Gifting My Mistakes: Reflections of a Novice Farmer

By Kohei Ishihara

Learning to grow Shiitake Mushrooms at a Freedom Food Farm workshop in April

Learning to grow Shiitake Mushrooms at a Freedom Food Farm workshop in April

This year I am starting my first commercial vegetable and mushroom operation, and the theme of my life has been the Learning Curve. Everything I do likely will take 2 to 3 times longer than what a seasoned farmer could do, and often 2- 3 painstaking trips back and forth to the hardware or farm supply store. Wasted money only adds salt to the wounds of wasted time. Today I want to give you the gift of my mistakes. Take all of them!

First, for those of you who were not able to make my workshop on Shiitake Log Cultivation, below is a fail-proof, ten-step process that you can follow. Over the course of inoculating over 300 logs I definitely made a bunch of mistakes – but you don’t have to. But- before you scroll down to review the shiitake process, I would like to offer you some additional experienced perspective as well.

It has been an honor to witness my boss, Chuck Currie, run the operation over here at Freedom Food Farm, and his 12 years of mistakes and corrections have benefited me, and may also benefit you too. On Saturday May 16th, from 10:30am – 12:30pm, Chuck offers a workshop called “Organic Gardening from Seed to Plate” to accommodate both advanced as well as novice gardeners. It’s an opportunity to learn from Chuck’s experiences and walk away with strategies for building healthy soil.

I have learned much during my time with farmer Chuck. For example, the rotation of pasture usage is complex and intentional. First, the goats and sheep cut down the grass, and then the chickens are moved to where they scratch through the pasture, eat bugs and pests, and clear and clean up the pasture. The pigs round out the process, as they plow and turn over the soil with their incredibly strong snouts, more like earth-moving shovels. Next, the field is planted with a nitrogen-fixing cover crop to protect the nutrient-dense soil over the winter, and by springtime a naturally luscious soil is bustling with bio-diversity and plant-available nutrients.

The list of mutually beneficial, inter-related farming systems goes on and on here at Freedom Food Farm. Beehives are placed at the center of the farm, ensuring their access to all our fields. Strips of tall grass separate each field in production to provide hideouts for beneficial insects. Seeds are planted according to the phases of the moon. Apple cider vinegar and molasses are used as a natural foliar spray to give our plants the strength to resist the threat of late blight.

Rest assured, you don’t have to raise animals to produce a bountiful vegetable garden, but understanding how to build healthy soil to grow healthy plants is essential. It’s not every day that you can get a seasoned farmer in a room to answer all your questions, but now you can! Join Farmer Chuck, the farm owner and manager of Freedom Food Farm, for a Garden to Plate workshop, and learn from the mistakes we have already corrected. After the workshop, you can stick around for a free hayride tour of the farm at 2PM, and actually see the farm in production (and also continue to ask Chuck questions as he guides the hayride tour). Bring a picnic lunch, or I recommend Royal Pizza just a few minutes away on Route 44, which uses organic flour and other organic ingredients for a bite in between the workshop and the hayride tour.

Register soon, because the last workshop was full one week in advance. The cost of the workshop is FREE for CSA members, $20 for others, and the hayride is free to all.

“Organic Gardening from Seed to Plate”
Description: Learn the basics of vegetable gardening from Freedom Food Farm owner Chuck Currie. In addition to a degree in Plant, Soil, and Insect Science, Chuck has over 12 years of experience growing vegetables organically. Topics covered include garden planning, basic soil science and fertility, starting seedlings, planting, irrigation, pests, and best of all, harvesting! This is a great opportunity to ask any questions you have about growing your own productive garden – no matter your experience level.

10 Steps in Shiitake Log Cultivation:

1. Identify the site that will host your shiitake logs. Find a place that will retain moisture – which means two things (1) it should be shaded (under evergreens is ideal), and (2) it should not be too windy. I found a shaded plot on a hill under a bunch of fir trees only to later realize that this hill was one of the windiest places on the farm.

2. Cut down oak trees, or find newly cut down oak trees, during the winter when the tree is dormant. The best trees are young, which have the highest amount of carbohydrates and will serve as a strong food supply for your mushrooms. Young trees with diameters of less than 8 inches will also be lighter and much easier to transport.

3. Cut your logs into lengths no greater than 4 feet. The shorter you cut, the lighter your logs will be. Then use a grill brush to scrape off lichens, debris, and other growth while being careful not to rip off the bark which is needed as a protective layer of insulation and also serves as a barrier to pests and disease. Then, a week before you inoculate, soak your logs in water for up to 48 hours.

4. Inoculate your logs. Start the process off by cleaning your tools and the work surface area. Using a drill with a 5/16th inch bit, drill holes every 6-8 inches in a row. For the second row, off-center the holes so that they are staggered. By now you should have already ordered shiitake mushroom dowel spawn (I recommend ordering from Field & Forest). Pound in the wooden dowels using a hammer or rubber mallet.

5. Melt wax to seal inoculant. Once you are done inoculating logs, melt wax until it starts to smoke. Wax that has reached this temperature will not only seal better, but it will also ensure that it kills any harmful bacteria. Using a paint brush, cover each hole with enough wax to seal it. The wax keeps out harmful insects, bacteria, and competing fungi, and keeps in the moisture,

6. Stack your logs like you would stack firewood, so there is minimal wind exposure. This will ensure that your logs stay moist. You can also water your logs or cover them with tarp. Keeping your logs very moist is extremely important for the first 3 months. I made the mistake of building elaborate shiitake towers. You don’t need to do this until they’re fruiting!

7. Wait! Now you can sit back and relax. It will take 12 – 18 months until your logs show traces of white mycelium growth on the cambium layers on the edges of your logs. Once you see this growth it means that the mycelium has fully colonized the log, and that your log is ready for forced fruiting.

8. Force your logs to fruit or you can wait, and let nature takes its course. . If left alone, natural changes in temperature will naturally force a flushing of mushrooms, most likely once in the spring and once in the fall. To force fruit your logs, you must soak your logs in water that is 20 degrees colder than the air temperature for 24 hours. Soak each log and then re-stack and you should start seeing a flush of mushrooms within two weeks. To get a continuous supply of mushrooms don’t force fruit all your logs at once.

9. Let your logs rest – after force fruiting a log and harvesting mushrooms, let your logs rest at least two months before forcing another fruiting.

10. Lastly, protect your logs from Predators. This goes for growing anything nutritious and delicious. Insects, squirrels, and even deer will find shiitakes just as delicious as you do. You can surround your shiitake towers with a fence to keep out large animals, or cover your towers with row cover to keep out the small critters.

A final note, on production goals: I started out with 300 logs. Don’t do that. If this is for commercial production, slash your goal by two-thirds. Cutting down logs, preparing a site, and inoculation is very labor intensive. You could save yourself countless hours if you start off small and get the hand of it first before jumping into mass production. Yes, shiitake beckons us to be patient. It takes two years until your logs yield a maximum flush of mushrooms. So slash your initial production goal, garner your patience, and grow your shiitake well.

KoheiKohei Ishihara envisions networks of transformative people, organizations, and social movements that are empowered by a deep connection to land, community, and food. Kohei earned a degree in Ethnic Studies from Brown University and helped build a youth activist organization in Providence, RI. Currently enrolled in a Sustainable Food and Farming certificate program at UMASS Amherst and serving as the CSA Coordinator for Freedom Food Farm, he welcomes questions at

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One Response to Gifting My Mistakes: Reflections of a Novice Farmer

  1. Pingback: Gifting My Mistakes: Reflections of a Novice Farmer | edible South Shore & South Coast Blog | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

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