- Associated Press - Monday, April 28, 2014

WEST SALEM, Wis. (AP) - Brent Severeid is busy inoculating mushrooms, although the term is misleading because it’s not as if they were sick.

Rather, the word describes the process of “planting” shiitake mushrooms in oak logs, to be harvested a year later and for several years thereafter.

Severeid takes advantage of the abundance of oak trees on his 70-acre, mostly wooded, High Springs Farm near West Salem to grow shiitakes to sell.

“The reason I do it commercially is because it’s a product nobody else has, and it’s hard to get into the business,” said Severeid, who started growing the fungi about 10 years ago and is one of about 200 shiitake farmers in the United States.

“We’re pretty much the only vendor at farmers markets,” he said of the mushroom, which is native to Japan, China and Korea.

Touted as a medicinal remedy in East Asia, shiitakes also are developing a reputation for health attributes in the West.

“There are a lot of health benefits,” Severeid told the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1frl8ou). “My mentor in ecology - professor Tom Volk - says shiitakes cure everything from constipation to diarrhea.

“But I don’t grow them for health reasons,” Severeid said with a smile. “I do it because they taste good.”

Volk, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said the constipation-diarrhea comment “is more of an exaggeration because some say it cures constipation. But like all good exaggerations, there’s an element of truth to it.”

The shiitake is credited with boosting the immune system, “so it has to be taken over a long period,” which is common in the use of such Asian remedies, said Volk, a fungi expert.

“You can’t just take a pill and be cured,” Volk said.

The American Cancer Society acknowledges the potential for shiitakes to help fight cancer and AIDS and prevent heart disease, although the society notes that clinical studies are needed.

Severeid plans to sell the shiitakes at the Cameron Park and Riverside Park farmers markets in La Crosse at a cost of $3.50 for a quart-size basket.

“I sell by volume instead of weight because if it is rainy or high humidity, they weigh a lot,” he said. “If it’s dry, they don’t weigh as much.”

Severeid also nurtures oyster mushrooms in straw, but shiitakes account for about 75 percent of his ‘shroom crop.

Severeid’s shiitake harvest of about 20 pounds a week from about 1,000 logs this year will come from logs he and his family inoculated two or more years ago in assembly-line fashion.

Severeid uses a 10,000-rpm drill to make shallow holes in 4-foot oak logs ranging from 2 inches to about 10 inches in diameter as sons Jeffrey and Justin use plunger-type tools to inject sawdust containing shiitake spawn into the holes and his wife, Suwanna, covers the holes with wax.

“Then you let them sit and make sure they don’t dry out,” he said of stacks of the logs near his barn.

Although it normally takes a year for the first mushrooms to sprout, “you can trick them into thinking it’s fall if you put the logs in cold water, or warm water to make them think it’s summer,” he said. “You can actually schedule production.”

Some of the mushrooms will punch through the wax, but most nestle under the bark and provide fruit for years, he said.

“With the bark, they find a way to force themselves out,” he said.

Early in the season, Severeid picks shiitakes once a day, but he must do so in the morning and evening in July and August because they open up faster then, he said.

The logs continue to bear fruit until the bark is gone, Severeid said.

The 49-year-old Severeid became acquainted with the process when he was a student at Central High School in La Crosse, helping his dad, now-retired Dr. Larry Severeid, with the chore on their acreage.

Dr. Severeid bought the farm in the 1970s as a place for his parents to retire on and planted several varieties of trees on its hills and bluffs.

The farm also has three greenhouses where the Severeids start plants and produce to sell at farmers markets, as well as several beehives.

“I have the bees mostly to pollinate the cucumbers,” he said, “if we get honey, that’s a bonus.”

Plants sprouting in the greenhouses now include spinach, radishes, kale, Swiss chard, onions and lettuce.

Severeid, a master gardener, observed with a chuckle that he has two seasonal jobs - as a tax preparer during filing season and as a farmer the rest of the year.

People interested in growing shiitakes as a hobby can get started for about $40 and use a hand drill instead of a high-powered one, he said.

As for whether his shiitakes are better than those available in stores, Severeid said, “Ours are always fresh - no more than a few days old.”

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Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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