In a wooded valley just outside of Wooster, Ohio, alien-looking
growths of yellow, pink, and blue sprout from hanging plastic
columns. It may seem like an unusual organic farm, but to Thomas
and Wendy Wiandt of Killbuck Valley Mushrooms, the fungi kingdom
is the future.
and Wendy Wiandt of Killbuck Valley Mushrooms hold
a basket of their newest arrivals.
“Mushrooms should be a critical part of agriculture—they’re
the recyclers,” says Thomas. “We’re growing
all kinds of fibers and we’re throwing them out and
dumping them in landfills. I can grow oyster mushrooms on
shredded soy-ink newspaper.”
The Wiandts produce a variety of mushrooms in just a few
small buildings nestled among an old-growth forest. They have
made this pursuit economically viable enough to leave their
former careers, and they contend that in an ideal society,
mushrooms—grown on entirely waste products—could
provide an extremely efficient protein source.
Four years ago, the two were sitting unhappily behind desks—Thomas
was an engineer, and Wendy was a medical technologist. Looking
for another kind of life, the two saw potential in their mushroom-collecting
hobby. “We were both professionals with desk jobs and
wanted to get the heck away from that,” Thomas says.
“I grew up on a farm and I always wanted to get back
to a small farm type of living.”
“We did a lot of research and looked at several different
possibilities,” he recalls. “Mushrooms are a good
fit. Everything always breaks and I’m always fixing
everything—so that suited me. And this is probably the
most laboratory intensive kind of farming there is.”
That suited Wendy, who had spent time working in a medical
Though they still hunt and market wild mushrooms from their
46-acre, organically-certified woods, they now specialize
in homegrown oyster, shiitake, and lion’s mane mushrooms.
These go to farmers' markets, retail outlets, and restaurants.
A different kind of farming
The process of growing mushrooms begins with mycelia, which
the Wiandts isolate from the wild or, more often, purchase
in a test tube from a laboratory. As beer brewers do with
yeast, the Wiandts drop bits of mycelia into a malt sugar
solution. They leave them there for a couple weeks until the
concoction looks like tapioca pudding.
Once the mycelia are mature, they put small samples of the
liquid broth into bags of sterilized rye grain, seal the bags
and transfer them to a room held at 75 degrees. After about
two weeks, when the mycelia have spawned, the Wiandts distributed
the rye through bags of packed straw or sawdust. After another
two weeks, the mushrooms begin fruiting out of holes poked
in the bags. The mushrooms fruit up to five times and Thomas
and Wendy harvest them twice a day.
The most difficult thing about the process is keeping out
contaminants, such as molds. If contaminants enter the bags,
the mushrooms will not fruit and weeks of labor are wasted.
Each transfer must be done in a sterile environment—by
using laminar flow hoods and sterilizers, and an electronic
filtration system for removing spores from the air. “A
lot of the work is more difficult than the work Wendy used
to do in the hospital laboratory,” Thomas says.
The Wiandts are experimenting with growing hen-of-the-woods
and shiitake mushrooms outdoors on rotting logs, which seems
to be as efficient as growing them indoors. The process is
the same except that they inoculate dowel plugs with mycelium,
instead of rye. They insert these into the logs and seal them
Pest control is the biggest factor separating Killbuck Valley
mushrooms from those that are conventionally produced. Conventional
mushroom producers use large amounts of pesticides because
mushrooms attract many pests, including birds and insects.
But the Wiandts are strongly against using chemicals. “Mushrooms
are so absorbent—they’re sponges,” says
Thomas. “How can you put pesticides on something like
that? It's just not acceptable.”
Without chemicals, the Wiandts must control pests manually,
and this is much more labor intensive. They use a rotation
schedule in rooms, separating new bags from older ones, so
that pests don’t spread. They also use screening and
filtration to keep insects out of rooms and sticky strips
to catch those that do get in. If a column gets too contaminated
they throw it out prematurely instead of treating it with
Sizing up the mushroom market
Unfortunately, because mushrooms are such an unusual product
already, the Wiandts don’t receive a higher price for
being organic. There are two outlets that buy from them because
they don’t use chemicals, but they don’t pay any
more. “There’s a lot of added expense in being
organic,” Thomas says. “It’s just something
that we happen to believe in.”
Nonetheless, the Wiandts are doing well economically. This
is in part because they are the only small-time grower in
the region. Since mushrooms don’t transport well, Killbuck
Valley's products look much better than those from large commercial
The Wiandts get their highest price at farmers' markets,
which make up more than half of their sales in the summer.
They receive $7.50 a pound for oyster mushrooms and $9.50
a pound for shiitake. To reduce waste, Wendy has begun pickling
the mushrooms they don’t sell. They now have a licensed
cannery and sell the pickled mushrooms at market.
The Wiandts feel that contributing to farmers' markets is
important. “Organic or not, there are no commercial
producers at the farmers markets,” Thomas says. “They’re
all small farmers, good people, very ethical people. If you
go there you’re making your society a better place—automatically.”
The markets also give the Wiandts a chance to promote and
educate people about their product. “We can sell tons
more products at the farmers' market, at a higher price, because
we’re there educating people and talking to people and
developing relationships,” Thomas explains. “And
putting out samples so folks can try them." Offering
samples is critical, the Wiandts say, because people are are
naturally reluctant to pay for a premium product they may
have never tasted before.
The Wiandts seek to dispel the myth that mushrooms don’t
contribute to a healthy diet. Mushrooms are actually high in
carbohydrates, contain up to 30 percent protein—including
important amino acids—and are high in mineral content.
There are also studies being conducted on the immuno-stimulus
properties of mushrooms such as oyster and shiitake.
or not, there are no commercial producers at the farmers
markets. They’re all small farmers, good people,
very ethical people. If you go to those you’re making
your society a better place – automatically."
“Everybody thinks mushrooms have no nutritional value
because the USDA doesn’t have them on their charts,”
Thomas says. “They need their own category,” Wendy
suggests. “The fungus category.”
After having promoted their products at farmers' markets
for years, the Wiandts have now had more success with retail
stores and restaurants because customers are beginning to
recognize their products. While they only receive about 70
percent of the market price from restaurants and retailers,
the loss in profit is about the same as the extra expense
they put into selling retail. Selling to these venues also
increases their efficiency at market because they can sell
more when they go only once every two weeks.
The Wiandts feel that producing year-round is a key to their
successful restaurant trade, accounting for over 50 percent
of their sales during the winter. Though they make no profit
during these months, due to increased labor and decreased
sales, they maintain customers.
“If we were just producing in the summer the customers
would go elsewhere and we wouldn’t have the good relations
with restaurants,” says Wendy. “That’s a
huge issue with the chefs. They want somebody they can rely
on. If they have an item on the menu, they want to make sure
that they can leave it on the menu.”
“Chefs aren’t looking for a bargain,” Thomas
agrees. “Chefs are looking for good reliable products,
and good, long-term relationships. They’re willing to
pay a little extra if they know it's going to be good stuff
all the time and they don’t need to worry about it.”
Tending a business, and attending to community
The Wiandts pay close attention to the economic side of their
business so that they won’t have to return to their
old desk jobs. They also stay active in the agricultural community.
They have recently hosted wild mushroom hikes for chefs and
public events for the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development
Thomas is also a member of the Ohio Farm Bureau – a
lonely place for someone with his values. “It's extremely
unusual for an organic farmer, because the Farm Bureau has
an anti-organic agenda,” he says. “But I figure
you can’t have any say if you’re not there. The
more organic farmers abandon it, the worse it’s going
to get. So I try to stay active and put my two bits in.”
The Wiandts believe that mushrooms have an important role
to play in the future of our society, noting that several
Asian countries make widespread use of mushrooms because they
don’t have the space to produce more conventional commodities
“What we’re working on is a fundamental shift
in the way we use food and the way we think about agriculture,”
says Thomas. “We try to change the world in our own
Jason Witmer is a freelance writer and photographer in
Pittsburgh, Pa., with his eye on the future of agriculture.