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Soil Sisters: The Mycelium of Forest and Friends
Sarah Kyrie (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)

My family and I have been intrigued with mushrooms for decades. Beginning with that gateway mushroom of The Morel, my husband and I have long enjoyed hiking through the woods and foraging for earthy treasures. In 2011, we bought 10 acres on a shady northside hill. We knew we weren’t going to make good corn farmers. Instead, we saw an amazing opportunity — grow mushrooms! The family farm of “Mushroom Holler” was born.

With mushrooms, we take invasive, unwanted wood (of which we had a lot of on our property) and transform it into gorgeous delicious mushrooms. We bought our first bag of inoculant (mushroom spores dispersed in grain) and started inoculating oyster and shiitakes varieties in trees we had recently culled. There are two common ways of inoculating wood — the “totem” method — in which the mycelium is spread on the top of log rounds then stacked upon each other; and “drill and fill” in which the wood is drilled with a special bit, “filled” with a plunger full of mycelium, then “capped” with melted wax.  

The wax helps keep any other mycelium out while your choice mushrooms get a chance to get established. Both methods are fairly simple but monotonous techniques, best accomplished by gathering friends in a work party assembly line each spring! We then cover the wood with a thick heavy “fruiting” blanket for about a year to give it some good time to get established (lots of other undesired fungi will jump at the chance to help decompose a rotting log.)  

Once established, the mushrooms will fruit on that log for years, until they have “eaten” all their substrate. We add new logs to our growing half acre mushroom forest each year. While we have specifically inoculated stacks of wood designed to be mushroom logs, we often find mushrooms on our firewood stack as well — certain fungi spreads so efficiently. 

Mycophobia, the “fear of mushrooms,” does occur in our area. I’ve had many conversations with folks wondering if we know “for-sure” which mushrooms are edible.  Regarding the mushrooms we sell, we have been intimately curating their life cycle from “implantation” to “birth” to your table: yep, they’re the edible ones!  

The woods of southwest Wisconsin also offer a plethora of edible mushrooms with distinguished characteristics. Learn to identify them — pheasant backs, golden oysters, box elder oysters, for example — and you will never forget. Mushrooms should ALWAYS be cooked, eaten small amounts if it is your first experience, and cautioned when mixing with alcohol (mushrooms are metabolized by the liver as well).  

Mushrooms are the fruiting body of the fungi, only popping up when they are ready to reproduce. Under the surface, they quietly web as a messenger of the forest, even passing along biological messages throughout the forest floor to other trees and plants!  

This network of mycelium is not so different from the communication and support of the Soil Sisters of southern Wisconsin. While each of our farms in southwest Wisconsin are beautiful and unique of themselves, it is the connectivity amongst each other that truly gives us strength. Symbiosis, both in the forest world and the human world, elevate the community.

And how about those pedestaled morels? With so many mushrooms in our lives, do we still search for the elusive treasure? You bet! Morels are notoriously difficult to cultivate. (so nope, we don’t sell any!) Foraging is always a fun activity and by morel season we are all itchy to get out tromping in the spring woods. However, I would argue that the reason the flavor of the morel is held in such high regards is that they are fresh and seasoned with the complex wild taste of the forest instead. Most store-mushrooms have been grown in a sterile indoor setting and the flavor just can’t compare. 

Mycophiles, you are in luck! Many farmers are now cultivating varieties of mushrooms which bloom throughout the spring-summer-fall season. Fresh, local, and lovingly raised, the farm to fork mushroom provides an incomparable umami flavor. 

— Sarah Kyrie lives with her family in Argyle, where they mind shetland sheep, an assortment of chickens, a ceramic studio, three homeschooled children and a plethora of mushrooms at Mushroom Holler LLC. She is also the Argyle Public Library director. Soil Sisters, a program of Renewing the Countryside, connects and champions women in the Green County area committed to sustainable and organic agriculture, land stewardship, local food, family farms and healthy and economically vibrant rural communities.