Forest Farming in Leake County, Mississippi: Mushrooms Appeal to Rural and Urban Growers

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By NACD Southeast Region Representative Candice Abinanti

There are over 500 million acres of timber land – land managed for timber harvest – in the United States. Forty percent of that land, according to the U.S. Forest Service, is in the South, earning it the moniker the nation’s “woodbasket.” Agroforestry, or growing trees with crops and/or livestock for mutual benefit, can be a way to sustainably manage these timber lands and earn additional income. Agroforestry practices such as growing trees with companion crops, and grazing livestock on forage among trees enhances forest health through improved soil and water quality and biodiversity.

In Leake County, Mississippi, the Leake County Soil and Water Conservation District, NRCS Leake County Field Office, Alcorn State University and the Winston County Self Help Cooperative partnered to provide a two-part workshop on the agroforestry practice of forest farming, or growing crops under the shade of trees, specifically: mushrooms.

Mushrooms, in particular Shiitakes, can be grown on readily-available hardwood logs and, at wholesale prices of $5 a pound and more, can be sold at farmers markets and to restaurants and grocers to help supplement income. The mushrooms have widespread appeal. The first part of the workshop, a classroom session, was held during the week and attracted nearly 30 participants. That’s “a big turnout for mid-week” Beverly Shelton with the Leake County Soil and Water Conservation District points out. The range of participants was also diverse, with “some from town, some farmers and some timber farmers” Shelton explains.

The mushrooms attracted both farmers interested in growing mushrooms for income, and urban backyard gardeners interested in growing mushrooms – rich in vitamins and fiber – for their own consumption.

With instruction and supplies from Alcorn State University Forestry and Mycology Specialist Frank Mrema, participants learned about the types of hardwoods Shiitakes grow on (healthy Oaks and Sweetgums are some of the best).

At the second workshop session, they practiced drilling holes in fresh-cut logs, inoculating them with mushroom spores, and sealing the holes with wax. Shiitake mushrooms take about 8-12 months to grow and must be kept watered and in the shade. Once mature, the mushrooms will continue to grow on the logs for 5-6 years if they are regularly harvested. Productive logs can yield up to five pounds of mushrooms per harvest.

As Priscilla Williamson of the NRCS Leake County Field Office explains, growing mushrooms is “all about sustaining yourself using what you have.” Hardwoods that may otherwise be scrapped can be given new, productive life growing mushrooms. Some in the community sell their mushrooms to restaurants, and one even has a contract with the grocery store Kroger. Growing mushrooms can also be a great school project to teach children about agroforestry, mycology and conservation. Adaptable to both rural and urban settings, workshops like this can further help connect rural and urban producers and consumers. Shelton and Williamson are already planning future partnerships to share the benefits of growing mushrooms with more people.

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