Writing about food is a funny thing because we all carry our own memories and emotional connections to dishes and ingredients. For me, when I stepped onto Muddy Creek Farms and met Patrick Stephens, there was an immediate flash of kinship.
I recognized in his accent that, like me, he was a North Carolinian by transplant, and the twang in his voice revealed that his home state, like mine, was West Virginia, so I immediately had a soft spot for my Mountaineer kinsman.
But as for a connection to the food, to the ingredients he grows there – primarily Shitake mushrooms – I had no particular emotional tie; I had never eaten them growing up and had no real connection to them – until I saw the ingenuity he was bringing to his farm.
Growing mushrooms is a fickle prospect. The humidity, temperature, rainfall, and light all have to come together in just the right way to cause the spores to grow, then fruit, then plump up and become good eating.
Traditionally, Shitake mushroom farmers will inoculate white oak logs with mushroom spores then arrange them in a square pattern like a chimney or the structure of a bonfire. Then it’s up to a little irrigation and a lot of luck to get the spores to grow, fruit, and be harvest ready. If and when the logs fruit, only some of the logs in each stack will fruit on three sides, most will only fruit on two. It’s a daunting, somewhat unreliable, prospect.
Stephens looked at this inconsistent yield and had an idea of how to increase the growing surface area on each log; all while gaining better control of the humidity and irrigation the logs receive. Like all good solutions, it was simple: he hung up his logs.
By hanging his logs from a line, providing them with a constant source of mist for irrigation and humidity, and controlling when the water ends and the simulated drought period (which forces fruiting) begins, he’s able to grow Grade A (big, beautiful, market-ready mushrooms) reliably and with a much higher yield rate.
Weather still plays a factor, but he’s harvested 100 pounds or more of Grade A Shitakes a half dozen times in the few months he’s tried his new process. In addition, he’s harvested countless hundreds of pounds of Grade B and soup-grade mushrooms from these same logs.
Best of all, Stephens isn’t finished with his innovative thinking. Currently, the white oak logs used in mushroom farming are only usable for so long, so he’s been developing natural wood alternatives that are lighter, easier to hang, water, and control, and, in initial tests, work just as well as the natural white oak logs.
Muddy Creek Farms Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup
4½ cups fresh mushrooms
2 stalks celery, chopped
½ cup flour
1 cup light cream
1 large onion, chopped
4 tablespoons butter
3½ cups chicken broth
½ cup cooked wild rice
1 tablespoon fresh or ¾ tbsp dried marjoram
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh herbs to taste
Cook the mushrooms, celery and onion in butter over high heat until tender, stirring to cook evenly. Sprinkle flour over vegetables and stir to combine. Add broth. Cook and stir until it thickens and bubbles. Reduce heat to a simmer. Stir in light cream, cooked wild rice, marjoram, and salt and pepper. Cover and cook over very low heat until heated through – about five minutes. Garnish with fresh herbs and serve. Makes approximately six servings.
Muddy Creek Farms
3515 Seals Road, Morganton, N.C.
Available at the Morganton Farmers Market as well as select retailers in the Morganton area