Posted August 2, 2023 at 03:25pm by Kelly Dolan

Moonlight Mountain Farm: Finding value in forests with log-grown shiitake mushroom

Moonlight Mountain Farm

By Sydney Blume

Each month, Farm to Plate will be featuring stories of Vermont farmers using agroforestry related practices. These stories and related mapping project were created by recent UVM Food System's graduate Sydney Blume in collaboration with Farm to Plate's Agroforestry Priority Strategy Team. To see other featured stories, visit the Vermont Agroforestry Storytelling Map.

On an early spring day, the sun was bright, the ground was icy, and the pasture was still covered in feet of snow. The young fruit trees poking out of their white blanket showed the faintest sign of sealed spring buds and new growth behind their wire cages, and the small pond has just thawed. Two Anatolian shepherds – immense, fluffy, and seemingly immune to the cold – patrol the land, but are eager to break for a belly rub.

This is  Moonlight Mountain Farm , the charming, homestead-scale, diversified farming operation of Kristen Getler and Nick Laskovski on 20 acres in the Roxbury Gap. The two landed here in 2019, after an earlier iteration as Dana Forest Farm. While Kristen prepared the idyllic on-site  farmstay  for new guests, Nick shared his agroforestry story.

For Nick, an interest in agroforestry was piqued early, when he was just six years old living in upstate New York. The first introduction? Mushroom logs. “My mom wanted to try growing mushrooms and saw somebody doing a course. We were living in a rental with a decent wood lot in the backyard and found some downed trees and got some plugs and spawn and just started doing it.” Young Nick was amazed to see the mushrooms growing straight out of the log and, as a first-grader entrepreneur, started selling them at his vegetable stand. “People were like, ‘where are these coming from?’ It just was a very unusual product.”

Nick carried that passion for growing mushrooms with him, but says that he “never really took it seriously until [he] got an internship at college to be the agroforestry intern at Cornell.” There, he began to study under Professor Ken Mudge, whom he describes as “an awesome resource and researcher [who] sort of organized the Northeast around helping to expand agroforestry.” The following year, Nick started as an intern at  Cornell’s MacDaniels Nut Grove , a test site for hundreds of nut trees that were planted in the 1930s by Lawrence H. MacDaniels. After lying dormant for 70 years, shrouded in thick undergrowth, Ken Mudge recruited a team of students, including Nick, to help uncover it to identify and evaluate some of the cultivars. Nick says, “we found these massive grafted nut trees that were literally two feet in diameter, with Shagbark [tops], Hickory on the bottom [as rootstock], and then like pignut [rootstock], Hickory on top, and literally two different trees just kind of like stacked on top of one another.” This diverse nut grove became the test plot for expanding agroforestry research, especially in forest farming, which is described as the cultivation of high-value crops under forest cover. Nick went on to work as the manager. Eventually, another area near Lake Placid involved in maple sugar research was added to the research program, which focused on “maple sugaring and growing mushrooms underneath a sugar bush and growing ginseng within there and kind of having this tiered approach. “

Carrying this education and passion for forest farming, after college, Nick moved to Waitsfield, Vermont, where his dad was living. Nick says, “I just expanded a mushroom operation on the property and started inoculating as many logs as I possibly could.” He tried to see if he could turn mushroom production into a job, but was working another job at the same time, with mushroom production as his “weekend side hustle.” But it was made for success: “All the restaurants were scooping up every mushroom like crazy. I think my best year I had about like $15,000 in sales, which doesn't sound like a lot of money, but it's a pretty good amount for just a weekend thing.” 

Excited about this newfound success and passionate about the possibilities of mushroom production because of the hungry market, Nick organized a way to expand awareness and knowledge of mushroom forest farming in the Northeast. He connected with UVM professor Alan Matthews and, together, they reconnected with Ken Mudge. In a UVM-Cornell collaboration, they “put together a three year SARE-funded research project around training Northeast farmers how to grow mushrooms – shiitake mushrooms primarily. It culminated with us hosting around 45 training sessions over the course of three years to hundreds of different agricultural producers, with the theme being: ‘hey, if you have a woodlot on your property, and you're looking at other ways to generate supplemental income, mushrooms might be a nice option for you.’” The SARE grant provided $150,000 for the training, involving researchers and grad students from UVM. It culminated in a publication of the  best practices manual of shiitake cultivation in the Northeast , “which is still available online, and people use it all the time.”

Nick’s work in log-grown mushroom cultivation has been impactful to developing forest farming in the northeast. Forest farming is one of the five USDA recognized practices of agroforestry, alongside silvopasture, alley cropping, windbreaks, and riparian buffers. Nick describes agroforestry as “a tiered farming approach of a higher canopy, a mid level canopy, and an understory.” He’s been passionate about agroforestry because it encompasses both a “love of not only just trying to grow things, but also increasing forests and carbon sequestration and creating a multi-dimensional approach to growing food, eating food, and not impacting the environment in a bad way.” Agroforestry, he says, is in stark contrast to the “massive mono crops and big deforestation campaigns” that dominate industrial agriculture. While he admits that maybe it’s not a blanket-approach that will feed the world, he says it’s a pretty straightforward concept that “sounds like a pretty darn good solution.” 

Nick explains that forest farming starts from a forestry perspective of considering a sustainable forest management plan that takes into account trees for timber use, but then adds other crops or uses to the forest floor, like ginseng, mushrooms, or other shade-tolerant plants. Forest farming is a step in the direction of seeing woods beyond the value of cutting down trees for timber, and instead considering, “how can we make this a sustained location to be able to do some forest thinning, but also make a value add within the forest?” 

Looking for economic value in the forest as an incentive for conservation is a tricky topic that has recently become increasingly complex with the development of carbon markets. In Nick’s work in forest farming, he says “the biggest transition from when we were talking about this 20 years ago is the potential for forests to be involved as carbon sinks, for carbon offset programs.” Certainly, this can be supportive to farmers or landowners who need an economic incentive to maintain a standing forest. But this brings up some moral questions: “does allowing somebody to pollute somewhere else make sense if they're just offsetting it with a large carbon bank somewhere?” However, he shares that forest farming can be an opportunity to find additional human benefit in a natural standing forest, allowing the ecosystem benefits to continue while also finding economic benefit. 

For Nick, this comes down to what’s important. “I think as a society, we need to grow more trees, simply; they are the biggest answer to our carbon problem.” Moonlight Mountain farm, then, is their small scale approach to demonstrating another way to find benefits in maintaining (and expanding) forests. Nick and Kristen’s agroforestry operation still includes shiitake production, and has expanded to sheep in orchard silvopasture (the grazing of animals under trees, in this case, fruit trees), and flowers. 

Since they have only been in their new spot for the past four years, Nick and Kristen are still in the process of expanding their shiitake production. ” Back in Waitsfield, they had about 5,000 logs in rotation at their peak, providing hundreds of pounds of harvest, but the operation is now at 250 logs – still a large operation, but a fraction of what it once was. This year, he hopes to get back to 1,000 logs. 

For the past few years, they’ve also added sheep to the operation. Currently, they graze pastures that are connected to the woods. The woods are somewhat overgrown now, “but the idea is to thin out those woods, use the logs from thinning for both firewood and mushroom production, and then allow the lambs to then go in and graze and use them as a tool to sort of help out the woods a little bit by clearing out the the underbrush.” They also will still graze in pasture, but the pasture is in the process of becoming an orchard. “We planted an orchard pretty soon after we moved here and have protected the young saplings from the sheep so they can graze around the orchard. The hope is that in 10 years or so, we can remove the fencing protection from the trees, and then the sheep can ultimately graze the orchard, keep it mowed down, help fertilize, and have a mutually-beneficial agroforestry relationship between sheep and fruit growing.” In the orchard, they’ve planted apples, cherries, plums, pears, and more, and will include black walnuts and other varieties in the future. The sheep operation is small scale; they kept nine sheep in the past year and plan to expand to 10 or 12 this year to be raised for meat and skins.

Ever diversified, in addition to the mushrooms, orchards, and sheep, Kristen has started a flower farm. This year, she is offering a flower CSA. The flowers are mostly field plantings, but she also integrates perennials. In the future, she may integrate shade tolerant varieties into the forest as a part of their agroforestry practices. 

But, the central crop of Moonlight Mountain Farm is still the shiitake mushrooms – Nick’s first and continued focus. Over the years, he’s grown a variety of other mushrooms: oysters, bluets, enoki, and more, both in indoor and outdoor cultivation, but he’s always come back to shiitake for a variety of reasons. For one, he says, “outdoor cultivation for me is preferred . . . to have it be as less energy intensive as possible.” This outdoor cultivation in logs is facilitated because, he says, “it’s a very natural pairing of the trees we’re living amongst: sugar maples, hop hornbeams, and beech, that are fairly prevalent in our woods that match so well with shiitake.” At the end of the day, though, Nick says he just “really appreciate[s] their flavor.” 

Even with all the benefits of shiitake, he also thinks shiitake production makes a lot of economic sense. “Shiitakes have really good marketability: they dry really well and store really well. And based on this log system approach, which is very ancient, it also lends itself really well to consistent production. So whereas oysters may be more responsive to natural climate induced fruiting, shiitake has this methodology where you can take the logs, dump them in cold water, and get fairly decent harvest results within a couple of weeks. If you time that throughout the growing season, you can have a consistent harvest, which is not just nice, from an eating standpoint, but it's also nice to be able to supply in a consistent way.” They also have the added benefit of creating added value through drying; if shiitake are dried in the sun with their gills up, they actually “soak up a tremendous amount of vitamin D.” Nick says they could, potentially, really “lay it on thick” with the labels on their mushrooms: “forest-grown, organic, vitamin D enhanced, sundried, hand-picked, no fossil fuels.” 

Nick’s beautifully attributed (but not labeled as such) and consistent shiitake harvest is sold and distributed locally to a nearby community store and some restaurants. He says the quality of the product and consistent demand allows him to maintain a very short radius of distribution location. Though he admits that this distribution isn’t going to become his main income, he does feel it can be impactful even on a small scale because it can be a model for a larger scale. “If this could be replicated to a much larger scale and it meant that it was more beneficial to keep forests than to eliminate them, then that's very important to me. I mean, it's about doing that here.” 

Since Moonlight Mountain Farm is still small scale, Nick also works a full time job. Part of this, he says, is that there’s “not many good examples of some really big agroforestry project in the Northeast, where they've got it all dialed in, and it's demonstrating the way everything should be.” In his ideal world, Nick says, “if I could just be out in the woods moving logs around and making a little bit more than minimum wage, so I could support our family, which would be a lot more than minimum wage, then that's ultimately what I'd love to be doing.” Until then, though, Nick works in the renewable energy world as a wind energy developer because “people have a much higher demand for energy than shiitake.” The two worlds of renewable energy and agroforestry are colliding, though. Nick says that the buzzword in solar and wind energy development is “agro-voltaics” – exploring how to productively use land under solar panels or wind turbines. This mimics the forest farming conversation in that it’s seeking to utilize a shaded environment for agriculture. 

While Nick would rather be full time agroforestry with a side interest in renewable energy instead, one big barrier to that being the case is the challenge of scaling up production. Some of the largest log-grown shiitake operations in the world currently are in China and Japan, and partially, this is because “in Japan, they’ve engineered certain devices that allow one person to inoculate many logs using automation.” This kind of automation could seriously expand the potential of mushroom producers to grow more with less labor inputs because the inoculation is the most labor-intensive part of mushroom growing. The catch is that the machines to do so are $7-10,000 – a high cost for entry that is unfeasible to most small-scale mushroom producers. 

However, Nick has found a community-centered approach to his labor challenges: Shiitake Palooza. “[It’s] just big assembly lines of fun with beer and food.” Shiitake Palooza acts as a collaborative labor effort, a community event, and an educational experience. Nick and Kristen invite their community to come inoculate mushroom logs, setting up stations for an assembly line from drilling, to plugging with spawn, to moving logs to their final resting place. They sweeten the deal with food, beer, and music to make it a fun community event, and also teach people about how to inoculate mushroom logs. He says that others have been inspired and that Shiitake Palooza has “spawned” other mushroom inoculation parties. “It's amazing, the amount of work you can get done with that many more people. And it’s the kind of thing that you can't put too many people on – the more people the merrier.”

Though Shiitake Palooza is a fun, community-centered event, Nick does see that to expand mushroom cultivation more broadly in the Northeast, investing in machinery that can automate the mushroom log process could really support the expansion of mushroom production in Vermont. “If I can find a SARE grant to convince somebody to get an automatic or semi-automatic inoculation machine and do a proving process as to why something like that could revolutionize the amount of shiitake that could be grown here based on the fact that not everybody wants to throw a Shiitake Palooza . . .” Nick’s idea touches on the unique possibility of agroforestry to tap into more shared or co-operative models for managing and distribution in agroforestry; because work is less consistent than annual agriculture and sometimes has more niche products that require processing, connecting agroforestry farmers to one another for sharing machinery, facilities, or distribution could alleviate some of the challenges that agroforestry farmers are facing.

Looking to the future of agroforestry, Nick hopes that more people will adopt agroforestry to protect existing forests and plant more trees, something we desperately need. “I think as a society, we need to grow more trees. I mean, they are the biggest answer to our carbon problem.” On a more promising lens, though, Nick notes that Vermont is already well suited to agroforestry in the sense that “maple syrup sugaring operations are really the basis of good forest management, [so] expanding that to include one or two other things like animals pasturing in the same woods or shiitake being grown in those woods, or whatever else, is not that much more of a reach.” Though people might be unfamiliar with the term or the practices, he thinks that understanding agroforestry will be supported because “in reality, this is something that’s already here.”

Photo credit: Moonlight Mountain Farm