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Shiitake Mushroom Helps Environment, Makes Money For Growers

May 1, 1988

DANVILLE, Ill. (AP) _ Scientists here believe there is money beyond wealth in shiitake mushrooms, a popular Japanese delicacy that they have popping out of 700 neatly stacked logs at a secluded Vermilion County research site.

The large, expensive mushrooms - pronounced SHEE-tah-keh - could help reduce soil erosion, improve forest management and create wildlife habitat while serving as a cash crop for their growers, scientists say.

″We’re in this for the environmental aspects,″ said Kenneth Konsis, the Kennekuk Cove Park forester who teaches shiitake growing. ″The mushrooms are a financial incentive to get landowners to do this.″

Scientists say that adding trees to crop land to provide a shiitake growth medium can help reduce soil erosion, and that cutting smaller logs from trees can improve existing forests. In either case, wildlife should benefit, they say.

Domestic shiitake production also could take a small slice out of the U.S. trade deficit, because the nation now imports about $100 million worth of the mushrooms from Japan annually. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates domestic growers have a $2 million a year market now, and it eventually could be 10 times that large.

″We’re growing higher quality mushrooms than they are in Japan,″ said Konsis. ″They are buying our best mushrooms and shipping them back to Japan.″

Shiitake mushrooms have been grown commercially in the United States for less than 10 years, said Christopher Burnett of the Illinois Natural History Survey. Growers produced nearly 3 million pounds last year.

This two-year-old, east-central Illinois research project developed by Burnett, a wildlife ecologist, is designed to identify the best shiitake varieties and the best type of logs for Illinois production.

It also is a workshop for people who want to learn how to raise shiitake.

″My son and I are interested in things like that - almost a garden type project,″ said Larry Larimore of Urbana, who took the class last winter. ″We don’t expect to be big mushroom growers.″

But Larimore said his son is a truck farmer and the shiitake harvest from their 100 logs will allow him to diversify his produce sales at farmers’ markets and retail stores.

The brownish shiitake caps can be large enough to fill the palm of a man’s hand, and have sold for $1 an ounce in local supermarkets, he said.

The shiitake is meatier, chewier and more flavorful than the button mushrooms found in most stores, Burnett said.

Konsis said the mushrooms are grown by placing spores in up to 90 holes drilled in logs, referably oak, of about three feet long and four inches in diameter.

The holes are sealed with wax and the logs are stacked for about a year, occasionally rotated, and sometimes soaked in a small lagoon to encourage the emergence of mushrooms, said Konsis.

Burnett estimates it costs $1 plus labor to ready a log for production, and the log will yield from three to nine pounds of mushrooms over five or six years. The grower should be able to sell the shiitake for about $6 a pound, he said.

″My strategy to convince people to do things to create (wildlife) habitat is to convince them woodlands have some economic value,″ said Burnett, who hopes similar demonstrations will be done in other parts of Illinois. ″It’s not difficult to do and the market is growing.″

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