Mushrooming Success

By LILY REAVIS, For the Recorder, May 19, 2021

On a recent spring morning at Prospect Meadow Farm in Hadley, 25 employees set to work at an assembly line behind the property’s main barn. Spread out before them are 1,000 logs that the workers begin to inoculate with shiitake mushroom spores. Over the next several hours, the workers take care to perfectly plant each mushroom spore in the logs, which are then stacked under a grove of pines.

If all goes according to plan, the mushrooms will grow over the next few months, and by the fall will find their way onto store shelves and dinner plates. Prospect Meadow has become one of Massachusetts’ largest mushroom producers over the past six years, turning out more than 3,000 pounds of harvested shiitakes a year.

The mushroom operation is the latest project taken on by Prospect Meadow, a well-known therapeutic agricultural community for adults with developmental disabilities in the Pioneer Valley. Since its founding 11 years ago, the farm has hired and trained locals with autism or other developmental disabilities to tend its crops, staff the farm shop, and feed the resident goats and chickens.

“Here, I do all kinds of stuff,” explained Justin Cabral, one of the farm’s employees. “I plant, I harvest, I drill mushroom logs. Every day is a little different.”

The farm is run by ServiceNet, a social services organization that brings mental health services to people in Western Massachusetts. Prospect Meadow is one of two farms the organization operates in Hatfield to provide meaningful employment to individuals. Between the two locations, ServiceNet employs roughly 75 people with disabilities.

In the past few years, though, the farm’s shiitake mushroom operation has boomed in unprecedented numbers.

Jim Seltzer, a retired clinical psychologist and volunteer at Prospect Meadow, oversees the farm’s mushroom crops. He joined the team six years ago, driven to continue working with people with developmental disabilities after retiring.

According to Seltzer, shiitakes can be grown agriculturally in two ways. The first and more common way is industrially, in labs that simulate ideal growing conditions.

“They take a plastic bag and fill it with sawdust, put the mycelium (mushroom spores) in there, and then stick it on a rack in a room where it is sterile and they control the temperature and humidity, ” Seltzer explained. “When they want to grow mushrooms, they roll the rack out, throw it into a refrigerator and take it out. With that change in temperature, it stimulates the growth.”

Prospect Meadow grows its shiitakes the more traditional way: by inoculating oak logs with the mushroom spore and sawdust mixture and leaving it to grow in a cool, shady area. The farm’s employees do all of the on-site inoculation and long-term care of the mushroom logs, overseen by Seltzer and other volunteers and paid job coaches.

The growth process for the farm’s shiitakes is a group effort, and each stage requires diligent work by different members of the team. First, an employee uses a drill to carefully mark out each inoculation site on every oak log. The sites need to be placed far enough apart for the mushrooms to grow fully, but close enough to grow at least one pound of mushrooms per year per log.

“They’re under a little bit of pressure because if there are no logs coming off of there, all of these people stop,” Seltzer explained, motioning at the picnic tables set up for the next stages of the assembly line.

Once all of the holes are drilled, the logs move to the next stage of the mushroom growing process: the actual inoculation. Employees use specialized tools — think of an oversized copper syringe — to suck up the sawdust and mushroom spore mixture and deposit it into each of the drill sites. Immediately after filling the logs with the mushroom spores, another volunteer covers each hole with a layer of wax to prevent the mixture from falling out.

From there, all there is to do is wait. The logs are stacked in neat piles in a shady area on the farm nicknamed “Spawn Run.” The mushroom growth happens with time as it rains and dries out.

“When they’re all finished with the inoculation, what mushrooms are doing is colonizing the wall of the log,” Seltzer explained. “They’re just eating it and spreading out. It takes six months or a year for the mycelium to spread out enough to grow mushrooms.”

The mushrooms that were planted at Prospect Meadow this spring will be left to grow over the summer, with harvest planned for the fall. That is, if the valley gets enough rain this summer.

“The logs will grow mushrooms whenever you get a cold rain followed by some more sunny, like, 60-degree weather. Naturally, if you get rain and a little warm weather, the mushrooms will pop out all over the place,” Seltzer explained. “Our challenge is we can’t wait for it to rain to get the mushrooms that our customers want.”

To bypass this ecological problem, the workers at Prospect Meadow trick the logs into thinking it’s rained and dried up in order to trigger mushroom growth. Working in two-month-long batches, the employees will soak the inoculated logs in a large on-site soak tank to simulate heavy rain. Then, the logs are placed in a greenhouse, where it is significantly warmer, to dry out.

“About five days later, we get mushrooms,” Seltzer said.

Even though the mushroom project is still relatively new to Prospect Meadow — it started when Seltzer joined in 2015 — the farm now produces a surplus of shiitakes annually, which are distributed to buyers around the Pioneer Valley.

Allie LaClair, the farm’s associate director, said several local restaurants have become customers in recent years, including Northampton’s Bread Euphoria and River Valley Co-op, and Fish Tails in Hatfield. Some of the mushrooms are also sold in the farm’s onsite store and their summer produce booths. To retain freshness for a longer period, Prospect Meadow puts some of each harvest through a dehydration machine at its sister location down the road. The dried mushrooms are shelf-stable and come with packaged instructions for rehydration. Just one ounce of dehydrated mushrooms can expand to a half-pound of ready-to-use shiitakes.

The money that the farm makes from its shiitakes goes directly back into the programs run at Prospect Meadows. The profit pays employee wages, purchases farm equipment and goes toward other expenses required by the program.

The shiitake inoculation process is time-sensitive — all of the logs have to be finished during the spring to make sure they get a full season of rainwater.

When the employees aren’t busy preparing the next batch of mushrooms, they spend the rest of the year tending to field crops and caring for the farm animals. According to LaClair, repetitive and tactile tasks like those involved in farm work can be beneficial for individuals with developmental disorders, as well as those without.

“There’s not a lot of places that are like this,” said Jasper Cowley, a full-time job coach at Prospect Meadow. “I think it’s super important to have the option for people that do therapeutic work with farming. I think it’s just so helpful to just get your hands in the dirt outside. It’s really good for everyone, including myself.”

Cabral, who has worked on the farm for eight years, agrees with this sentiment. “I feel very proud of myself,” he said. “I have no reason not to.”