Harvest comes regularly
as Ozark Forest Mushrooms grows mushrooms on logs near Timber,
in Shannon County. With their rich, hearty flavor, shiitake
mushrooms are growing in popularity in the United States.
in butter with a sprinkle of salt, pepper and a splash of white wine.
how chef Andy Ayers first prepared Nicola Macpherson’s
shiitake mushrooms 15 years ago, and it’s how he’s served
them ever since. His menu boldly states, “These are likely the
best mushrooms you’ve ever eaten.”
argues with that assessment,” says the owner
of Riddle’s Penultimate Café and Wine Bar in St. Louis. “Nikki’s
mushrooms are head and shoulders above the rest. From the very beginning,
I was blown away by their flavor.”
Since 1990, Nicola
and her husband, Dan Hellmuth, have grown their business, Ozark Forest
Mushrooms, into the preeminent year-round supplier of gourmet specialty
mushrooms in Missouri. Tucked away in Shannon County just east of
Timber, the operation produces more than 3 tons of organic shiitake
The Black River
Electric Cooperative members’ foray
into fungus farming began almost 20 years ago. Dan’s father
had raised cattle on the family’s 2,500-acre farm, but livestock
did not interest the couple. Dan, an architect, attended an alternative
farming conference looking for another venture, and the prospect
of growing a niche crop using sustainable methods was appealing.
couple started growing the mushrooms as a hobby, but what began
as a hobby quickly turned into a commercial business. “It literally
mushroomed,” Nicola says.
Native to eastern Asia and used in Oriental cuisine for centuries,
shiitake mushrooms have increased in popularity in the United States
thanks to their rich, hearty flavor. However, obtaining fresh shiitakes
in Missouri used to be a challenge.
summer I met Nikki, the only shiitake mushrooms I had ever seen were
the dried ones in crinkly cellophane bags from Japan that you had
to re-hydrate,” Andy recalls. “There
were some obvious drawbacks with that, and they had an unusual consistency.
I just wasn’t crazy about them.”
|Nicola Macpherson, right, and her husband, Dan Hellmuth, grow
shiitake mushrooms on 4- to 7-inch-diameter branches left behind
after timber harvest.
County may not look like northern Japan, the Ozark forest
provides both the raw material and the ideal environmental
conditions for the traditional cultivation technique of
growing shiitake mushrooms outdoors on logs. But making food from
wood is very much a hands-on, labor-intensive process.
want to rot the logs, but it can be a battle,” says
Nicola, a former high school science teacher originally
from Bristol, England. “You need to keep the logs
moist, but not too moist. Essentially, we’re turning
what would be waste from a commercial timber harvest
into a high-value foodstuff.”
and March, loggers selectively harvest dormant oaks from
the farm. The largest logs go to the sawmill, but the
treetops and smaller branches remain. These are cut
into 4-foot-long cordwood and range in diameter from 4 to
is great for growing mushrooms because it has a higher percentage
of sapwood, and that’s what provides the nutrients,” Nicola
nature, shiitake mushrooms would grow from spores carried
by the wind. However, this method is too unreliable
for commercial production. Instead, Nicola inserts
a product called spawn, the mushroom farmer’s
equivalent of seed, into half-inch-deep holes that
are drilled in a diamond pattern around the oak logs. Spawn contains actively
growing shiitake fungus.
Logs are stacked in 50-log batches. Each will produce as many
as 30 pounds of mushrooms in its first fruiting.
Once the spawn
is inserted, melted cheese wax is daubed over each hole. This keeps
the spawn in the holes and prevents other fungi from entering the
logs. For the next six to nine months, the logs are
stacked horizontally in 50-log batches and left alone
until the shiitake fungus colonizes them completely.
Then, the logs are ready to produce mushrooms.
To produce a more
consistent mushroom crop, Nicola employs a technique called forced
fruiting. A stack of 50 logs is submerged in a tank of cold water
for 24 hours, and then the logs are stacked vertically under the
shade of the forest canopy and covered with a humidity blanket.
shock of the cold and moisture simulates fall conditions and
stimulates the logs to produce mushrooms,” Nicola explains. “Depending
on temperature and humidity, the mushrooms
will be ready to pick in as few as four or five days.”
50-log batch may produce as many as 30 pounds of mushrooms
in its first fruiting. After the logs produce a crop, they are allowed
to rest for about eight weeks. Then, it’s back to the
tanks for another soak. Each log can fruit about four times
a year for up to four years, at which time the fungus exhausts
all the nutrients in the logs. Then, it’s off to the
Three years ago,
with the assistance of a grant from the USDA’s
Sustainable Agriculture Research and
Education program, Nicola and Dan built a greenhouse and expanded
their operation to include wintertime mushroom production. A wood-burning
stove — fueled with spent
shiitake logs — warms the radiant
|Mushroom await packaging.
For Andy and Nicola’s
other customers, the ability to obtain
fresh, locally grown shiitakes in the
winter has been a culinary treat.
years and years, if we had shiitakes
for Thanksgiving dinner, we felt
like it was a great, long season,” Andy
that Nikki’s developed the
indoor greenhouse system, we have
shiitakes all year long. For the
last three years, I’ve never
called her and had her say, ‘Sorry,
the greenhouse also meant that
Ozark Forest Mushrooms could expand its
product line. Nicola now grows
and sells nearly a ton of oyster mushrooms
While most of her customers are
restaurants, Nicola does sell fresh
shiitake mushrooms to a number of grocery and
health food stores in the St. Louis area, including Schnucks grocery
stores in Ladue and Frontenac, Whole Foods in Brentwood and Natural
Way in Webster Groves. She also packages and sells her own line
of organic gourmet meals that feature
When she has extra
mushrooms, Nicola sells them at the Maplewood Farmers Market at the
Schlafly Bottleworks on Wednesdays.
As demand for locally
produced food has grown in recent years, Nicola and Dan increasingly
have found themselves speaking at alternative farming workshops and
conferences, much like the one Dan attended so many years ago. Nicola
says she doesn’t mind sharing her secrets
worry about competition,” she
says with a smile. “Most
people just aren’t going
to do it. It’s
simply too much work.”
Nicola and Dan will display their products at the annual Best of Missouri
Market event, Oct. 6-7, at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. For directions
or more details about this event, call (314) 577-9400 or visit
You can reach Ozark Forest Mushrooms at (314) 531-9935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Web address is www.ozarkforest.com.