Couple makes money with mushrooms, one trains to coach rural entrepreneurs

This story appeared the June 9, 2005, Bath County News-Outlook, as the second in a series produced by students in the Rural Journalism class in the spring semester at the University of Kentucky.

By Sarah Lutz
UK Rural Journalism class

SALT LICK, Ky. – Some farmers are not seeing as much money in agricultural- diversification projects as they did in tobacco, but the Webb family of Bath County, Kentucky, created a successful diversification project and hopes it can set an example for others.

The University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board, which uses money from the 1998 tobacco settlement to develop the state’s agricultural economy, are promoting alternative crops such as shiitake mushrooms.

When Bill Webb was working for the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet a few years ago, he had to attend meetings that promoted shiitake growing. That made his previous interest in shiitakes grow, and made Webb wonder if he could make in mushroom farming.

But he was skeptical about the advice at least one expert was giving, so he began his own research about growing mushrooms. His main source of knowledge was Paul Stamets, author of Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. After reading it, Webb said, he realized that there was a better way to produce high-quality shiitakes than the way being promoted by the state.

Webb and his wife, Becky, took classes from Stamets in Oregon, building on knowledge they already had. Webb said he has a masters’ degree in hazardous-waste management, and was a naval explosives expert. They met in Bloomington, Ind., when he was at stationed at nearby Crane and she was working on ger Ph.D. in kinesiology.

Webb said he decided to get into the mushroom business because he has a large family to support, and mushroom farming is safer and healthier than working with hazardous waste, or consulting for businesses that may be unable to pay him at the end of his research. Also, he thought creating a mushroom farm could show other farmers it is possible to create a successful diversification project from scratch.

The Webbs started growing mushrooms in 2001 in Salt Lick, Ky., on 70 acres he leased from his father. He invested a quarter of a million dollars a facility to grow and store mushrooms -- which he said is one of five of its kind in the country, and the only one in operation.

“The lights are on here, but they aren’t in the other buildings,” he said, adding that the others apparently have not found the right method for making their businesses succeed.

Webb’s facility has 10 inches of insulation as well as separate rooms to grow and store the shiitake and oyster mushrooms at different temperatures, humidity levels, and air content.

Inside the facility, mushrooms are grown on wheat bags packed with organic, chopped, pasteurized straw, and cottonseed hulls that have been soaked in water. Mushroom spawn, or seed, are mixed in, and holes are pierced through the 10-inch-diameter bag.

At the first sign of mushroom growth, bags are removed from the spawn room and taken to the grow room where temperature and humidity are controlled. When the mushrooms consume the available nutrients, the dark-brown bags turn yellow, and the mushrooms are on the outside of the bags where a hole once used to be. The mushrooms are then picked off and put in a storage area that is kept at 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shiitakes are also grown on sawdust blocks, an alternative to the traditional method of oak logs. The blocks produce shiitakes more quickly and year round, unlike the oak logs.

Webb gets his sawdust from a saw mill in Frenchburg in adjoining Menifee County. He can create 40 blocks a week in his small pressure cooker but with is getting a larger cooker that will make 400 per week. The blocks are created by combining sawdust, rye grains and shiitake spawn in the cooker.

Outside the facility, mushrooms also grown on 18,000 oak logs, stacked crib-style in sets of 20. Each log, four to six inches in diameter, has been drilled on each side with four one-inch holes that hold the spawn – which is covered with hot wax to prevent contamination.

The logs soak in a water tank for up to 16 hours. Each log is put in the tank every 10 weeks, and Webb puts 100 to 120 logs in the tank each day. To the logs stay damp after removal from the tank, and prevent the mushrooms from rotting if it rains, plastic is placed over the log with a canopy at the top of the logs to keep rain from sitting on the top of the logs and help sunlight reach the logs.

The logs can producing 200 to 300 pounds of shiitakes a week, but their harvest season is only six months, from April to October. From November to February, new logs are cut and prepared for the new season.

Many mushroom farmers don’t make it because they grow a large quantity of mushrooms without anyone to sell them to, Webb said. “You sell it, and then you grow it,” he advises.

Webb said his main customers are restaurants such as Portofino’s, Rossi’s and other restaurants in Lexington and Louisville. He said he delivers orders regularly to 32 restaurants and has done business with 44, and will soon be selling to the Wild Oats organic grocery.

Oyster mushrooms come in several different types, offering restaurants a wide choice of looks and flavors.
They include the Hu Oyster, which is a delicate white; Grey Dove, a pale gray; Blue Dolphin, a slate blue grown in the fall and winter; Pink, a tropical, fluorescent pink grown only in the summer; Golden, bright yellow; and the Italian, also bright yellow but with a sweeter flavor than the others.

The oyster varieties grow to different sizes, but nothing too large, the Webbs say, because their Sheltowee Farm practices quality and not quantity.

Producing so many mushrooms, and so many types, required money. “There are many nights were Becky and I will stay up till two or three in the morning researching grants that we can apply for to get money,” said Bill.

The Agricultural Development Board recently made a forgivable loan of $37,750 to Sheltowee Farm to expand production and teach would-be mushroom farmers how to join the business. Webb said Stamets will teach there.

Webb said he hopes to encourage tobacco farmers to learn more about mushroom farming. “It is harder to teach the older generations,” he said, but “maybe we’ll teach them something.”

Becky Webb is also learning. She is a student in the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute, which the Agricultural Development Board funded for the University of Kentucky.

The institute is teaching people how to coach entrepreneurs in Bath and 18 other counties of northeastern Kentucky, the most dependent tobacco area of the state.

The coaches are learning how to show people what it takes to make a living from a diversification project, and how to help entrepreneurs find startup money and give them management advice. They promote diversification, agri-tourism, and technology-based projects.

Webb said her experience as a coach has revealed a resistance to change. “No one out there to coach, no one doing innovative crops. The same people are doing the same things and something needs to be done.”

But the Webbs themselves could inspire other Kentucky farmers to diversify. They said their Sheltowee Farm it not just about them making a living, but about educating other farmers and create possibilities for them to help Bath County and Kentucky.

Farmers need to be able to look at a diversification project as a chance to grow as a person and to help others, they said. Bill Webb said their project worked because he can handle the physical aspect of farming, has scientific knowledge to apply, and has the etiquette and sales skills needed to go into the cities and make deals. People and farmers in Bath County need to embrace change and look to the future, he said.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary on local issues and on broader issues that have local impact. Its initial focus area is Central Appalachia, but as an arm of the University of Kentucky it has a statewide mission, and it has national scope. It has academic collaborators at Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgia College and State University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marshall University, Middle Tennessee State University, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Washington and Lee University, West Virginia University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows Program at the University of Alabama. It is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Kentucky, with additional financial support from the Ford Foundation. To get notices of Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.






Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
College of Communications and Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Questions about the web site: Contact Al Cross, Institute director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: Feb. 6, 2006