New farmers offer high-end mushrooms

Teresa Winchester Dale and Margaret Hunt are shown at Oak Shire Farm, where they grow gourmet mushrooms.  

Two years ago, Butternuts resident Dale Hunt decided to retire as an electrician to start up “some kind of farm business.”

He ruled out vegetable farming, he said, because many people were already doing it and it is so weather-dependent. He then flirted with the idea of growing garlic before dismissing it, also because of weather considerations.

After extensive research, done mostly online, Hunt established Oak Shire Farm to grow gourmet mushrooms.

With the help of his wife, Margaret, who works full-time at NYCM Insurance in Edmeston, Hunt is now producing 60 to 80 pounds of mushrooms per week.

“We grow species you can’t get in the grocery store. All the species we grow are the ones that grow on wood in the wild," Hunt said. "Grocery store species are pretty tasteless compared to what we grow.”

Oak Shire Farm varieties include four types of “oyster” mushrooms — blue, phoenix, snow white and king. Hunt characterizes the blue oyster as “mild and nutty” and the phoenix oyster as having an “earthy flavor.”

“I love the phoenix oysters in my eggs,” he said.

The snow white oysters are fleshy and firm. The king oysters, with fat stems and small caps, have a thick and meaty texture.

“Chefs love them,” Hunt said, noting that two Oneonta restaurants — the B-Side Ballroom and Autumn Café — buy his mushrooms to incorporate in their menu selections.

Oak Shire Farm mushrooms are also available at the recently opened Weaver’s Farm Market in Morris, Pires Farmers’ Market in Norwich and at the Gilbertsville Farmers’ Market, where the Hunts also distribute recipes with their mushrooms.

Customers can order directly from Oak Shire Farm at 383 Shawbrook Road. Hunt suggests calling first at (607) 783-2070.

Perhaps the most interesting species Hunt grows is the lion’s mane. Eye-catching because of its shaggy appearance, it has a meaty texture, which Hunt says some people compare to crab meat.

Lion’s mane is also used by some for medicinal purposes, being sold in some health food stores in supplement form. Although research is lacking, it is believed by some to fight inflammation, enhance immune function, reduce anxiety and depression and boost cognitive function.

To grow his mushrooms, Hunt buys mushroom cultures from a lab in Maine. During the inoculation process, the cultures are added to a bag of sterilized sawdust and soy hulls.

After inoculation, the mushrooms incubate at room temperature for two to three weeks, depending on the species. The bags are then transferred to a grow room, where Hunt cuts a hole in each bag to introduce humidity and oxygen.

“This is where the magic happens,” Hunt said, referring to the mushrooms growing out from the bags.

The Hunts extolled the nutritional benefits of mushrooms.

“They’re loaded with vitamins and minerals and high in protein and fiber,” he said.

“And they’re low in fat,” Margaret added.

The operations are housed in two buildings on the farm. Hunt said he has goals of increasing production to 100 pounds per week and expanding his sales to local restaurants.