STEWARDSON -- As morel mushroom hunters head to the woods in a few weeks to search for the illusive fungi, Dennis Vahling only has to trek as far as a repurposed barn on his property for a nightly feast of fresh mushrooms.
With temps in the mid-70s and the humidity level near 95 percent, the conditions in the barn are far from a stroll through the woods in April. But once the doors open, the fragrance is reminiscent of a Central Illinois forest.
Vahling, with the assistance of family members and a few high school students, began harvesting shiitake mushrooms the week of Thanksgiving 2012. The business, while unrelated to the family's Vahling Vineyards, is located on the family farm near Stewardson. By Sarah Miller.
The idea to grow shiitake mushrooms came about when Vahling realized an old livestock barn on the property could be easily transformed into a growing space for shiitakes. He was looking to diversify and "try something different," he said.
Vahling learned about the process of growing mushrooms from reading books, he said.
"I experimented with it for two years before we did 1,000 logs," Vahling said.
The process of growing shiitake mushrooms is long -- it can take six months to a year from the time the logs are inoculated with sawdust spawn, he said.
The logs Vahling inoculates are cut from locally grown hard maple, white oak and river birch trees when they are dormant in the winter. Once cut, the inoculation process must be completed within two weeks, he said.
Vahling and his team inoculated 1,000 logs about a year ago. The process begins by drilling holes in the logs, filling them with the sawdust spawn and then covering the holes with paraffin to keep them moist, he said.
After that, the logs are stacked in the barn to "rest."
"Mushroom logs like to rest a whole lot," Vahling said. "The big thing is you have to be patient. You don't rush the logs."
Once the logs are "rested" and the mycelium produced from the sawdust spawn have taken over the logs, they are soaked in a tank filled with 50 degree water for 24 hours.
"This is artificially cooling the logs causing them to fruit," he said.
Fruiting, or the growth of mushrooms, occurs within seven days, and the mushrooms can then be harvested.
Vahling and his team harvested about 30 pounds a week for 10 weeks during their first harvesting period. The logs are soaked every 10 weeks, and are now producing 80 to 100 pounds a week. Vahling expects the logs to last three to five years.
This year he added 1,500 more logs that will begin producing next year.
"We're gearing up production to fill the building," he said.
Vahling stressed that growing and selling mushrooms is not a huge money making endeavor, but it works well with the winery as he focuses on the mushrooms during the winter when he can't be out in the vineyard, he said.
"It's not a get rich quick. It's a business. It takes time," he said.
He has a captive audience in the guests that visit Vahling Vineyards, where the mushrooms are availalble for $12 a pound or $60 for five pounds.
The mushrooms are sold fresh and keep for about two weeks in the refrigerator. He recommends storing them in a cardboard box, which is how they are packaged.
Vahling currently sells about 25 percent of his harvest at the winery while the other 75 percent are sold wholesale. They are available locally at Heartland Health Foods in Effingham.
Since the mushrooms produce a limited stock, those who wish to purchase mushrooms at the winery should call ahead to have their name placed on a list to be notified when they are available, Vahling said.
"The good thing about coming to buy these is that you don't have to worry about getting poison ivy or snakes," he said jokingly.
Vahling will give tours through the mushroom barn to groups of six or more for $5 per person. He may add tours for schools at a later time, he said.
As for eating the shiitakes, Vahling's favorite way to prepare the mushrooms is to batter and fry them.
"You cut off the stem and slice them like french fries. To me they taste just like a morel if you batter and fry them," he said.
They can also be eaten raw, steamed, sauteed, roasted, or cooked in pasta.
According to the American Cancer Society website, shiitake mushrooms are a good cancer-fighting food as they "fight the development and progression of cancer by boosting the body's immune system."
"These mushrooms are also said to help prevent heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels and to help treat infections such as hepatitis by producing interferon," the website said. "Promoters claim that eating both the cap and stem of the mushroom may be helpful, but they do not say how much must be eaten to have an effect."
"It's supposed to be the best cancer-fighting mushroom out there," Vahling said.