A few summers back I took a road trip with my husband and mom out to the east coast to join the IALF team in Maine. We planned stops along the way, but the most rewarding stops were those that we happened upon. One such stop was a farmers’ market in Lewiston, New York. We moved from vendor to vendor, but one caught our eye. They were selling a fungal treat, mushrooms. Oyster, lion’s mane, and shiitake lined the table. It was our first-time seeing mushrooms at a farmers’ market which led to us purchasing a box of fresh pink oyster mushrooms and shiitake. That night we roasted them on our open campfire. Their flavor was a melody of sweet earthy nuttiness. As we delved into our mushroom medley we discussed how we would never find this kind of produce at a farmers’ market in Iowa. Then, the next summer, I was at the Dubuque farmers market and happened upon a mushroom farmer, and then again, this summer at the Ames farmers’ market. These encounters had me wondering how are mushrooms farmed in Iowa?
What are mushrooms?
Before digging into how mushrooms are farmed, let’s dig into what a mushroom is.
Though the USDA classifies mushrooms as a vegetable, mushrooms, at their basic classification are fungus. Fungi are a type of multicellular mold or yeast that work together to gather food, repair, and reproduce. What we know of as a mushroom then is the fruiting body of these fungi. Some fungus feed on decaying matter, while others can photosynthesize. There are an estimated 5.1 million species of fungus on Earth; of these species there are a total of 300 known funguses that we can eat; of those fungi, only 30 of the species are domesticated, and of those 30, only 10 are commercially grown. These species include morels, white button, lions’ mane, oyster, shiitake, and portabella to name a few.
How are Mushrooms Farmed?
In Iowa, farmers focus on the production of specialty mushrooms. This means they cultivate mushrooms that are not the white button mushroom. When choosing a production style, farmers take into consideration the land, weather, and market that is available to them. These considerations help to dictate the cultivating style a farm may choose. Though there are many cultivation styles used in Iowa, these styles can be broken down into two categories: low-tech and higher-tech.
Low technology mushroom cultivation utilizes wooded areas and outdoor locations to grow mushrooms. In this process, farmers gather logs and find areas where soil is ideal for mushroom growing. Since mushrooms eat decaying matter, farmers will inoculate, or plant, mushroom spore plugs (similar to seeds) into logs by drilling holes and then placing plugs. These logs are then stored either in a wooded area or in a shed to allow for the mushrooms to grow. This method is used by Stone Hollow Gardens & Shroomery out of Dubuque, Iowa.
Another low-tech cultivation method is inoculating the soil, which Edge & Osborne use. Some mushrooms, like morels, do not grow on decaying matter, but rather grow in the right soil conditions. To grow these mushrooms, the soil is inoculated with plugs and then netted to prevent pests from eating the crop. Once ripe, the crop is hand-picked and sold at farmers markets and local grocery stores. With Iowa’s short growing season (Spring-Fall) for mushrooms, low-tech farming can restrict the production of mushroom crops.
In contrast, high-tech mushroom farming uses bags with a growing material called, medium. Medium is created from saw dust, oats, straw, or wood chips that have been pasteurized and placed into a sealed bag. The pasteurization process cleans the medium to kill all bacteria and unwanted spores (such as other fungi or yeast) to reduce competition and contamination of the mushroom crop.
Medium bags are inoculated with mushroom plugs in a sterile environment to reduce the chance of airborne particles (i.e., unwanted fungi) falling into the medium. Bags are then placed into an environmentally controlled building. This type of housing allows farmers to monitor temperature, lighting, humidity, and air flow, all of which affect the growth cycle of mushrooms. This operation can happen on the large scale (commercially) where there are multiple warehouses for mushroom cultivation. Or small scale, such as Todd Mill’s mushroom farm, Mushroom Mills, in Columbus Junction, Iowa. Mill’s farm started off by growing mushrooms in an environmentally controlled shed and has now expanded to larger buildings.
What to do with Mushrooms?
Mushrooms have different flavor profiles that range from nutty, to earthy, to even fishy. These robust flavors make mushrooms perfect for sautéing in a little butter or adding them to any dish. However, the lion’s mane mushroom, with flavors much like crab, make it perfect for tofu “crab” rangoons.
Tofu “Crab” Rangoons
- 1 package of tofu (we prefer Old Capital Tofu)
- 2 green onions chopped
- 8 oz of lion’s mane mushroom (fresh or dried)
- 2 tsp sesame seed oil
- 1 TBS minced garlic
- 1 tsp of Worcestershire sauce or fish sauce
- 3 tsp soy sauce
- ½ tsp onion powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 24 wonton wrappers
- Oil for frying
- Place tofu, oil, and lion’s mane mushroom into a blender. Blend until creamy.
- Add garlic, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, onion powder, salt, and pepper. Continue blending until mixed in.
- Place mixture into a bowl and fold in green onions.
- Spoon mixture onto wonton wrappers. Fold and crimp shut.
- Deep fry until golden brown.
- Let cool and enjoy.