FOUNTAIN LAKE — The shiitake mushroom variety has been cultivated for hundreds of years in East Asian countries, both for its culinary applications and health benefits. Becky and Dennis Denison, owners of Fountain Lake Farm, had never eaten shiitakes until learning about them during a growing class they took in 2012 at Bismarck’s JV Farms. A year later, they harvested their first growth and were immediately hooked on the process.
She said, “Shiitakes are considered not only culinary in the food world, they’re considered medicinal.”
The edible fungus offers immune system support and cardiovascular benefits, including cholesterol reduction and antioxidant minerals. Preliminary findings have shown cancer prevention effects, and some have attributed a lessening in dementia onset to ingestion of shiitake.
They are rich in B vitamins, niacin, choline, folate, and are also excellent sources of the minerals selenium and copper.
Growing the mushrooms is a labor of love, and though anyone with a patch of deep shade can do it, she said, “This is not for people who need immediate gratification,” because it can take from 10 months to more than a year to
produce the first crop.
The Denisons utilize 40-inch pieces of white oak, red oak and sweet gum, but can only use logs cut during the time from the first frost of the year until trees bud, when sap is down.
After getting logs of 4- to 6-inch diameter from living trees, they begin the inoculation process within a few weeks, using a drill with an angle grinder to make holes in the wood to hold the spawn, also called spores. A specialized inoculation tool deposits the spawn, which come packed within sawdust, and the holes are then sealed, to keep out predators like beetles or competing mushroom spores, and to protect from wind.
She said logs of that size last four or five years once inoculated, and will flush, or produce, every eight weeks during spring and fall when conditions are right. The shiitake need adequate moisture and air circulation, and tend to flush in temperatures above 32 degrees and below around 60.
In explaining their growth, she said the shiitake spawn eat the cellulose, and when mature, wait for clues that conditions are favorable to grow out of the log and release their own spores to continue colonization.
There are two major ways this happens. One is that a hard rain falls, since the spores know decayed matter will be available for a food source. The second way is through reverberation, like the vibration made when a tree falls. Either method can induce a flush to occur, through soaking the logs in water, or mimicking the percussion by rapping logs on the ground or beating on the ends with a rubber mallet.
“There’s a level of intelligence,” she said of the mature mushrooms.
The couple exclusively use certified organic spawn and organic logs, and only supplement rainwater when less than 1 inch of rain falls during a week. This process ensures a natural product for consumers.
The Denisons split their time between a home in Bryant, where they have 76 logs so far, and at the farm, where they have 500. Their goal is to have 1,000 altogether, but the inability to find the specific logs needed has hampered that ambition.
For now, they can often be seen often selling shiitakes at the Hot Springs Farmers & Artisans Market, where they’ve been able to introduce the variety to customers who were previously unfamiliar with shiitakes.
But they’re definitely not in it for the income aspect.
“We’re never going to make money at this,” she said, because the cost is high and the market inconsistent. Plus, they never know just how many mushrooms they’ll have at any given time.
“There’s just a lot of joy in doing this,” she said, and showed her hu- morous side, saying, “If the zombie apocalypse comes, I’ve got something I can barter with.”
For their personal enjoyment, she substitutes shiitake for the common button mushroom in things like salads, pasta sauces, chili and soups. They also recently began drying the shiitakes, often seasoning them to make mushroom jerky in a food dehydrator. Other popular applications include adding them to omelets and stir-frys, or as a pizza topping.
Since the stems are woody and tough, they aren’t typically eaten, but are great for making cooking stock, or for use in mushroom tea. Many people drink the tea for increased immunity against colds and flu, as a natural anti-inflammatory, or to lower blood pressure.
She’s spreading the word about cultivation possibilities, having taught groups at Garvan Woodland Gardens and for the Saline County Master Gardeners. And their shiitakes were also featured during a farm-to-table dinner for members of the Arkansas Legislature.
For these two farmers, fungi are fun and rewarding, indeed.
Specific inquiries and requests for more information can be directed to the email address fountainlakefarm@ gmail.com.