Harvesting a Forest Farm
Words by Margaret LeRoux / Images by Michael Piazza
During the earliest days of spring Leo Mondragon is busy sowing next year’s crop of shiitake mushrooms at Forest Harvest Farm in Petersham. You don’t plant shiitakes in the ground, though; they grow inside logs. Mondragon and a helper drill holes—between 70 and 80—along the grain of each of thousands of red oak logs and fill them with certified organic mycelium culture. They plunge spring-loaded inoculators—brass tube-like devices about 12 inches long—into bags of mycelium and then with a quick “tap-tap” discharge it into the holes in the logs. Next, they seal the holes and sterilize the surface by dabbing them with wax heated to 375° F.
After inoculation, they haul the logs into the woods, stack them and basically leave them alone. Over the next 12 months the fungus branches out through the logs to produce shiitakes.
During that time the logs need to be damp, so Mondragon has strung thousands of feet of hose through the trees. Water pumped from an artesian well on his property provides moisture when nature doesn’t provide enough rain.
The concept is beautifully simple, but the execution can be devilishly complicated, which explains why there is not a lot of competition. “It’s a lot of hard work and you’re at the mercy of the weather,” Mondragon said. “It’s not a get rich quick operation; it’s not even a get rich operation. Sometimes I question my sanity in doing this.”
The shiitake harvesting season usually gets underway in April when the first mushrooms start to pin, or pop out of the logs. Weather dictates the timing of the process. “Two years ago we harvested all the way into December because it was so mild, the year before that, there was snow into May, so the growing season was delayed,” he explained.
As the mycelium works to produce mushrooms, the weather continues to play an important role. “Sometimes a mushroom can take weeks to develop,” Mondragon said. “If it starts to pin and then the weather gets cold, the mushroom will actually retreat. Other times they grow from pinning to a full size mushroom in a day.”
Mondragon describes his shiitake crop as “beyond organic, because it’s natural.” He points out that most shiitakes sold in the United States are grown in sterile media in warehouses. “They don’t have the same rich flavor as our shiitakes,” he said.
Twelve different strains of shiitakes grow at Forest Harvest Farm, including Japanese, Chinese, and Siberian. Some, like the Japanese and Chinese adapt well to warm weather, while the Siberians are more plentiful in the cold weather. Mondragon is experimenting with winecap mushrooms, growing them in sawdust from the logs that have stopped producing shiitakes.
Besides cultivating, Mondragon is also an expert forager. When he’s not working on his farm, he’s hunting for other wild mushrooms in forested areas throughout New England and as far north as Canada. Although purposely vague in describing his hunting grounds—mushroom foragers are notoriously secretive about their favorite spots—Mondragon is willing to offer a few mushroom hunting tips.
“You look for the right trees and for moisture, those are the keys,” he explained. If he’s hunting for the elusive matsutakes, Mondragon searches for hemlock trees; for chanterelles, he sets his sight on maples. Velvety black trumpets are found only in June around beech and elm trees, and hen-of-the-woods, also known as maitakes, grow at the base of oak trees. Although they are supposedly named for their similarity in taste to chicken, Mondragon notes that these ruffled mushrooms look a bit like feathers. They also can be huge; he once harvested a 40-pound hen-of-the-woods.
Mondragon is a walking Wikipedia on the topic of mushrooms and their habitats. He generously shares his knowledge, though he’s come to realize he no longer has the time to train novice hunters. “It takes a while to learn what mushrooms are safe to eat,” he noted. “I’ve taken people out foraging and am always surprised that they’ll find mushrooms they think look just like the examples I’ve shown them. In reality they’re showing me a mushroom that would make them sick.”
For Mondragon, foraging is much more than a hobby; it’s the basis for his business. He cultivates about 1,500 pounds of shiitakes and usually forages about 1,000 pounds every year.
He drives all over New England on his hunting trips. “Back when gas was four dollars a gallon, our gas bill was eight hundred dollars a month,” said Marie Erie, Mondragon’s wife. While Erie handles the record keeping and customer relations for Mondragon’s mushroom business, Leo maintains connections with other serious mushroomers. “We share ideas and experiences, but we don’t share locations. We keep things very close to the vest,” he said.
On a recent vacation to the Pacific Northwest, he squeezed in an outing to hunt for morel mushrooms in Oregon with a forager he’d met online. Hiking in the woods with Mondragon is always an adventure, according to his wife. “We’ll be walking along the trail and all of a sudden Leo will disappear up a hill and come back a few minutes later with his arms full of mushrooms.” she said.
Mondragon was born in Central Mexico and as a boy learned to forage for mushrooms with an aunt. When he grew up and became chef-owner of a restaurant, he would occasionally cook and serve wild mushrooms he’d found. He moved to Los Angeles, where he ran another restaurant. Foraging wasn’t so good in that part of the state; Mondragon had to travel to northern California to find wild mushrooms.
He moved to New England, eventually settling in Massachusetts and about 12 years ago added farming to his mushroom repertoire. Remembering the popularity of wild mushrooms among the patrons of his own restaurants, he figured there would be a market for hard-to-find wild mushrooms among the chefs of high-end restaurants on the East Coast. Mondragon cultivated customers by driving to New York City with a load of his freshly foraged mushrooms. He made cold calls to several restaurants and struck up a long-lasting relationship with chef Dan Barber. Mondragon now supplies wild mushrooms to Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns Restaurant in Pocantico Hills, New York. He also sells shiitakes to Siena Farms in Sudbury.
“Mushrooms are very perishable; they have a short lifespan and good chefs appreciate the value of fresh, local food,” Mondragon said. “They can get mushrooms from all over the world, but there’s nothing like the flavor and freshness of a local mushroom.”
His interest in mushrooms is not all-consuming. Mondragon is also a fan of grassroots music, and nine years ago traveled to North Carolina for a festival. There he met his future wife, a scientist who shares his appreciation for music and has become an avid student of mushroom foraging. Erie was working in Virginia and after a long distance relationship with Mondragon, took advantage of an offer to move to her employer’s Massachusetts site. In 2005 the couple bought four acres of land including a 19th century mill owner’s house along the banks of the Swift River in Petersham. They named the farm Forest Harvest.
The couple plan on expanding their cultivation of shiitakes by building a 16 by 32-foot, two-story greenhouse with a basement level for experimentation with other strains of mushrooms.
Growing and foraging for mushrooms is a challenging business and the resulting crops are expensive. Nevertheless, to Mondragon’s customers nothing beats the flavor of his mushrooms. That’s why they line up to pay upwards of $20 a pound at the Copley Square farmers market where Siena Farms sell his shiitakes.
Erie says that her husband is a creative, shoot-from-the-hip kind of cook who constantly finds ways to incorporate mushrooms into the meals he serves. “Leo makes a wonderful sauce for pasta with morels and asparagus and his cream of mushroom soup is amazing,” she said.
When asked what is the best way to cook shiitakes, Mondragon advises that less is more for these robust-flavored mushrooms. “Sauté them in butter with a little shallot and garlic, then finish them with just a dash of lemon juice,” he said. “They are naturally delicious.”
Margaret LeRoux writes, cooks, and eats in Central Massachusetts. She frequently sees wild mushrooms while hiking in the woods and trusts her instinct to leave them alone.