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Team members inoculating mushroom logs.

Woods, More Than Just a Shady Place

Team members inoculating mushroom logs.

By Linda Halley | For the past couple of generations, woodlots have been a neglected part of most Wisconsin farms. Woodlots were once a valuable farm resource, used as shady summer pasture and a source for heating fuel and building materials. Farmers cleared the richest land for crops and open pastures but often left trees standing on the too-rocky, too-wet or too-hard-to-access parcels. Pasturing became less common, and heating and construction modernized. Soon woodlots were left untended and unimproved. Of late, with wooded land taxed at a higher rate than cropland, there has been a rush to bulldoze them to make room for more corn and beans.

Managing Invasive SpeciesControlled Burn

Practical thinking would lead to the conclusion that every part of a farm has to pull its weight and be productive in some way. Here at Gwenyn Hill we conclude that too, but it won’t result in clear cutting for cropland. On our 400 or so rolling acres the five hilltops are covered in five woods. Each is somewhat different, depending on how it was managed in the past. White oaks, some with old growth habits that indicate they were standing long before the rest of the trees, dominate. Red maples, burr oaks, red oaks, and cherry make up most of the rest of 

The controlled burn team.

the species in the woods. With 80 acres of wooded land, good management could be a very time-consuming task. We will be tackling it bit by bit, considering it a long-term process.

Last summer and fall, Ryan removed a lot of buckthorn and built fences along the edges of the woods in anticipation of managing them with grazing. This spring, on a calm Saturday in April, Ryan led our farm team in a controlled burn of the forest floor, in part to set back the regrowing tips of the buckthorn. With occasional livestock grazing we hope to keep the buckthorn under control, though eradication is unlikely. With air and light making its way into the edges of the woods again we should see more hardwood seedlings getting a foothold and growing up to replace the aging parent trees.

Cultivating Shiitake Mushrooms

We are also selectively removing young trees that are growing too densely to thrive. In late winter Ryan cut several 5 inch diameter white oaks to open up the canopy. He trimmed them into 3 foot lengths for shiitake mushroom cultivation. With the help of our mentor and CSA member, Steve Hoelz, we inoculated the logs with mushroom spawn.

Three of us traded our labor for Steve’s lessons in how to properly and efficiently inoculate logs. We headed to his 120 acre woodlot west of Watertown. He has an open air “assembly line” facility where he inoculates several hundred logs each year. Steve used an electric grinder modified with a bit for drilling 40 – 50 holes per log. Ryan and Collin packed each hole with spawn mixed with sawdust. My job was to seal each hole with a dab of wax and pile the logs back on the truck.

After finishing 260 logs we were tuckered out and ready to head back to the farm. We stacked our 60 logs in the woods and will wait until next April for the shiitake mycelium to colonize the logs fully and begin to fruit. Our job, in the meantime, will be to provide a shady protected place and the equivalent of 1 inch of “rain” per week. I guess that is why mushrooms grow so freely in the Pacific Northwest.

Spring Treasures in the Wisconsin Woods

There are some mushrooms in Wisconsin that grow free for the taking, and it’s just about time to forage the woods for morels. A few more warm days and we should be able to enjoy spring woodland flowers like trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, mayapple, and maybe even the edible wild ramp.

With a little TLC, the land and woods at Gwenyn Hill will give a diversity of gifts. We believe a managed woods can be a bountiful woods for wildlife, livestock, and people, too.

Linda Halley is the General Manager of Gwenyn Hill Farm. She explored shiitake production in the early 1990’s and failed utterly. This time will be different.

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