Small is Beautiful|
Candice Heydon and her Valuable Fungi
From a Story by Christopher Hyde
Shiitake rhymes with "ice hockey"
"Can you imagine the comments in Eastport on a name like that?" asks Candice Heydon, owner of Oyster Creek Farm in Damariscotta, which raises,
Shiitake, a popular Japanese mushroom with reputed health benefits, was the start of Oyster Creek in 1992, with a little help from CEI/SBA. Heydon was a waitress shes still the dessert and hors d'oeuvre cook at the Newcastle Inn and was looking for some way to make 10 hardscrabble acres of oak trees pay for themselves, besides providing firewood. "There was a Knox-Lincoln extension course by Greg Marley and Tina Elloi about mushroom growing on oak logs. We took that and a workshop at Penn State on how to grow wild mushrooms, and started using our oak logs to grow shiitake."
As Heydon explains it, you take a healthy oak log, about four to six inches in diameter, and drill about 30 holes in it, which are filled with mushroom spores and then sealed with wax. The plant develops under the bark after about a year and then produces fruit (the mushroom) from May through November, if you're lucky and the weather cooperates.
One log she now has about 4,000 will produce for about four or five years. "It's kind of labor intensive. Can you see me going to a bank and asking to start something that might begin to pay off in four or five years?" she laughs. "I was unbankable."
She got a loan of $22,000 from CEI in 1992, soon after the SBA program was introduced, and used it to build a greenhouse for incubating the logs, a well to keep them watered, and an electric power supply. The first year she produced 600 pounds of shiitakes. Now she sells 25,000 pounds of wild mushrooms annually and sells all that can be grown or picked. She and her husband are hoping to get a new loan to build a packing house to supplant their kitchen, where this year they packed 11,000 pounds of mushrooms in 30 days.
The Heydons provide at least supplemental income to 40 Mainers, pickers who go out in the woods all over Maine looking for wild mushrooms and sell their finds to Oyster Creek, which also has a flourishing business in exotic mushrooms other than shiitake. Some the species, each of which has about a six-to-eight-week growing season, include morels, sulfur shelf or chicken mushrooms, chanterelles, black trumpets, Ponderosa, Hen of the Woods and King Boletes. Experienced pickers can no more mistake one mushroom for another than a stoop laborer can mistake a strawberry for a tomato, but the Heydons check each one, just to make sure. (A check of the literature turns up very few poisonous mushrooms. The deadliest one, Amanita phalloides, looks and reportedly tastes like the common mushroom of the supermarkets, except that it has white gills.)
Oyster Creek sells fresh mushrooms, powdered mushrooms, and mushroom flavored oils, in addition to kits for shiitake growing at home. They market to restaurants, supermarkets, health food stores, farmers markets, and through fairs and flower shows. Heydon also has a market for corn smut, otherwise known as Mexican truffles. She believes that real truffles, at least of the Burgundy variety, could be grown in Maine, but it would take more than five years to get the crop, and the species is supposedly not as aromatic as the French or Italian varieties. Still, the less aromatic truffles sold by the Chinese go for $300 a pound.
Heydon says she's "still not ready to be weaned from CEI. We've had some really hard times, and they work with me and help me through it. It's not like a bank." She says she tries to pay them back in kind as well as money. Oyster Creek regularly hosts demonstration tours for CEI, including delegations from abroad, and has taught children from Belfast Alternative Schools how to grow mushrooms. At venues from Common Ground to the Portland Flower Show, they are always willing to provide growing tips, and introduce the novice to the magical world of mushrooms. To Heydon, there's no such thing as a toadstool.
Copyright © 2002-2012 by Oyster Creek Mushroom Company. All Rights Reserved.
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