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Mushrooms: A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative

Published September 1987

United States Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

Shiitake (pronounced "shee-tah-kee" and spelled the same whether singular or plural) are said to be the favorite mushroom in Japan. As many as 200,000 Japanese cultivate these forest fungi as a seasonal cash crop from logs of the shii tree, closely related to the oak. Other Asian countries are following suit; the brownish shiitake are also called black Chinese or black forest mushrooms and are grown in increasing amount in Taiwan, China, and Korea.

The number of U.S. shiitake farmers is rising, though most of them operate on a small scale. Still, some U.S. growers already use more than 10,000 3- or 4-foot-long hardwood logs (2 to 8 inches in diameter) to produce shiitake. Some even plan to expand to more than 100,000 logs(the size of some growers in Japan.

U.S. shiitake production soared from nearly zero in 1980 to a possible 3 million pounds in 1987. Leading States in production are Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, and Minnesota.

Shiitake could mean new jobs for at least 20,000 U.S. farmers, according to Dr. Gary F. Leatham, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research chemist with the Forest Service in Wisconsin. But that idea depends on an annual consumption rate in this country of a pound per person. In comparison, our current annual average per capita consumption of ordinary white (Agaricus bisporus, A. bitorquis, or A. brunnescens) mushrooms is about 2-1/2 pounds. However, that's an increase of a pound in only 8 years. U.S. production of all mushrooms increased to about 615.4 million pounds in 1986-87.

The prospective producer must decide in connection with any product how much the market can handle and what prices will be competitive. If the demand can be generated, domestic producers can compete with foreign producers in local markets, according to Dr. Michael P. Levi, Extension specialist at North Carolina State University (Dept. of Forest Resources, Raleigh, NC 27650). Few if any fresh shiitake are being imported.

As with any product that has a small-market niche, care can be taken not to produce more than the market can absorb at a profitable price.

Andy Hankins, alternative agriculture specialist at Virginia State University (Petersburg, VA 23803), suggests a small-scale entrepreneur start off with 1,000 log chunks, 3 to 4 feet long an 2 to 6 inches in diameter, as a winter project. If all goes well, he said, 1,000 logs can produce 1,000 pounds of shiitake over a year's time. That could bring about $5,000 at a market. He estimated Virginia alone has about 180 small-scale growers using 500 to 5,000 producing logs apiece. One grower has approximately half a million logs.

Regional prospects for using forests to produce shiitake were discussed in a 1985 paper, "An Evaluation of the Potential for Shiitake (Lentinus edodes ) Mushroom Cultivation in Appalachia," by Dr. James P. San Antonio, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientist at the Agricultural Research Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Beltsvile, MD, and Dr. Fred B. Abeles, a scientist with West Virginia University and ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station at Kearneysville, WV. Appalachia has an abundance of underutilized second-growth hardwoods, they noted, with climate and topography conducive to shiitake cultivation.

But before beginning shiitake production, a prospective entrepreneur needs to check many information sources, such as Economics and Marketing Reference Branch of USDA's National Agricultural Library (NAL). NAL's Jerry Rafats, himself a shiitake grower, has developed a bibliography of information listing 65 sources which NAL will mail on request (from Beltsville, MD 20705) Also, prospective entrepreneurs may contact county Extension agents to learn whether their State universities have mushroom specialists. Hankins urges potential growers to consider joining a marketing cooperative.

Shiitake Selling Points

Shiitake have some strong selling points. Fresh, the caps, 2 to 5 inches in diameter, have a chewy texture and a full bodied aromatic flavor. They are low in calories (125 per fresh pound) and low in fat. Possibly because they grow on wood, shiitake have more fiber than the commonly marketed white button mushroom, according to Dr. Bela Szepesi, a USDA research chemist with the ARS Human Nutrition Research Center in Beltsville. Unlike fruits, mushrooms do not have "small" carbohydrates, such as sucrose, he notes. They can be a source of B vitamins and minerals. Drying with sunshine or ultraviolet light increases their vitamin D content but they usually are eaten fresh. Protein content is in the range of typical vegetables, mycologists indicate.

Drying Advantage

Drying gives shiitake a shelf life of years when stored in sealed containers at room temperature. Most domestic growers prefer to market them fresh.

Fresh shiitake have a shelf life of 12 days, compared with about 8 days for the common whites, and they are more resistant to bruising and spoilage. They may be refrigerated up to 14 days. They should not be washed or peeled to market them. (Their umbrella tops can be cleaned with a soft cloth or paper towel.)

Some U.S. producers market by mail order, but most sell shiitake locally. Gourmet restaurants, farmers' markets, and supermarkets provide opportunities. Allen C. Bjergo, community development specialist with Montana State University Cooperative Extension Service (1018 Burlington Room 200, Missoula, MT 59715), has developed a booklet called "Your Marketing Plan Outline" which can provide added ideas about marketing. He also has booklets on "Financing Your Ideas" and "Earn Extra Money From Your Farm or Ranch."

Marketing Prices

Prices vary considerable. In Ohio, fresh shiitake are bringing $4 to $6.50 a pound wholesale, according to Steve Bratkovich of the Forestry Department at Ohio State University, Columbia.

Current mushroom prices and markets may be obtained regularly from USDA, through its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). The AMS Fruit and Vegetable Division's Market News Branch provides daily reports on major sales of mushrooms, listing prices and shipment sizes from major metropolitan areas. In early 1987, while many cities reported sales of "domestic whites," only a few reported sales of shiitake.

In San Francisco, shiitake were bringing $6.50 to $8.00 a pound. That market also reported sales of "sponge" morels from Canada, at $12.50 a pound; chantrelle from Oregon, $9 a pound; angel trumpets from Idaho, $8.50 a pound; and pleurettes from Italy, $27.50 per 8-pound carton.

The scarcity of sales reports on shiitake may suggest undeveloped markets at several major cities. (Write to W.H. "Bill" Crocker, Room 2503- S, AMS, USDA, Washington, DC 20250, to obtain subscription prices and cities from which prices are reported. The cost generally is about $12 a month per city.)

Ohio Study

In 1985, Bratkovitch and Constance A. Jones of Ohio Cooperative Extension Service, at Ohio State, in cooperation with the Ohio Department of Agriculture Cooperative Extension specialist in forestry, began testing several strains from commercial U.S. suppliers to see if shiitake could be produced economically in Ohio. They can. With certain shiitake spawn the researchers were able to get as many as 338 pounds of shiitake per cord of wood over a 20-month period. They used oak logs soaked twice and carefully stacked to maximize air circulation. This procedure is a must to prevent weed fungi contamination.

Bratkovitch (at 017 Standpipe Road, Jackson, OH 45640) can provide a report describing the Ohio Shiitake Project. His report was also published by the Shiitake News, which covers growing as well as marketing topics. The Shiitake News is produced every March, August, and November. First subscription costs $25 a year including back issues, and annual renewal is $15. Editor is Joe Deden, director of the Forest Resource Center (private, nonprofit educational organization at Route 2, Box 156 A, Lanesboro, MN 55949).

Deden estimates that a cord of wood (roughly 150 4-foot logs) can usually produce 150 pounds of shiitake a year. At $4 to $6.50 a pound, that's a gross of $600 to $975 a cord. He calculates production costs at about $500 a cord.

The 1983 book, How to Grow Fresh Mushrooms (Shiitake), by Daniel D. Kuo and Mau H. Kuo (Mushroom Technology Corporation, P. O. Box 2612, Naperville, IL 60565), estimates production more conservatively. Their book (originally selling for $8.95) provides details on production and harvesting methods.

Iowa Conference

Ric Zarwell, former coordinator of the Geode Wonderland Resource Conservation and Development Office (3002 A Winegard Drive, Burlington, IA 52601), provided details on shiitake in Successful Farming magazine's publication, ADAPT 100, (100 ideas for farmers). This publication grew out of the magazine's 1986 Iowa conference on diversification in farming. IT sells for $12.95, including postage, at P.O. Box 10652, Des Moines, IA 50336.

Costs and related data on results of a 4-year shiitake project using hardwood logs indoors and outdoors at the University of Minnesota are scheduled for release by 1988. A report on the project may be obtained from Kraig Kiger (1851 E. Highway 169, Grand Rapids, MN 55744)


There are six basic steps in cultivating shiitake:

  • Ordering good-quality culture, which is called spawn or inoculum, 3 months prior to cutting logs;
  • Obtaining suitable hardwood logs such as oak;
  • Inoculating the logs between 1 to 3 weeks after cutting to ensure maximum moisture content;
  • Allowing shiitake to colonize the wood through incubation (the spawn run);
  • "Fruiting," and
  • Crop harvesting, packaging, storing transporting, and marketing.

Stable temperatures and high humidity are required. Besides logs, sawdust is available for use in some areas. Some information on sawdust culture may be obtained from Dr. Paul Wuest, mushroom Extension specialist, or Dr. Dan J. Royse, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University (211 Buckout Laboratory, Penn State University, University Park, PA 16802).

Other Information Sources

A reprint of Leatham's "Cultivation of shiitake, the Japanese forest mushroom, on logs: A potential industry for the United States," published in the Forest Products Journal, August 1982, as well as lists of spawn suppliers and consultants, U.S. research groups, and references, may be obtained by writing to the Forest Products Lab, P.O. Box 5130, Madison, WI 53705)

Another information source is the American Mushroom Institute (907 East Baltimore Pike, Kennett Square, PA 19348), national trade association for mushroom growers and marketers. The institute publishes the monthlyMushroom News of 30 pages or more and occasionally devotes most of an issue to a major problem.

The Produce Marketing Association (1500 Casho Mill Road, Newark, DE 19714-6036) also can provide a bibliography on mushrooms to nonmembers of PMA for $20 (the search fee) plus $10 for computer-page printouts of up to 10 pages, plus $1 per page additional.

Those wishing to grow mushrooms faster and perhaps easier than shiitake may note the May-June, 1987, issue of The Furrow, a publication issued by Deere and Co. (John Deere Road, Moline, IL 61265.) It reports that Louisiana farmer John Meek produces oyster mushrooms in pasteurized bermudagrass bales. He harvests 5 to 6 pounds of mushrooms per bale weekly for 6 to 8 weeks, growing this species in a converted barn.

For those entrepreneurs able to produce the morel mushrooms commercially, the Neogen Corporation (620 Lesher Place, Lansing, MI 48912) has been granted a patent and will award licenses to experienced growers or companies to produce morels in recommended facilities. The research on morels was led by Dr. Gary Mills (Department of Natural Science and Agriculture and Natural Resources, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824)

by George B Holcomb of the Office of Information, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for USDA's Office for Small-Scale Agriculture (Howard W. "Budd" Kerr, Jr., Program Director).

Published September 1987

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