College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Institute of Applied Agriculture

Careers Grow Here: IAA Alum Returns to UMD to Help Students Explore Alternative Crop Option of Shiitake Mushrooms

Author: 
JoEllen Nield Barnhart, Ph.D.
Ben Beale demonstrates how to correctly drill into the white oak log.

Things got a bit exotic at the Institute for Applied Agriculture (IAA) this semester in Meredith Epstein’s Analyzing Alternative Enterprises class, as students explored a forest-based farming crop that can yield extra income to an agri-business: the prized shiitake mushroom.

Purported by Asian cultures for hundreds of years to be one of the finest of the exotic edible mushrooms cultivated for its rich smoky, fragrant flavor and meaty tenderness, shiitake mushrooms is showing a growing presence dining tables across the United States and Canada.

Here, in the U.S., shiitake growers use forest farming to produce the mushrooms using downed hardwood trees as the cultivation medium. “Because cultivation requires a significant amount of shade and wind protection, and a small amount of land, growing shiitake mushrooms can make a good alternative enterprise helping farmers diversity their income opportunities,” explains Meredith Epstein, who advises and teaches students studying Sustainable Agriculture and Agricultural Business Management for the IAA.

In the Analyzing Alternative Enterprises course, students are introduced to a variety of specialty crops and other ancillary agribusiness ventures that may provide supplemental income.

Epstein states, “As we work with students on their careers in agriculture, we stress the value of diversification. Exposure to alternative enterprises can open new streams of revenue for our IAA students as they embark on their careers.”

In order for students to completely understand the shiitake mushroom growing process, Epstein invited IAA alumni Ben Beale back to campus. University of Maryland Extension Senior Agent Beale works with the St. Mary’s County community to promote and teach about local agriculture practices, including offering lectures on shitake mushrooms as an alternative seasonal enterprise.

Carrying white oak logs, drills, spawn, and sealing wax, Beale, transported his training and education program to Jull Hall on the UMD campus. Students drilled into the white oak logs then inoculated the drilled holes with spawn. In about a year, the logs will yield distinctive parasol-shaped caps considered a culinary delight.

“Lessons like learning how to make use of deciduous wood that retains its bark, such as white oak, demonstrate a sustainable agriculture practice,” says Beale. But he warns that while demand is growing for this exotic mushroom, too many growers in a concentrated area may not find a positive return on their crop yield. “Knowing your market and monitoring product demand is imperative,” Beale explained to students.

With new evidence acknowledging health-promoting properties provided by shiitake mushrooms, they could be an alternative crop for some IAA students. “The demand for shiitake is gaining popularity, particularly in healthy-minded niche markets,” states Beale.

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