Notes from Windward: #64

Sketching out an example: The Chair of Mycology

"No, Bubba, a toadstool is not a mycology chair."

      Mycology is the study of the secret world of the fungus among us. Folks have always known that fungus works to decompose dead trees, thereby clearing the forest and freeing up the minerals trapped in dead wood so that it can support new growth. It's only been in recent years that folks have come to appreciate the vital role fungus plays in the daily life of the forest; how without the symbiotic relationship between fungus and trees, there would be no forest.

      Windward manages a little more than a hundred acres of forested land featuring a combination of Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine and copse oak. Each type of tree supports, and is supported by, a different type of fungus. By way of example, after a rainy spring or fall, our fir trees provide us with a tasty meal of boletes.

      For an excellent description of boletus edulis, Click here.

      Everytime I see someone hauling a pickup load of oak out of the woods, I cringe since a cord of oak will bring about a hundred dollars as firewood, but if it was used to grow shitake mushrooms, that load of oak could generate forty times that much income. And if that oak was harvested sustainably, then a modest copse forest could provide a steady income stream indefinitely.

      You're probably not familiar with the term "copse," it refers to a forest of trees such that they regrow from the roots, instead of from seed. If you cut down a pine tree, the root system dies; in order to get another pine tree, you have to plant a seed. If you cut down one of our oaks, the root system sends up a host of shoots which grow into what looks like a circle of small oak trees, but is actually all the same tree.

      This matters because by not having to regrow the entire root system, a part of the tree that's of little use to you, the oak can put all of it's energy into regrowing the above-ground part that is of use to you. Traditionally, a copse forest can produce three tons of wood in the same time that a non-copse forest would take to grow two tons. When you're looking at sustainable forest management, that's a significant difference.

      The best time to harvest the oak is in the spring when the sap is rising and the leaf buds are starting to swell. That's when the cambrium, the living layer between the bark and the hardwood, is saturated with sugars that the fungus will use to get started digesting the wood.

      The first step is to select the largest trunk out of a suitable copse oak. But cutting the largest truck, and leaving the rest, the overall productivity of the tree is preserved as the intact root system sends up shoots to restore the balance between the tree's above ground and below ground components.

      The next step is to cut the trunk into sections four foot long. The trunk sections form the premium growth medium for the upcoming shitake crop. Holes are then drilled into the logs, and plugs of wood that are already innoculated with the shitake fungus are hammered into the holes. Finally the topped with a wax coating to insure that the plugs don't dry out before the fungus can get established.

      The newly innoculated logs are set aside in a moist and shady location for the summer so that the shitaki fungus can start digesting the log. Fortunately, we have just the right location for the log nursery down in the canyon that our spring creek runs through.

      Starting the second year, the oak logs are soaked in cold water, a step which tricks the fungus into thinking that it's time to produce the fruiting bodies that folks call mushrooms. By careful attention to detail, the grower can maximize the production of the mushrooms that are just the right size and have just the right appearance to bring top dollar in the Japanese market, with the rest going to domestic markets, the drying shed and our dining hall.

      That's pretty much the primary path, but there are many twists and enhancements possible. For example, remember that oak trunk we cut down? After selecting the premium parts of the trunk, there's still a lot of oak left.

      The smaller end of the trunk and the branches now go into the chipper and are ground up to create a substrate for growing even more mushrooms using artificial logs made from oak chips encased in plastic shrink tubing. This process won't produce premium shitake the way that actual logs will, but they'll be just fine for the domestic market.

      It would be a challenge to harvest and process enough oak to do this sort of work as a full time job paying market wages, but given our self-reliant lifestyle here, we're able to operate a program such as this at a scale which is both biologically sustainable and economically worthwhile.

      The person who took on the Chair of Mycology could take the lead on doing all the things described above, and more. In practice, the process isn't quite as simple as I've laid out above, and there's always some new wrinkle to puzzle out since nature's riddles aren't solved quite so easily.

      But on the other hand, this is a viable forest husbandry practice which is relevant to any land owner who's interested in obtaining full benefit from the forest, and one of the key principles of sustainability is to not waste things, especially things which can put good food on your table or which you can trade for other things you want.

      As I envision a Chair of Mycology:

      The Chair would annually oversee the processing of approximately one cord of oak logs into shitake mushrooms.

      The Chair would study local fungii and explore ways to develop the mycological potential of our land.

      The Chair would interact with both academia and hobby-level mushroom collectors.

      The Chair would host educational camping events at which people could do things such as learn how to grow shitake mushrooms on their own logs.

      The Chair would host educational camping events at which people could learn to cook with fresh mushrooms.

      Windward is located at the heart of a remarkably diverse range of micro-ecologies. For example, the Nature Conservancy has purchased a large block of forest located on the opposite side of the Klickitat river from Windward. Another activity that the Chair could undertake would be to host education camping events at which people studied the many different mushrooms that grow in the diverse Klickitat river ecosystems.

      The way that we work here is that most people are responsibile for some aspect of the big picture. In managing their part of the circle, they work pretty much alone and at their own pace as the needs of the seasons and their program dictate. When a project's needs exceed what one person can comfortably do, then we lend each other a hand in an informal sort of work exchange which insures that the work gets done within the time frame allotted by nature.

      For example, when peaches orchards down by the river ripen to the point where the fruit starts to fall from the trees, some growers will allow us to gather "ground falls" for next to nothing. Since they're really, really ripe, they have to be processed quickly, and so it's all hands to the kitchen. It's work, but it's an effort that bears the promise of the best peach cobbler you've ever tasted, or creamy frozen peach yogurt, or peach pie fresh from the oven.

      That's an example of the community coming together on a task that benefits us all, but it works the same way, albeit a smaller way, when we need each other to lend a helping hand when our personal projects need some assistance. With proper planning and good forethought, one can generally get by on one's own resources, but in actually practice, we all get by with a little help from our friends. Since we all live within shouting distance, that actually works out pretty well.

      As you can see, the Chair of Mycology wouldn't be doing anything that any interested person couldn't do, assuming of course that they have access to the oaks, the necessary equipment, the right location to store the innoculated logs, and so on. The difference is that we have all those things right here, right now, and while those resources were acquired for other purposes, working with mushrooms is a complimentary path that's worthwhile in its own right, and one which will enhance Windward's goal of modeling sustainable, self-reliant systems.

      All that's lack now is someone who is excited by the chance to transport this pool of potential into sustainable practice.

For an example of another potential Chair, Click Here

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 64