Last month, Governor Dannel Malloy announced more than $880,327 in state grants for dozens of Connecticut farms. Among the recipients is a farmer in Higganum looking to fill 1,000 logs with many more mushrooms.
Rick Baxley grows his mushrooms outdoors and in logs, which is a slow, labor-intensive process that starts in the coldest months of winter. "I was out in the middle of my woods in February," he said, "wishing I had snowshoes, trying to cut down 100 trees. I knew [that] out of 100 trees, I could get 1,000 logs."
Those 1,000 logs are tied to a $7,963 grant from the state Department of Agriculture that Baxley received in March. Under the agreement, Baxley will throw in an additional $7,963 to grow shittake mushrooms for sale at local markets. "I'm at a borderline of retirement," he said. "At the time I wrote this grant, I was between jobs. I was considering this as a retirement opportunity, and the state just endorsed that fact."
Baxley said demand for mushrooms is much higher than it was ten years ago. On his land at 7 Falls Mushroom Farm, there are stacks of logs everywhere: oak, maple, and birch; hardwoods Baxley said are especially good for shittake-growing.
In a nearby barn was Christian Lamontagne, 15, wearing a Metallica t-shirt and safety goggles. He was standing on a floor covered in sawdust as he prepared Baxley's logs for something that sounded very clinical: "inoculation." Mushroom growers drill about 50 holes in a log, and implant something called "spawn," or mycelium.
That spawn then gets covered with a fine coat of wax. "That's just a paraffin, like you'd put on a jelly or a jam, and it seals in the moisture and the sawdust and keeps all the other competing fungi out of the hole," Baxley said. The logs are then brought outside to sit in a moist area. He said, "In six to nine months, the plant will grow throughout the log."
Baxley's mushroom farm plans to shop its mushrooms around to local restaurants and farmers markets.
Baxley said he isn't sure what the future will hold for his farm, but as he experiments with different woods and strains of mushrooms, he is sure about one thing: "This first year is a lot of learning," he said. "This is either going to be a lot of fun, a part time business, or maybe it'll get bigger than that. We just have to wait and see."
Connecticut is no stranger to big mushroom farms. The massive Franklin Mushroom Farm was New England's largest mushroom grower, producing millions of pounds of mushrooms annually until it closed several years ago.