Cultivation of shiitake mushrooms as an agroforestry crop for New England
In 2010 over 200 hundred farm/forest owners attended introductory and advanced shiitake mushroom cultivation and marketing workshops, and 27 were chosen to participate in the implementation phase of the project which consisted of each participant inoculating 100 bolts (logs) with shiitake spawn on their property, managing their laying yard, harvesting and selling mushrooms, all the while keeping records of labor, expenses, production and sales. Summer and fall of 2012 was the first complete harvest season for which records were returned to us for analysis. Mushroom harvest, sales and record keeping will continue through 2013.
To overall goal of this project is to train farmers/forest owners not only to cultivate shiitake mushrooms but also to develop a small scale commercial enterprise for marketing this valuable non timber forest product.
Performance Target: Each of 20 farm woodlot owners will inoculate 100 logs in 2011 and harvest 100 pounds of shiitake mushrooms by 2012, earning $1200.
After a series of workshops (milestone 1, achieved Summer, 2010) and site visits to commercial shiitake farms (milestone 2, Summer 2010 & fall 2010), 27 participants were selected to participate in the implementation phase of this project at their own farm (Milestone 3, winter 2011). With support from project staff (including onsite visits and resource materials), 23 of these participants began shiitake farming by inoculating 100 logs and establishing a shaded laying yard where they were kept. A number of growers chose to go beyond the milestones of this product by inoculating 100 bolts in Spring, 2012 beyond the original 100 inoculated spring 2011, but labor or expenses incurred from these addition logs inoculated one year later (2012) were not included in the data shown below. Participants agreed to keep detailed records regarding management of their bolts (inoculated 2011, milestone 3), and inputs of labor and expenses for the duration of the project. (milestone 4, achieved: Spring 2011). Participants attended a commercial enterprise planning and marketing workshop (milestone 5, achieved: Summer/Fall 2011). About 1 year after inoculation of the 100 bolts participants began harvesting and selling mushrooms and recording production and sales data (milestone 6: Summer 2012 – 2013). The findings to date are summarized below.
Originally, twenty-seven participants were selected to take part in the two-year study of Northeast shiitake mushroom production. During spring of 2011, participants started their shiitake enterprises by inoculating one hundred bolts (4-6” diameter x 36” fresh cut logs) with shiitake strain WR46, provided by the project. Tree species chosen by participants were based on our recommendations and local availability or cost to the participant. Participants recorded the tree species, date the trees were felled, and date the bolts were inoculated for each of 5 stacks of 20 bolts each. Participants monetary and labor inputs were coded into several categories. For each, an array of economic, social, and demographic characteristics was also collected. Response rate was 81.4%. It should be emphasized that participants were not “forced” to adopt an identical protocol for all as would be the case for an experiment conducted at a research station for the sake of experimental uniformity and replication. Rather, participants were given broad parameters, and left to make key decisions appropriate for their particular farm, including tree species, laying yard configuration, canopy shade trees, marketing strategy, etc. Our objective was not to conduct a controlled experiment which we could have conducted at our Arnot Forest forest farming research site, but rather to facilitate “real world” (not simulated) on-farm shiitake enterprises, by actual farmers, with all the variations that would normally occur from one farm to the next.
In 2012, approximately one year after log inoculation, mushroom production and harvest began during early summer, in accordance with Milestone 6. In most cases participants resorted to “forcing” (a.k.a. shocking) to produce a uniform flush of mushrooms “on demand” by soaking bolts in water for 12-24 hours, resulting in a predictable harvest about one week later. Each stack of 20 logs was flushed 2 or 3 times throughout the growing season, which lasted until about mid-October.
Throughout this mushroom production/harvesting period (Summer – Fall, 2012), participants continued to record information regarding their labor and expenses. They documented a variety of parameters related to fruiting as well as the shiitake mushroom production per stack of bolts per day. Participants recorded where they sold their mushroom and the income they received though sales. Twenty three of the original 27 participants chosen for the implementation phase of the project, actually completed inoculation of their 100 logs (85%) (Table 1). Eighteen of the original twenty-23 participants who inoculated logs successfully produced and sold shiitake mushroom (66%). Of these who sold mushrooms, 15 participants kept detailed records of the fruiting process and sales (72%). Reasons given for dropping out of the project were lost access to land (1), death in family (1), unable to purchase bolts (1), began new career (1), bolts lost in flood and broken leg (1), and unknown (4). There appeared to be no consistent reason for dropping out of the project.
One activity stipulated in milestone 6, “regional discussion groups” did not take place as such (face to face meeting amongst participants at specified locations), but another originally unplanned activity served much the same purpose. A “Mushroom Growers” email listserv (<MUSHROOMS@LIST.UVM.EDU>) was initiated early in the project which fostered a great deal of discussion of mushroom cultivation-related issues not only among project participants, farmer advisors, and other project staff, but also many others throughout the Northeast interested in mushroom cultivation but not directly associated with the project.
The data and commentary presented below was collected from project participants during 2012, regarding their inputs, production and sales of mushrooms from the 100 bolts each participant inoculated in spring 2011 (2240 bolts total). Data was submitted by participants to us using the spreadsheet templates we provided. Overall, participants inoculated 2240 bolts in 2011 as part of this project. Data regarding labor and expenses included the period from spring 2011 (initiation phase, Milestone 4) to the fall of 2012 (production/sales phase, Milestone 6).
Figure 1. shows the breakdown of labor associated with different mushroom cultivation / marketing–related tasks. Initial felling of trees and preparation of bolts in the spring of 2001 took 12% of the total amount of time participants invested in this project from Spring 2011 through Fall 2012. After felling, the subsequent inoculation of bolts took 41% of their time. Routine laying yard maintenance over the following 18 months took up 10% of their time. Harvest-related activities during the summer / fall of 2012 took 9% for shocking/fruiting, and actual harvesting (picking) took 13%. Sales related activities took 3% for processing, 2% for transporting, 2% for advertising, and 6% for actual sales. The remainder (“other”) took 2% of the total amount of time devoted their shiitake mushroom enterprise through the end of the season in the fall of 2012, but these same 100 logs can be expected to produce mushrooms annually for 2 or 3 more years. Labor (hours) for individual participants are shown in Table 2. Figure 2 shows that most (71%) of the overall labor (hours) was contributed by the owner (participating farmer) , followed by volunteers/friends (23%), and paid employee (1%).
The expenses and earnings varied widely among participants (Table 2). Five of the 15 participants who successfully harvested and sold mushrooms incurred a net loss (values in parentheses in the right hand column). Seven participants did not successfully harvest mushrooms for sale and therefore took a loss (data not shown). Eleven participants earned income averaging $937.98 per participant, and generated a profit within the two year span of the project (so far, pending 2013 production/sales). Profits ranged from as little as $0.39 per bolt to as much as $18.88 per bolt. This translates into a net profit of between $54.60 and $2643.20 per participant. The average profit per participant was $473.87, and the total profit for all 13 participants who produced, sold, and reported back was $7108.
As unfortunate as it may be that 5 participants incurred losses, this was in no way a “disappointment” or failure from the sand point of the project, because we want find out what is a realistic success/failure rate for adoption of a shiitake enterprise. It is a given that not every adopter will be successful, but know we have a realistic estimate of what portion of typical adopters will or will not succeed.
A participant’s profit was not significantly influenced by either the amount of labor (Figure 3A) or the amount of money they invested in the project (Figure B). The largest influence on net profit was the annual production per bolt; shiitake production per bolt explains 54% of the variation in profits. Consequently, the next obvious thing to consider is what factors affected production per bolt?
In the series of graphs attached to this report, the effect on shiitake mushroom per bolt of several economic and cultural factors are considered including: labor, expense, date shocked, date tree felled, date bolt inoculated, high temperature, and tree species. Linear regression was used to determine the best-fit line and equation and equation for that line, and also the R2 value otherwise known as the correlation coefficient. The probability that the result was statistically significant is indicated by the p-value shown in the figure caption.
The amount of labor (hours) invested per bolt did have a significant effect on production (p=<.0085, r2=.45) (Figure 4A), whereas the expenses invested per bolt did not have a significant effect on production (Figure 4B). As mentioned earlier, shiitake, unlike other forest cultivated mushroom, can be shocked (force fruited) by soaking bolts in water for 12-24 hours. This has obvious advantages for planning for market delivery on a predetermined schedule. The decision by a given shiitake grower as to when to force bolts is highly individualized with respect to weather conditions, prior fruiting history, labor availability, etc. The choices a grower makes regarding when to force may have an impact on total mushroom production. The participants in this project force fruited each stack of bolts two or three times during 2012. Figure 5 shows the relationship between the date a given bolt was soaked and mushroom production. Obviously there is considerable scatter to the data, i.e. not a tight correlation between these two variables (R2 = 0.1) but there is a statistically significant (p=.0001) tendency for later soaking to result in more mushroom production per log.
Another factor that we hypothesized might be a useful predictor of mushroom production is the date on which a living tree was felled (cut down) to produce bolts for inoculation. Conventional wisdom has it that bolts cut from more dormant trees (cut earlier, i.e. late winter, early spring) will yield more mushrooms than bolts cut late spring / summer. Figure 6 shows that the date of felling the trees did not have a significant effect on mushroom production per log (p=0.3421). This result does not support conventional wisdom, and suggests that growers have greater flexibility in scheduling time for tree cutting although it must be kept in mind that there are many factors in addition to date of felling that differed among growers. In addition to date of tree felling, the actual date of bolt inoculation is a related factor growers must consider. Figure 7 shows that there was a significant tendency (p=.0026) for bolts inoculated earlier in April to produce more mushrooms that bolts inoculated later in the spring. There was also a significant relationship between the number of days elapsed between felling and inoculation and the pounds of shiitake mushrooms produced (R2= 0.0998; p<0.002). According to this data, farmers are best served inoculating their log as soon as possible after felling the tree.
Tree species has always been considered an important factor when producing shiitake mushrooms as a forest crop. Conventional wisdom has it that oaks are best, other hardwoods like hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), musclewood (Carpinus betulafolia), sugar maple, and American beech are acceptable, and red maple is a less acceptable substrate for growing shiitake mushrooms. Figure 8 show the effect of several different hardwood tree species on mushroom production per bolt by participants in this project. In this case, there we no clearly superior species among hop hornbeam, red maple, red oak and sugar maple, and red maple did better than expected while American beech did not perform as well as expected.
In addition to the effect of cultural factors on shiitake mushrooms production, an equally important consideration was how and where they were sold. Prices obtained ranged from about $12 per pound up to about $16 per pound. Mushrooms sold at farmers markets tended to sell for the highest price, although there was not a great deal of price variation among different venues including direct sales, farmers markets, grocery stores, and restaurants (Figure 9). The proportion of mushroom sold at these different venues was greatest for restaurants (46%), direct sales (19%), farmers markets (15%), groceries (15%), and other (5%) (Figure 10).
An additional accomplishment that has come about in 2012 is a complete revision of the Northeast Forest Mushroom Growers Network (NEFMGN) (http://blogs.cornell.edu/mushrooms/) website (funded in part by this NE SARE project as well as MacIntire Stennis (federal research) and Smith Lever (federal extension) support. This new and improved version of NEFMGN includes a blog featuring a variety of mushroom cultivation topics on an ongoing basis, an updated map-based growers directory that can be used to query the location and contact information for growers and others who wish to be listed. It also includes factsheets, events colander, videos, research updates, and a resource library.
The profit a farmer generates is not related to how much time he/she spent on the project nor the amount of money. Profit is predominantly influenced by shiitake yield per log. Therefore, the best way to increase profit is to really focus on optimizing production.
The best way to increase production is to increase the amount of time spent working with the logs. Farmers who spent more time on the project generated significantly more shiitake mushrooms per bolt (Figure 4A). This statement appears to be in conflict with the previous statement (Conclusion 1, above, “profit… is not related to how much time he/she spent on the project.” The reason for this apparent discrepancy is most likely attributable to the fact that production is not the only factor that determines profit. Other factors like price, market venue, spoilage, pest damage (slugs, etc.).
Conversely, farmers who spent more money on their project did not see a corresponding increase in shiitake production (Figure 4B).
Logs shocked later in the year produced significantly more shiitake mushrooms. Therefore, patience is key.
Trees felled at any time of the year have the same production potential. However, trees inoculated earlier in the year produce significantly more shiitake mushrooms.
There was also a significant relationship between the number of days elapsed between felling and inoculation and the pounds of shiitake mushrooms produced (R2= 0.0998; p<0.002). According to this data, farmers are best served inoculating their log as soon as possible after felling the tree.
Farmers can expect to achieve the greatest yields on Red Maple and Red Oak. American beech logs produce significantly less shiitake mushrooms than Red Maple and Red Oak.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The results at the end of the second year of this project demonstrated that there is an extremely high level of interest in cultivating shiitake mushrooms as a non-timber forest crop for the Northeast (based on workshop attendance). We also demonstrated that a small farmer / forest owner can generate income by growing and marketing shiitake mushrooms. In this case nearly half of the 23 beginners, who undertook the implementation phase of this project, went on to grown, harvest, and sell shiitake mushrooms for a net profit. Of these only 3 achieved the $1200 earning level as specified in the performance target (“…20 farmers will produce…100 pounds of shiitake mushrooms by 2012, earning $1200”), and 6 farmers produced at least 100 pounds of mushrooms. Also, even though only 3 participants had earnings equal to or greater than $1200, fifteen participants had positive earnings, and 10 of these did turn a profit. Keep in mind that these bolts should continue to produce salable mushrooms for at least 2 more years. The contribution to farmer / forest owners who are considering undertaking a shiitake mushroom enterprise will see that there is potential to make money, but they will now have a realistic estimate of their probability of success, which as not here to for been available. In fact, this project has demonstrated that many of the shiitake production guidelines that have been developed under more controlled university settings (such as when to inoculate logs and what type of trees work best) have a statistically significantly influence on farmer’s production potential under real world on farm conditions.
Recorded the hours of labor and expenses required to implement a successful shiitake mushroom cultivation business. This provides farmers with a very realistic estimate of how much time and money is required to generate a profit. Unlike most studies which estimate these values form university trials or a couple of experienced (proven) commercial growers, our results encompass wide variety of farm models and participant interaction levels. The three farmer advisors involved in this project are, of course, experienced commercial growers. They are representative of the relatively few who have succeeded out of the relatively many who have not. In fact, as part of our final project year (2013) we intend to work with them to develop complete analyses of their operations to contrast the these already successful operators with the participants in this study who have little or no prior experience. This should give prospective shiitake entrepreneurs a more realistic idea of what it takes to succeed.
The Mushroom Growers listserv (MUSHROOMS@LIST.UVM.EDU) described above had and continues to have a significant impact on communication and awareness among shiitake growers, including both the participants involved in this SARE project, as well as many others subscribed to the listserve. As of December 12, 2012, there were 192 posts to the Mushroom Growers listserv that included questions, answers, and comments across a broad range of shiitake (and other) forest mushroom-related topics. The most consistent contributors to the listserve have been the four farmer advisors associated with this project. These farmer advisors were chosen because they had considerable practical experience and expertise, so their participation in the listserve has been one of the most important contributions they have made. The less experienced beneficiaries of their postings have acknowledged this with comments such as “…thanks again for helping on this project. Your experience and insights have been invaluable” and “ I cannot emphasize how much their [experienced advisors] input has personally helped me… Very good idea to include them in the SARE project!” Typically the posting from the farmer advisors were extensively detailed and carefully constructed and we have archived these and intend to include some of them verbatim in the Best Management Practices document that is under development as one of the final deliverables of this project in 2013.
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