales were fully colonized by the beginning of December 2017 and the bags placed in a shaded hoop house to see how the oysters would fair over the winter. The oyster grew very slowly, growing and freezing, then growing and freezing. When they got to market size they stopped their growth and froze in Indiana’s sub zero temperatures. While they were frozen they rotted. As a result, Farm 1 has seen a less consistent harvest in the winter months as compared to the other seasons. They are hoping to get a second flush sometime this spring.
Farm 1 has constructed a fruiting chamber out of a clean IBC tote. Shelves were added to the inside for the sub straight blocks to fruit on and humidifiers blow in moist oxygen to the totes. Five lions mane blocks were purchased from Three Caps Mushroom Farm in southern Indiana and placed in the fruiting chamber before the winter holiday season. After January 1, it was determined that the humidifiers were not adding enough moisture to the chambers in the dry winter conditions so pond foggers are now being used where the bottom of the tote is filled with water and the fogger is floated in the tote. This has done the job of adding enough humidity to allow us to get back to a more predictable harvest. Farm 1 has had two flushes of lions mane form the blocks so far at 3 lbs total harvest. The blocks are still producing and moving into their 3rd flush.
In fall 2017, Farm 1 inoculated tree of heaven and placed it in a safe place in their barn so the mushrooms could colonize with out insect pressure. When the inoculation sites turned white the logs were moved outside so they could receive water.
Moving forward, Farm 1 is committed to picking up 20 shiitake blocks monthly from Three Caps Mushroom Farm, in southern Indiana. They will receive the 20 blocks around the 11th of each month and will place 10 blocks in their fruiting chambers. After 7-10 days they plan to harvest 8-10 lbs. of mushrooms. The remaining unfruited 10 blocks will then be added to the fruiting chamber. The blocks that have produced their first flush will be removed and let rest for 8-12 days, depending on the moisture content. After the blocks are rested they will be punctured 4-6 times with a sterilized probe to create holes for water to penetrate the block when soaked. The blocks will then be soaked for 12 hours to reinvigorate the mycelium and placed in a shaded hoop house or in the wood line to wait for the second flush.
Farm 1 is also hoping to build a climate controlled room for fruiting, but are not sure when that will be completed given attention that needs directed to vegetable production in the spring. Until then, they plan to add two more fruiting chambers to increase production.
Farm 2 is interested in continuing its focus on growing food in the least resource-intensive ways possible and in harmony with the rhythm of the natural environment. As such, the farm’s goal with mushroom production is to grow 100% outdoor with minimal technology. Farm 2 will first focus on log production and placement of inoculated logs in adjacent riparian forest, under fruit and nut trees on site, and underneath a mobile greenhouse on site.
Farm 2 used Ailanthus logs inoculated with yellow oyster sawdust spawn during the March 2017 training workshop to test success of log placement in adjacent riparian forest. The logs fruited on October 4, 2017 and yielded 8.6 oz of mushrooms. The mushrooms were overripe, so they were given to student interns to consume. The wood chips that were inoculated with king stropharia sawdust spawn on Farm 2 during the workshop were spread to shaded asparagus rows to explore the opportunity for intercropping asparagus and mushrooms. Logs were not artificially watered between inoculation and fruiting. Wood chips were periodically watered between inoculation and fruiting.
At the end of April and early May, pin oak and white oak logs were inoculated with shiitake sawdust spawn and placed in adjacent riparian woods. Logs were not artificially watered between inoculation and fruiting. Fruiting occurred in October 2017, and yielded approximately 3.5 lbs of product, with 1 lb tested by the farm manager and interns to assess quality and 2.5 lbs sold at their farm stand for $10/lb.
With the 2017 trial a success, Farm 2 will be scaling up their log production in the 2018 season. Production will focus on the spring and fall seasons when the climate is cool and humid and farm product offerings are not as diverse. Farm 2 has been scavenging free freshly cut logs of dormant trees tree trimming companies in Indianapolis.
Farm 3 has the goal of producing mushrooms year-round. Farm 3 used the knowledge and experience of the Farm 1 to set up equipment for substrate fermentation on November 28, 2017. Plastic buckets were used for straw inoculation instead of bags. They currently have 13 buckets of fermented straw inoculated with Pearl Oysters (Pleurotus osteatus) placed under a table in their greenhouse to determine fruiting success in those conditions. Buckets were inoculated on November 28, 2017, with first fruiting bodies appearing on February 5, 2018. Not all of the buckets have fruited from the first inoculation however, three of the thirteen are currently pinning. The first round of mushrooms was harvested on February 16, 2018. This first flush was a very meager amount, approximately 1 lb.
To further explore if the greenhouse environment is conducive to mushroom production, Farm 3 next plans to hang bags of straw under the tables in two greenhouses in hopes of a larger production amount. To date, they have purchased a couple different mushroom strains for these bags that are believed to be better suited for greenhouse conditions to speed up the process of colonization. The first of these two strains is the golden oyster (Pleurotus cornucopiae), selected for its larger temperature range for fruiting bodies and preference for more sun to produce the golden color in the caps. The second strain selected is PoHu (Pleurotus ostreatus), an Asian variety that also has a very large temperature range for fruiting and seems to be a big producer.
In March 2018, three bags of PoHu and two bags of golden oyster will be inoculated every two weeks to get staggered production. Bags will be filled with heat-treated straw as fermenting is hard to achieve in the winter. The farm’s current source for straw does not provide quality straw so other cheap sources of straw or use of a completely different substrate is being explored. One potential option is using spent grain from local breweries or coffee grounds from a partnership with a local coffee shop. The challenge with using spent grain and coffee grounds will be the pasteurization process to decontaminate the medium. If Farm 3 is able to develop a cost-effective method for this, coffee and grain substrates would be more ideal than continuing to pay for bales of straw.
In February 2018, Farm 3 carved out a bit of space in their indoor storage to experiment with a fruiting chamber. For the fruiting chamber, a large 6×6 foot commercial metal shelf has been converted into a fruiting chamber for mushroom blocks where the shelf is covered with plastic to create the fruiting chamber and a pipe hanging off the side of the chamber will be connected to a 40 gallon plastic tote on the top shelf where a pool of water and an ultrasonic pond fogger will be located. On the side of the tote lid opposite the fogger outlet, there will be an inline duct fan to circulate moist air in to the chamber as well as push out some of that CO2 out of the bottom of the chamber. The chamber will be on timers to regulate humidity and CO2 so that it is self-contained and automated to avoid the need to manually mist mushroom blocks with water twice a day.
This fruiting chamber will first be used to fruit blocks of shittake and lions mane blocks ordered from Three Caps Mushroom Farm in southern Indiana. Once production is accomplished with some efficiency, Farm 3 plans to experiment with some more difficult strains such as enoki and bear tooth.
Farm 4 has a goal of producing mushrooms year-round for their local neighborhood that is a food desert. The farm is a new urban farm that was still acquiring land from tax sales when the project began in March 2017. This farm spent the first year researching mushroom production and markets and conducted some small trials in the backyard of a home while waiting for the property purchase to be finalized. The property has now been acquired and now the farm is waiting for the weather to get warmer to start production. They purchased a propane turkey fryer at the auction to sanitize the hay and are currently looking for a 55 or 35 gallon drum so more hay can be boiled at one time. Until then, the pot from the fryer will be used, which should be enough for a five gallon bucket. In March they plan to start collecting coffee grounds from local coffee shops. They will be testing the viability of placing inoculated coffee grounds in buckets an the basement of their home until their on-site the hoop house is complete. Farm 4 is also planning to hire two youth this summer assist with production and track best practices including temperature, moisture, saturate used, etc.