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Down on the Farm
From a Story by Paul Tukey in "People, Places & Plants"
9:30 on most Sunday nights in the spring and summer, lights are dimmed along Standpipe Road in Damariscotta, Maine. By 9:45, when many of the area residents have long since gone to bed, the owners of the Oyster Creek Mushroom Company keep one eye on the clock and another on the front window.
Sometime around 10, a car will invariably pull into the remote dirt driveway. Candice Heydon will look for an ashtray; her husband, Dan, will uncover the scale. While the day's last customer, known only as Norman, enjoys his cigarette, Dan will remove boxes from the trunk of the car and begin to weigh. Everyone will smile and shake hands, marveling at the quality and quantity of the haul. And after the exchange of pleasantries and money, Norman, flush and happy, will begin the two-hour drive back home.
"Oh, we know what some people are thinking when they hear we're mushroom dealers," said Candice. "But we're just making an honest living like anyone else."
Well, not quite like everyone. In developing what certainly qualifies as one of the more unique home-based businesses in New England, the Heydons have found a niche in the specialty foods market. Eleven years after a class on fungi cultivation from the Cooperative Extension Service, Oyster Creek Mushroom Company struggles each year to meet the vast demand from restaurants and health food stores.
"Finding knowledgeable pickers is the biggest problem we have," said Dan. "We can easily sell everything people bring us, along with everything we can grow ourselves."
Several years after she spotted Dan atop a telephone poll stringing lines for the cable company, Damariscotta native Candice Griffin Heydon signed the couple up for the Extension class at nearby Lincolnville Beach. Right away, she said, she saw potential for a business. When she pitched her idea at the state capitol, however, men in suits snickered.
"I told them that harvesting wild mushrooms and growing cultivated mushrooms is a legal billion-dollar industry in many parts of the world, and that we could do it here," she said. "But when I went to a Restaurant Trade Show in Augusta, with a room full of legislators, they looked at me like I was crazy, like I was some little girl with a pipe dream."
So instead of going forward with a traditional business plan, the Heydons built a company by selling one trunk load of mushrooms at a time. They honed their own growing techniques, and now manage a crop of nearly 5,000 oak logs that bear the highly coveted mushroom known as shiitake, Lentinula edodes.
By developing a wholesale network, and perfecting drying techniques, their business is now year-round. Candice still works part-time as a breakfast cook at a nearby restaurant, but Dan left the cable company two years ago and now spends his time making deliveries and attending trade shows -- where curious patrons are always full of questions.
The Heydons advise beginners to contact one of the state amateur mycological associations for an education. Only about 25 percent of wild mushrooms are edible. A few are deadly poisonous, and everyone should be absolutely certain about identification before eating. Would-be pickers are also advised to respect the rights of property owners, and to tread carefully in the woods.
With experience, one can find mushrooms growing in New England from early spring to late fall. Morels, Morchella sp., start as soon as the snow leaves the ground, followed by other species such as chicken of the woods, Laetiporus sulphereus, matsutake, Tricholoma magnivelare, and boletes, Boletus sp.
"Once you get a nose for where to find mushrooms, it's fairly easy," said Dan. "A lot of times we'll be driving down the highway at 65 miles an hour and I'll yell out, _STOP!_ There will be a big patch of chanterelles right there on the side of the road."
Most of the time, though, they leave the wild gathering to the folks who show up in Damariscotta all hours of the day. When wild mushrooms are in season, someone always has to be home to take deliveries.
"It's quite a group of people," said Candice. "They're friendly, but they don't talk about where they pick. They don't want to take the chance that someone will find their patch. They'll walk 35 miles a day, from dawn until dark, and then show up here at 10 or 11 o'clock at night and unload 100 pounds of mushrooms out of the back of a station wagon.
"And we'll have them all sold the next day."
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