Field & Forest Products
Spawning a Successful Organic Mushroom Business
Joe Krawczyk and Mary Ellen Kozak had a vision very early in their careers, a vision that has guided them to this very day. On the day I met Joe for this interview, he was preparing to meet with his architect to finalize plans for their 2016 business expansion. Out of space at their current location, the expansion will double their building size and greatly improve work flow. The new location will also be in the Peshtigo, WI industrial park, which will help with shipping logistics. I was soon to see why this major expansion was necessary- with an expected 30% growth for 2015, one million in sales, 8 employees, and a production facility with every inch utilized, Joe and Mary’s business of 32 years is definitely ready for the next level.
The story begins in 1982. Joe and Mary had met as students at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. Joe had finished his degree in botany and was working in venture capital, primarily investing in ginseng projects in the Midwest. Mary was just finishing her agronomy degree. 1982 was the year that Gary Leatham’s article “Growing Shitake Mushrooms on Natural Logs” was published by the Forest Products Laboratory at UW-Madison. Joe and Mary already had a passion for mushrooms, an important aspect of their Eastern European heritage. This book solidified the idea that mushroom production in the Midwest was an open opportunity. By 1983, they had decided to get into mushroom spawn production.
In 1985 their opportunity arrived. They were able to buy 40 acres of Mary’s grandparent’s farm near Peshtigo, WI. Mary found a job with Land o’ Lakes, which allowed Joe to focus on getting the new business up and running. It was an exciting but busy time. They got married, moved from Madison, and started their new business- Field & Forest Products. The name reflected their initial plan to grow mushroom spawn and crops like strawberries and raspberries. Business started strong as the interest in mushroom production boomed in the Midwest, and by 1988 Mary was able to join Joe full time on the farm. By this time, they abandoned the horticultural crops and focused solely on the mushroom business.
By 1989, they were ready for the 2nd edition of the business- adding mushroom cultivation, but they needed to expand the original building. Just a few years later, they made another big addition to further expand their production space.
The 80s and early 90s were a boom time for the mushroom business, as it was really getting strong interest and publicity. There was also a lot of tobacco money being moved into this new enterprise. As tobacco production faded in the Midwest, due to declining prices, mushroom production was being touted as a good alternative. By the mid-90s, growth slowed as the money and support dried up. In the 2000s however, business picked up again, due to the interest in organic, locally grown food. “It took a full generation to get established in the American psyche,” noted Joe. “After the economic recession of 2007-8, things really took off as producers looked to diversify their production”.
“The biggest boon to our business has been the better understanding of production technologies and better strains of spawn, many of them from the Japanese. When we started, we could get one harvest of shitake mushrooms after two years. Now we can get a harvest within nine months. The Japanese are the leaders in log-based shitake cultivation. What they can do is phenomenal,” said Joe, who had just returned from a recent trip to Japan. “Within a few years, we hope to match them. We need to refine our technique and to learn more about wood decay science.”
80 to 85% of the current business is devoted to spawn production. Field and Forest Products offers a dozen different shitake strains, and also spawn for oysters, lion’s mane, hen of the woods, reishi, nameko, agaricus, wine cap, and other specialty mushrooms- eleven varieties in all. 10% of their business is selling tools and supplies, and a small 5% is devoted to fresh mushroom production, which is mostly sold to distributors that service the Madison market. The new facility will be exclusively for spawn production. The current farm will be used for shitake production.
Spawn cultivation is an art and a science. It starts with careful selection, cleaning and sterilization of the growing medium. There are two primary components: sawdust and organic grains. Straw is also used, specifically for oyster mushrooms. Sawdust is brought in fresh from a local mill and then cleaned and screened. It is then sterilized with heat. Organic rye grains (seed quality) are first hydrated and then sterilized with heat. The growing medium is then mixed (each mix is unique to the mushroom type), bagged and then inoculated with mushroom spawn. Organic straw is pasteurized in a water bath before inoculation with oyster spawn. Proper substrate mixing, sterilization and inoculation are critical to ensuring that other microorganisms do not contaminate the substrate and that the spawn grows well.
Inoculated bags are then stored in a climate controlled room and monitored for proper growth (incubation stage). Most commercial growers want sawdust based spawn, which is easier to use when inoculating logs. Some growers still prefer plugs, which Field & Forest also offers. “Our goal is to always have spawn on hand for growers. We maintain our own strains right here on the property. We constantly test them for vigor and productivity. Good production on the log is critical; our customers expect it,” emphasized Joe. Field & Forest Products ships mushroom spawn all over the country and to Canada. They average 900 pounds of sawdust spawn per day and 500 pounds of grain spawn per week. They also produce 200,000 spawn plugs per week during the busy season.
Joe and Mary have grown their spawn and mushrooms organically from the very beginning, and all of their products are certified organic. “Dave Engel approached us in 1988 to help write the first organic standards for mushroom production. For us it was always the right thing to do. The high quality of organic grain makes it much better for the production of spawn. Even though most of our clients do not need for the spawn to be certified organic, it is the right thing to do, it makes life easier, and it makes a big difference in the quality of the product. We buy all of our organic seed grains from Albert Lea. The quality and cleanliness are the best we have found,” said Joe.
Joe and Mary are also committed to education and helping to develop the industry. They host workshops on mushroom production, are frequent speakers on the subject around the country and the world, are the original founders of the Shitake Mushroom Growers of WI group, actively participate in research projects, and have made numerous trips to the former Soviets republics to teach their production methods. “The more the merrier,” notes Joe. To learn more about Field and Forest Products and organic mushroom production, visit their website at: www.fieldforest.net