Sunday, February 10, 2013

NOFA-NY 2013 II: The Shroom Cult

I must begin by assuring the reader that there were no midnight chants or revelatory trances fueled by funny fungi (that I was aware of) at the NOFA-NY conference this year. There are other mushrooms worthy of reverence, after all, for reasons ranging from the medicinal to gastronomical. And of course, who could fail to praise a mushroom that brings in the cash to keep their farm afloat? Mushrooms of all these sorts were frequently under discussion, with many of their enthusiasts in attendance.

I think it was within the first few minutes after our arrival that I heard a passerby saying something about their local Mycology Club. There was a tall fellow in an odd hat who seemed to have based his entire lifestyle around mushroom-hunting. These people were serious about their mushrooms.

But it gets even better: thanks to a few informative workshops presented at NOFA, I now look forward to getting serious about mushrooms as well!

I've long had an interest in foraging, which of course drew me to the Foraging Fun: Fungi and Otherwise workshop on saturday afternoon. Led by the brightly energetic Petra Pagemann of Firefly Farm who led us through a long list of wild edibles, my awareness of the abundance of tasty edible fungi saw some definite expansion. I still have a lot to learn, of course, before I'll be relatively comfortable gathering most mushrooms aside from morels, but I also learned that these mushrooms I found and photographed a couple years back are definitely NOT good for eating:
I never trusted these guys anyways.
We were invited to try a couple different medicinal mushroom tinctures, the utility of which is usually related to boosting the immune system, though ongoing research into the many active compounds in certain fungi hints at far more potential benefits to herbal and pharmacological application of these fungi yet to be confirmed.

Petra didn't limit herself to fungi; the season-based list of wild foods also included plants I find familiar like nettle and cattail, but also some I've explored less like spruce tips and the Autumn Olive, a tip which led me to finally identify the shrubby plant, heavy with red berries, that takes up so much space down in our local creekbed, the related but less-tasty Canada Buffaloberry. 

The only entry for the month of february was the Chaga mushroom, so it pains me to say that I'll have to wait a little while to start this year's foraging, as Chaga is almost unheard of in this part of the state (it loves to live in adirondack birch trees, however). I did get to taste some Chaga tea, which had a complex flavor that was definitely novel to my tastebuds.

And yet, my aim is to be a farmer, not just a forager. To this end the aforementioned Forest Farming of Shiitake, Specialty Mushrooms and More provided a lot of detailed info via a panel of experienced farmers and experts, including Julie Rockcastle of nearby Green Heron Growers, who harvests quite a lot of delicious shiitake mushrooms every year to sell fresh, dried, or in a nut pate at the market. Last week, with everyone around me seemingly coming down with something, I bought a bottle of their shiitake tincture myself. One of the other panelists (some guy from cornell) gave a lengthy presentation on the science showing confirmed immune-stimulating and anti-inflammatory effects of compounds derived from shiitake. Skeptics beware: shiitake is not just for hokey herbalists like me.

The workshop taught me quite a lot that I must admit I had no idea about regarding the life cycle of many fungi. In most, the cycle begins when spores inoculate a nutritious substrate, where they develop into mycellium, which spread through the substrate, digesting nutrients until they've stored enough that certain environmental signals like temperature shifts and the presence of moisture stimulate the mycellium to put out "fruit," the parts of the fungi that we see as mushrooms. The fruits release spores, which find a substrate, and the cycle begins again.

In shiitake, the appropriate growth substrate is hardwood logs. In cultivation of shiitake, the mycellium is given a head-start by being cultured in sawdust in a controlled environment, which is then packed into holes drilled in the substrate logs. Once inoculated with mycellium in this way the logs are referred to as "bolts" and are kept in stacks in well-shaded woods. A year is required for the mycellium to fully colonize the log and store nutrients.

To induce fruiting, the shiitake farmer "shocks" the logs by immersing them in cold water for a day, with the temperature change and moisture mimicking the environmental signals that would naturally tell the fungus to fruit. Done this way, the timing of the fruiting is predictable and happens all at once, rather than bit by bit over time. After about 8 weeks the bolts can be shocked again, so many shiitake farmers stagger the timing of their shockings so that they have at least one stack of bolts fruiting each week, allowing a continuous harvest.

Other farmeable fungi, mostly more difficult and unpredictable to cultivate include Golden Oysters and Wine-Cap Stropharia. One of the coolest-looking fungi is Lion's Mane, which apparently tastes like lobster but consumer awareness is insufficient to support a market for it at the moment. It apparently loves beech forests, so I'll be keeping a keen eye out this year.

Ginseng, Ramps, Goldenthread and Cohosh were also discussed as high-value forest crops, things with which someday I can hopefully stock my forest. Speaking of forests, however, pretty much everything I've talked about so far resides in the understory. It is those denizens of the forest who make it a forest to whom I must turn my attention next: the trees.
So many trees, so little time to climb them all.
Hopefully I'll get that one up more quickly than I did this one.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

NOFA-NY 2013 I: Towards Becoming a Farmer

My excursion to the aforementioned NOFA-NY conference was motivated by the life-direction which I've been growing into for the last few years: I am going to be a farmer. While my interests and hopes for the future are many, farming has emerged as the path which ties them all together most cohesively. As self-labels go, however, "farmer" is certainly loaded with its fair share of preconceptions.

The version of "farmer" that I intend to be strays pretty far from the stereotypical image of the fellow astride a roaring tractor, a slow-flying shuttle passing endlessly over the warp of his fields weaving sun, soil, seed and Dow chemistry into the fabric of his harvest. What we see there is in the end a lonely miner, extracting nutrients crop by crop from the ground via short-lived roots to be ripped up, bundled, and sent somewhere else. In truth he has for decades been a secondary miner; with the soil already stripped, nitrogen-rich fossil fuels are mined elsewhere by a primary miner and then shipped to our secondary miner, that he might spread them on his fields and mine them back out again in the form of sunny sweet corn.

Not that driving a tractor around isn't fun and all, but my eventual farm is less likely to host sights like this:
Yes, that field has been mowed to say "USA"
And more like this:
This doesn't even look like a farm, right? But there's enough  food
in this photo, calorie-wise to feed you for a year or more.
This might be an edible oyster mushroom but I sure didn't eat it. 
Why? I've come to feel very connected to this hilly region of WNY. The soils, topography and climate of this region naturally give rise to a forest ecosystem with mixed patches of grassland and wetland. A method of agriculture that nurtures and gently manages such systems, rather than seeking to suppress them and impose an entirely foreign ecosystem, can yield rich harvests of food for humans while also restoring the land and preserving or increasing biodiversity. Biodiversity, of course, is critical to the robustness of a biological community (I'll write more on why in the future). Dependence on monoculture is already starting to show its vulnerability to even small changes in climate. Farming our native forests is an extremely viable path for society. Sadly, it's also foreign to our culture.

Coming back down to the present, of course, my pie-in-the-sky ambitions have a more immediate obstacle than the titanic trends of consumer culture: as a 22-year old with little money or material assets whose formal education ended at highschool graduation, there are a lot of resources I need to gather before I can begin to put together the farm I envision.

Fortunately, that was the focus of Friday's first workshop at NOFA. Called "Starting from Square One" and led by Erica Frenay of Shelterbelt Farms and Angela Nelson of Daily Harvest Farm, the workshop was focused on exploring and defining one's vision and goal as a farmer and translating that into real-world actions to bring that vision closer to fruition.

A resource assessment brought no real surprises but there was certainly value in putting it all together in one place. I am presently poor in material resources, having gotten by for the last year on almost no money (just enough to cover rent and food, for the most part) from odd jobs and an internship. I don't own a car, much less any workable land. And farming probably never will make me rich- almost every one of the farmers I admire in WNY has a non-farming "day job" to make ends meet.

I do feel well-off in terms of nonmaterial resources, however. I feel lucky to be plugged into a great community of those farmers I just mentioned. Going to the farmer's market is one of the highlights of my week. There's so much generosity, so many opportunities to connect and to learn. In this coming spring I have some land-access on offer from some of those farmers so that I can get started doing some self-directed cultivation. Some of the members of that community have through internships and work imbued me with further resources in the form of skills and knowledge. I've already got a solid grasp on small-scale organic produce gardening and grass-fed livestock management, among other things. As a good self-directed learner I also have an entire university of knowledge down the street here at fredonia state, with a well-stocked library and talkative professors.

A value assessment was next: without getting into the more abstract aspects which are always in expanding flux, I know that I wish to avoid debt wherever possible, have the opportunity to both do hard work and have times to relax, and to furnish the existence of a functional, integrated ecosystem in which I would be a part, as the farmer. In terms of land, I would ideally have a wooded hillside with a level clearing and some portion of wetland.

From the contrast of available resources and the desires elicited by those values, the generation of goals was the next and last part of the workshop. Clearly the primary resources I still need to acquire are a vehicle, capital for purchasing land, livestock, trees etc., and a good amount of further knowledge and skills. My brainstormed "to do" list for this coming year read:
1) get a job
2) get a car and, first, my driver's license
3) grow some crops in the spring
4) continue expanding my skills and knowledge through work and study.

I am pleased to announce that, with regards to this list, I already have some successes to share!

In the week since I returned I have gotten a job, worked two shifts already, and seem to be fitting in very well there. I have also begun self-directing studies at the college library, which I'll be talking about more here in the future. I'm excited to feel that I've got the process underway.

Returning to the NOFA conference, though, that last goal certainly was going to see some work, particularly in regards to the subject of forest farming. That'll be for next time, though, in NOFA-NY 2012 II: The Shroom Cult.

Do come back later.