Steve and Julie Rockcastle's decision to get into the shiitake mushroom business sprouted from a dilemma few farmers face: What crop could they grow that wouldn't get in the way of their music festival?
The Rockcastles run the Great Blue Heron Music Festival, an eclectic live music event that has taken over the 200-acre Panama farm in the summer every year since 1992. It drew 6,000 paying customers last year, with nearly all of the property's usable land dedicated to performing, dancing, camping and parking.
The two-week festival, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, generates something more than 50 percent of the farm's income. The Rockcastles devote the remainder of the year to farming: growing vegetables and raising beef cattle and chickens on their certified organic farm.
"We were looking for other opportunities on the property that didn't incorporate most of the land," Steve Rockcastle said. In a way, the festival provided an answer.
"My oldest boy was going to Cornell for landscape architecture, and he came to the festival with a friend, head of the [campus] Mushroom Club," he said. Walking through the farm, the student mycologist pointed out that its hemlock groves would be perfectly suited for mushroom growing.
Five years later, the Rockcastles, operating as Green Heron Growers, run Western New York's largest shiitake grove. They sold about 650 pounds of shiitakes last year, to their farm store customers, local restaurants and at the Williamsville Farmers Market.
On June 6, the shiitake pioneers will teach their mushroom cultivation techniques at a half-day seminar held at their farm. For $50, participants will get lessons, lunch and a log primed to sprout its own mushroom crop.
The college student's observation might have remained a mere pipe dream in other company, but both Rockcastles have deep agricultural roots.
Julie, whose family ran a campground on the land, has a degree in plant science. She married Steve, a veteran commercial grower of flowers and bedding plants, in 2005. They operate the music festival campus and grow crops and animals to provide their living for the rest of the year.
"It's about creating a place for art, entertainment and education, and to grow good food for ourselves and others while doing it," Julie said.
Green Heron certified-organic shiitakes sell for about $16 a pound. That might sound pricey until you understand the work involved.
Their shiitakes grow from logs of oak, maple and beech that have been cut in three to four foot sections. The Rockcastles and their workers drill holes into the logs every few inches and insert bits of shiitake "spawn," or mycelium, purchased from a Wisconsin company.
The holes are sealed with wax and they wait; the lacy, white rootlike stuff will take 12 to 18 months to invisibly work its way through the log before any mushrooms appear.
"The mushroom fungus digests the log, essentially," Julie said. "The fuel for the mushroom is the essence of the wood fiber."
Oak works best, but it's not always available, so the Rockcastles have been using sugar maple and beech cut on their property.
The mushrooms digest the logs, over about five years. Then the logs are burned in one of the festival bonfires.
While they wait to produce mushrooms, the logs are propped up in rows, or stacked, in the piney shade. They're moved in batches of about 20, each one marked with a metal tag indicating its age and what's inside. The tags are necessary because the Rockcastles grow many kinds of shiitakes, and don't want to get their logs mixed up.
One type of shiitake starts growing after the logs are soaked in water for 24 hours. Over two weeks, mushrooms will pop through the bark and grow to harvestable size. Then, after an eight-week vacation, they get soaked again. Those produce about twice per season.
The other main shiitake variant sprouts in response to cold, without soaking, producing in winter and fall. Both kinds produce about a pound of mushrooms annually per log.
Obtaining and preparing the logs is a lot of work, but once they're inoculated, all they need is water, Steve Rockcastle said.
Well -- water and a watchful eye. The shiitakes have two main insect antagonists, a centipede that likes to eat holes in them, making them unsellable, and slugs.
When slugs appear "we have to go down, usually at nighttime, because that's when they come out," said Steve. "Sometimes at that time of year we're down there for three or four hours, picking slugs in the middle of the night. It's a labor of love."
The shiitakes won't make them rich -- they amount to 5 to 10 percent of the farm's income -- but they "open us up to markets," Steve said.
Two years ago, when Green Heron was trying to get into established farmers' markets, they got a lukewarm reception, but the shiitakes opened the door. "It gave us, not an easy in, but opportunity," he said.
The Rockcastles also have developed shiitake products like dried shiitakes, shiitake pate and shiitake soup, to stretch out the season and use imperfect specimens. "When we go to the farmers' market we sell as much value-added stuff as we do fresh," Julie said. (Two of their recipes are included here.)
While waiting for the mushrooms, there are Devon beef cattle that need tending. The chickens have to be moved to new spots in the pasture. Plus there are the vegetable gardens and greenhouse that need cultivating, all without pesticides in accordance with organic procedures.
When does it all get too complicated for two people? Steve is asked.
"It's almost there," he said. "We go from sun-up, 5:30, until it gets dark," or perhaps stop a little earlier to eat.
With lots of freezing and canning, they grow most of what they eat, which all started with vegetables, Julie said. "Now we've got beef and chicken, and mushrooms -- we go to the store for dairy. Hey, we should get a cow," she said to her husband, a gentle gibe.
"No," Steve said, with a head shake. "I don't want to milk any cows."
> Shiitake Hazelnut Pate
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms
3 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts
3 ounces cream cheese
1/8 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons dry sherry
1 teaspoon parsley
In food processor, finely chop garlic, mushrooms caps and stems.
In medium skillet, melt butter. Add garlic and mushrooms, and saute for 5 minutes. Stir in thyme, salt and pepper.
In food processor, chop parsley and hazelnuts. Add cream cheese; process until smooth.
Add sherry and mushroom mixture, and process until well mixed. Put in serving dish, cover and chill for 1 hour. Makes 1 cup.
> Grilled Shiitake and Hazelnut Salad
1/2 to 1 pound shiitake mushrooms
1/4 cup hazelnuts
1 garlic clove, halved
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces lettuce or other specialty salad greens
1 teaspoon truffle oil (optional)
Roast hazelnuts in 350 degree oven for 10-12 minutes. Cool and chop coarsely.
Rub large salad bowl with garlic clove.
Preheat broiler or grill. Whisk together vinegar and salt in a small bowl, then whisk in olive oil slowly.
For broiler: Put shiitake on skewers and arrange on a baking sheet. Brush mushrooms with vinaigrette and broil for 3-5 minutes, turning once.
For grill: Put skewered shiitakes on plate, and brush with vinaigrette. Put skewers on hot grill. Turn every minute or two until softened and partly browned.
Remove mushrooms from skewers and quarter. Add to salad bowl with greens, remaining vinaigrette and truffle oil; toss well. Serves 4.
(Green Heron Growers)
For more information about the seminar, shiitakes or other Green Heron Growers products, call the farm at 753-0371 or see greenherongrowers.com.