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Flavor 7: Shiitake Mushrooms

July 22, 2014

Claudine and Paul Cremer of Meadow Cove Farm, a 30-acre property in historic Dula Springs Cove just outside of Weaverville, have grown shiitake mushrooms for over 15 years. Paul's brother, Arnold, was a former president of the Asheville Mushroom Club and introduced them to the enterprise one Christmas with the gift of a bag of spawn.

Shiitake mushrooms are rich in B vitamins, protein, fiber, and other nutrients. Long a symbol of longevity in East Asia, they have been used medicinally in China for thousands of years.

Shiitakes have a rich, smoky flavor and a chewy texture. Their umami-like taste makes them a great meat replacement in soups, sauces, and other dishes. The Cremers often sautée the mushrooms in olive oil with onion, garlic and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

While shiitakes are not a major focus at Meadow Cove Farm, at $10 a pound, they're one of the higher priced crops that Paul and Claudine sell, so the couple makes sure to keep a good eye on them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, considering their value, shiitakes are being studied by the state of North Carolina as a potential specialty crop. The Cremers participate in the Edible and Medicinal Mushroom Project out of North Carolina A&T State University, which provides training in growing the mushrooms and distributes spawn in exchange for tagging and keeping track of the outcomes of the different shiitake strains.

"This would not be an 'A' mushroom," Claudine says, showing me the underside of a large shiitake. There is a rating system for these mushrooms from A to C, and this one has grown too big for the top mark. "Typically," she explains, "you want to get the mushroom when [it's] still capped over and the gills are closed underneath."

The Cremers have learned that you inoculate certain media for certain mushrooms. Oysters grow on poplar wood, for instance, while shiitakes, whose name in Japanese means "mushroom of the oak tree," grow on oak. Some of the Cremers' 200 oak logs are set up in a teepee fashion with a cable running through, while others are arranged log cabin style. Paul finds the cable/teepee style easier for harvesting.

Unlike other shiitake growers who are more hands-on, soaking the logs to try to reap as much production as possible, the Cremers generally let their logs self-maintain. Paul says this is less damaging to the logs and lets them last longer -- sometimes up to eight years.

This less intensive production style is in line with the Cremers' philosophy of living in sync with their environment. "I try not to just cut a tree down just for the sake of cutting a tree down," Paul says. To acquire their shiitake logs, the sustainability-minded couple sought permission from property owners to salvage from recently cleared trees.

Paul and Claudine follow organic growing practices on their farm and irrigate their crops with cistern-captured, gravity fed rainwater. They compost, plant cover crops, and employ guinea fowl as insect control. They use unheated, high tunnel greenhouses to grow greens in the wintertime, and try to provide as much of their own food as they can, canning, drying, and freezing surplus for winter months. The shiitake mushrooms help the Cremers be even more self-sufficient because their nutritional value, with a protein content similar to beans and peas, allows them to replace so many other foods.

Perhaps the most salient sustainability feature of Meadow Cove Farm is its harnessing of solar energy. "Solar was a huge agenda item for us in purchasing this particular parcel of property," Claudine says. Their south-facing home provides passive solar gain and has an active hydronic hot water system powered by rooftop flat plate collectors. The couple also sells excess power back to the grid thanks to two on-site photovoltaic (PV) systems.

"I guess homesteading is a good term for us," Paul says. Their lifestyle choice is very hands-on and very time consuming, Claudine explains, but it allows them to drastically reduce their carbon footprint. "We're trying to live our own convictions," she says, "and have as little impact on the environment as possible."

Back in the 80s when they started Meadow Cove Farm, the Cremers' goal was to make a personal statement that the whole globe should be heading toward renewable energy sources. "Unfortunately a lot of our contemporaries kind of dropped the ball on that," Paul says, citing fellow citizens' big SUVs, large houses, and disregard for the environment.

More optimistically, he remarks that on a global level, people are starting to awaken. Many of the WWOOFers (participants in World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) who come stay at Meadow Cove and help the Cremers with farm work are attracted to the couple's rich experience with sustainable living and alternative energy. "There's a real thirst for that knowledge," Claudine says.

Claudine and Paul believe one way people could live more sustainably would be to reconsider where they buy food. The couple envisions a shift in consumer consciousness from shopping at grocery stores to shopping at local farms like theirs.

"Everybody's got a local grocery store that they go to," says Paul. "So you could, potentially, have us as the local farm that you go to. And once you know what's coming could come and pick out what you wanted."

Tailgate markets can be helpful sales venues, Claudine says, but for the farmers market consumer, "you're looking at food that was picked at least 24 hours ago. It's not as fresh." CSAs can also be problematic, the Cremers explain, because they put so much pressure on the farmers, who have to deal with unforeseen challenges like erratic weather patterns. Just last week, for instance, a hail storm came and ripped many of Meadow Cove Farm's vegetable leaves to shreds. Plus, with CSAs, customers sometimes don't like the kinds and quantities of produce they receive.

The farm-as-grocery idea, in contrast, would provide customers with both maximum choice and freshness. It would also help small farms with marketing, a challenge Claudine describes as their "Achilles heel."

It would be wonderful if the direct marketing would take off, Claudine says. "If we had a base level of people that would come and get produce from us for their own needs on a regular basis. But it would have to be a regular basis. And they would have to be in sync with what's producing at that time of the year."

Too much to ask? The Cremers think not. "It's a matter of people getting used to doing that," says Paul, "and then doing it."

In addition to shiitake mushrooms, crops at Meadow Cove Farm include sugar snap peas, potatoes, greens, tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, Jewel black raspberries, and dill. For information on what's currently in season and to pick (up) your own, feel free to contact Claudine and Paul and make a visit to the farm yourself.

You can also find Meadow Cove Farm produce at the French Broad Co-op, Katuah Market, and West Village Market, as well as through Laurey's Catering, the French Broad Chocolate Lounge (black raspberries!), and the Woodfin YMCA Indoor Winter Tailgate Market.