After years of living in the San Francisco Bay area, working corporate jobs to keep up with the high cost of living, Gayle Hoover and Michael Morphy were ready to escape.
"Life there was nuts," Hoover says. "It was a very competitive world, and people were stressed out all the time. In the 20 years I was there, it went from paradise to the parking lot, as Joni says." Morphy has a horticulture degree from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, and Hoover had always been an avid gardener, but neither had any farming experience. Their plan was to retire to a small farm in North Carolina, and they talked often about their vision for a new life. One night after dinner a friend said, "You'll have that North Carolina farm when pigs fly," and Hoover, who had collected pigs for years, knew the farm had a name. Within a year, the move to North Carolina was complete, and by 2002, Flying Pig Farm was a reality.
Today they live on 13 acres in rural Franklin County, in a log cabin that sits up on a hill, surrounded by hardwoods and evergreens that remind me of the Pacific Northwest. With her hair tucked under a black beret, Hoover looks like she might be more at home there than in Zebulon, as does Morphy, who has the hands and build of a seasoned logger. Yet the couple is firmly rooted in our local sustainable farming community--this summer will be their third full season of selling cut flowers, gourmet garlic and shiitake mushrooms at the Wake Forest Farmers' Market. By participating in a program supported by tobacco trust fund money to spur shiitake mushroom farming, they are helping to establish what could be one of North Carolina's next cash crops.
Morphy grew up in California collecting mushrooms by the bagful for his parents. He hated the task and felt the same way about mushrooms. Still, when he and Hoover moved to North Carolina, he knew he wanted to grow shiitake. "You could say I have a love-hate relationship with mushrooms," he says. "I hated gathering them, but I'm fascinated with the process of how they grow."
It helps that North Carolina provides an ideal environment for growing shiitake. The mushrooms grow best in warm moist air, and our state's weather, with its high humidity and mild temperatures, creates perfect conditions for shiitake fruiting.
These ideal conditions have inspired Omon S. Isikhuemhen, an assistant professor at N.C. A&T University in Greensboro, to promote North Carolina as the next national leader in mushroom production. Pennsylvania supports a large button mushroom industry, but North Carolina is better suited to growing exotic mushrooms such as portabella and shiitake. His work to establish a local mushroom industry has been funded by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Golden LEAF Foundation, which distributes tobacco trust fund money.
Originally grown only in Asia, the shiitake, which means mushroom of the shi or oak tree, is famous for its dense, almost meat-like flavor and its medicinal values. Farmers began growing them in the United States about 25 years ago, and demand has continued to increase ever since. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that as of August 2005, Americans were buying 8.6 million pounds of shiitake a year. Today N.C. farmers can sell shiitake for between $9 and $14 per pound at local markets and around $8 per pound wholesale. Even so, tobacco farmers have been slow to take an interest in mushroom farming.
About 150 growers are actively enrolled in Isikhuemhen's program, which helps them learn and test production techniques. Morphy and Hoover joined him soon after they arrived in North Carolina. As program participants, they attended a free workshop on growing mushrooms and received free mushroom seeds, or spawn. In return, they agreed to start with a minimum of 200 logs and to share production and sales data with Isikhuemhen, something they continue to do.
Shiitake will grow on any hardwood, but Hoover and Morphy prefer oak and use logs cut from red and white oak trees. At first, they cut their own logs before realizing they couldn't grow oak trees fast enough to replace what they cut down. "Ideally each log will be 3 to 8 inches wide and 4 to 5 feet long," Morphy says. "A tree needs to be about 80 years old to be the right size." They now buy their logs from a local woodcutter, using what he doesn't sell as firewood.
Growing shiitake on a small scale can be easy, but commercial production requires the investment of time, money and effort. Morphy knows 10 other shiitake farmers living in the Triangle area, and at least once a year, they get together to help one another inoculate logs with shiitake spawn.
They inoculate the logs between late November and early March. "You want to get to the logs before the sap starts rising in the spring," Hoover says. The group works in an assembly line, and the first step is to drill holes in the log about 1 inch deep and 3/4 inch wide using a high-speed drill. Next, a special plunger functions like a hypodermic needle to suck the shiitake spawn out of the bag, then push it into the holes, which are sealed with wax. The logs are then placed in the shade outside, where left alone, they will fruit in about six months.
Shiitake mushrooms are the fruit of a plant, just like tomatoes. Normally, a full shiitake flush--when mushrooms cover the log--occurs in the spring and fall as sudden changes in temperature and moisture promote mushroom growth. But Hoover and Morphy shock their logs into producing mushrooms every four to six weeks instead. After inoculation, they soak the logs in cold well water, then smack them on a rock three days later. Within about four days, the logs fruit. Once the mushrooms are harvested, the logs get set aside to rest and recharge for eight weeks.
The couple started out with 300 logs, and they now have about 700 in production. They plan to add 500 more this year. The farm is not yet making money, but Hoover and Morphy are optimistic about future income. They don't expect to get rich growing shiitake, but believe they can make a living.
"Anyone can grow them," Morphy says. "The trick is getting your market established."
Morphy and Hoover sell their produce to Jovi's Restaurant in Wake Forest as well as Triangle Nutrition in Raleigh. They also grow mushrooms and garlic for Eastern Carolina Organics, a local distribution company that sells organic produce to restaurants and grocery stores in the Triangle and Triad. "Whole Foods has offered us shelf space," Hoover says, "but we can't grow enough to meet the demand for shiitakes."
Like most produce, the fresher the shiitake, the better it tastes. The mushrooms are super-absorbent, perfect for soaking up the flavors of sauces and stir-fried dishes. "My favorite way to eat them is to sauté them in garlic butter and put them on a good steak," Hoover says. Alone, their flavor reflects the wood on which they were grown, and I found that the shiitake from Flying Pig Farm tasted robust and earthy, with a hint of pleasant bitterness.
When they first moved to North Carolina, Hoover worked in Raleigh while Morphy got the farm started. Coming from a well-established farm state like California, he was impressed with North Carolina's farming community. "In California they expect you to know everything about farming," he says. "Here, groups like Carolina Farm Stewardship Association will host workshops and teach you. To me, it means sustainable farming has a future in North Carolina."
A year ago they switched places, and now Hoover is farming full time. She and Morphy rent a two-acre field from a nearby tobacco farmer, and last month she decided they needed a bush hog to weed it. When Morphy went to order it from a local dealer, the man loaned him one to try out first. Two weeks later, the couple attended a farm auction, where they saw a cheaper bush hog.
"The dealer was there, too, and he told us that's the one we needed, that we could get it here for less, and we should buy it," Hoover says. "That kind of thing never would have happened in California."