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.

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