By HANNAH YANG Post Bulletin
LEROY, Minn. (AP) — A southeastern Minnesota couple’s passion for mushrooms may bring them out of the woods and into the region’s food markets.
Kalvin Stern and Rachel Davis, founders and owners of the Fiddlehead Knob mushroom farm in rural LeRoy, always dreamed of venturing into growing their own produce for direct sale. After graduating from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Stern, from LeRoy, and Davis, from Ostrander, moved to Boone, N.C., where they lived in the Appalachian Mountains.
While Davis worked at a homeless shelter and crisis facility, Stern apprenticed at an organic and biodynamic farm and became interested more in organic food production. Particularly in mushrooms, as Stern grew an expertise in foraging and identifying wild mushrooms.
Soon, the dreams of operating and owning their own farm grew.
“We wanted the whole farm experience and wanted to do a different style of farming,” Stern told the Post Bulletin . “It’s a specialty niche market where there seemed to be a hole that needed to be filled around the area. We were moving back from North Carolina and that was the time to start our dream. We’re learning a lot and we learn every day.”
When the couple decided to take on mushroom farming, they returned to their roots in LeRoy, to a 10-acre farmstead tended by Davis’ family for four generations. They also got married along the way, in the fall of 2016.
The property’s proximity to acres of state wildlife forests and prairies provided an abundance of opportunity for the Fiddlehead Knob. There, Davis and Stern cultivate their mushrooms with care. Some are found, or grown on outdoor logs and in wood chip beds used with agroforestry methods.
Fiddlehead Knob grows anything from oyster mushrooms to lion’s mane to wine caps to shiitake to chicken of the woods, some dependent on the season for their availability. The couple even started to pursue creating their own medicine from mushrooms.
“My wife and I, we really take care of ourselves with really good food, our own health care, preventative care, and mushrooms was a huge part of our diet,” Stern said. “We can replace protein you get from meat with them, and it’s great for the immune system. Another benefit is having fresh food all year round and growing our own medicine too.”
Growing mushrooms requires extra research and precision. Stern’s homemade setup in his basement grow room requires constant vigilance of air quality. A timer is set to change the air inside every 30 minutes.
Since mushrooms create a lot of carbon dioxide, new air must be pumped into the room, and to ensure there is constant humidity that must be between 85 percent and 95 percent. Sometimes, Stern must hand-spray the mushrooms.
“During the first year, we kind of took it slow,” Stern said. “When you’re actually putting everything to work, it’s a totally different ball game. Most of the things for the grow room, I had to build myself. There wasn’t something that I can just buy.”
There’s also the potential risk of contamination, so when Stern tends to the mushrooms, he makes sure that the area is sterilized and that he wears a mask and sanitizes his hands before handling the fungus. He’s aware of mushrooms’ growth cycles from the beginning of the production cycle to produce spawn, which is eventually transferred to straw logs.
Eventually, the prepped straw is packed into plastic tubes. Even before then, Stern puts the straw into a water barrel and heats it to 160 degrees overnight for pasteurization. Once cooled, Stern fills the logs and pokes holes into the sides where the mushrooms can sprout.
Depending on the mushroom, some can be harvested 13 days after inoculation and potentially double in size. The process is tedious, but the rewards were bountiful. During their first appearance at the LeRoy farmers market and in Rochester, Fiddlehead was able to bring about 25 pounds’ worth of mushrooms to sell consistently in the farm’s early stages.
Right now, customers can only get Fiddlehead Knob’s mushrooms at a farmers market. Sometimes, though, if customers message Stern and Davis on their Facebook page, it’s possible for deliveries close to LeRoy.
“We’ll work with local community members and get them mushrooms if we have them,” Stern said. “We’re hoping to get into more places where people can access our products elsewhere, too. Another step for another day. Someday soon, hopefully.”
So far, business has been fairly steady for the Fiddlehead Knob.
“Our focus by next summer is to be doing 50 pounds in the grow room, and we’ll have outdoor stuff too,” Stern said. “That’s a whole other process. We thought for sure that this would be a hobby thing to sell at the market and it actually took off. The amount of support we got from locals out here was amazing. We’ve been really blessed.”
Stern and Davis strive to practice sustainable farming and using mushrooms as a mycoremediation tool, which refers to mushrooms and their enzymes having an ability to degrade a variety of environment pollutants, to transform industrial and agro-industrial wastes into products.
“So many things in the world of mushrooms are good for the earth too,” Stern said. “We try and take special care of our natural surroundings. We take a certain part of the mushroom and use it to create other organic material.”
Some examples include Stern working with his brother’s tree service. Normally logs would go to the dump. Instead, Stern brings them back to the farm and uses mushrooms to get all the nutrients out of the wood for their source of food. The couple also uses mushrooms in their animals’ feed.
“We’re taking a lot of waste product most people throw out and grow food on it,” he said. “That’s really the kind of approach we’re taking. We’re reusing as much as we can and growing food off of it. It really gives us a purpose in doing this. We’re trying to take care of our surroundings, too.”
A community network with other farmers provided Fiddlehead Knob with additional support and educational opportunities. Stern and Davis, in turn, support local businesses.
The goal is to be able to deliver products to restaurants around the area, and to become more active in farmers markets.
“We really love to be a part of the community with its food,” Stern said. “We hope to be more involved as well. The community is just as important as the food itself. They know who we are, why we grow our food, and it’s for a healthier community. That’s just as important to us as growing the mushroom.”