Green Horizons Newsletter - AgEBB

Green Horizons

Volume 8, Number 4
Fall 2004

From log to shelf: Ozark Forest Mushrooms fills niche in specialty market

If Dan Hellmuth and Nicola McPherson continue practicing "business as usual," consumers across the country will soon know the beautiful Ozark region of Missouri as the heart and soul of the Midwest's gourmet shiitkake mushroom industry.

The owners of the Ozark Forest Mushrooms company, located in the Ozark region of Missouri, are taking their specialty gourmet mushrooms all the way from the forest log to a set of attractive, boxed food mixes. One of the state's most significant demonstrations of a successful forest farming practice is Hellmuth and McPherson's Ozark Forest Mushrooms in Timber, Mo. The entrepreneurial couple established the specialty mushroom operation in 1990 on what was then a timber operation, and coordinate every step of the value-added process, from the innoculated log to packaged, consumer-friendly products.

A key to their success is developing an agroforestry practice that works within the natural setting of the land. Under the guidelines of the Stewardship Incentive Program, administered by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Hellmuth and McPherson harvest a renewable supply of mushroom bed logs while simultaneously maintaining their forested acres in a healthy ecological state. Consequently, what began 14 years ago with only 100 oak logs in production has grown to include 16,000 shiitake logs in production. Only five acres of the couple’s 2,500 forested acres are utilized for the mushroom business.

Hellmuth said the land was clear cut about eighty years ago, a former short leaf pine forest. Now, the forest is a second generation mixed hardwood forest divided into 20-acre sections and rotationally thinned on a 30-year cycle. In accordance with MDC guidelines, only certain trees are harvested so that the forest is naturally thinned, never clear cut. The butt logs of the trees are sold to sawmills and the residual branch wood is the main source for shiitake logs. Branch wood has more sapwood, which provides the nutrients for the shiitakes to thrive on.

"People in this area have a skill with cord wood, timber cutting, tree identification, the entire business," Hellmuth said. "What we're doing is similar to cutting cord wood for firewood or cord wood for the charcoal industry. This is an agroforestry practice that works with the land we have in this part of the country."

Box of mushrooms The business is also sustainable. The couple is currently investigating forest certification through the Forest Stewardship Council, and through funding from a USDA SARE grant, a new greenhouse has recently been completed with a wood furnace for burning spent/culled shiitake logs for heat during the winter months. "We’re not actually depleting our forest resources over time," said Hellmuth. "Basically, we’re turning waste wood into high value food and then using the spent logs for fuel value to heat our greenhouse in order to keep production all winter long."

Hellmuth and McPherson have given particular emphasis to targeted marketing of their value-added boxed mixes and products. "The biggest marketing challenge for a rural area is that most of the mushrooms are a fairly high value specialty food, and the largest market is in some of the state's bigger cities," said Hellmuth. "We are marketing products to St. Louis and need to deliver them to the city on a weekly basis."

Markets for Ozark Forest Mushrooms include restaurant owners, chefs, catering companies and organic food stores. The mushrooms are refrigerated within one hour of picking to retain optimum freshness and quality, and then shipped directly to customers.

"If you're trying to manage your market, you want to have a constant supply of mushrooms every week. Your customers expect that," said McPherson.

The operation competes in the niche market for organic products by not using any artificial fertilizers or herbicides in the growing and packaging process, demonstrated by the USDA organic logo Hellmuth and McPherson obtained through the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

Right: Nicola McPherson and Dan Hellmuth discuss production strategies. Below: Production of Ozark Forest Mushrooms utilizes only 5 of the owners’ 2,500 acres.
Consumer education is another invaluable aspect of a successful mushroom business. McPherson gives customers a flier telling the story of their operation, their local employees and the growing process. As an effort to reinforce the connection between customers and locally-grown foods, Ozark Forest Mushrooms has become part of a chef's collaborative to promote local farms and local foods to area restaurants.

"Cross-marketing with other locally grown foods in the area helps build the name recognition and connection to the food and land customers seek," McPherson said.

"It's hard work that doesn't stop, like milking cows," McPherson said. "There are a lot of long days and weekend marketing events, but when I walk into a restaurant and see my mushrooms on the menu, or walk into a supermarket and see our products on the shelf, that gives me huge pleasure and makes all the work worthwhile." For more information, visit

Nicola McPherson will be a featured presenter at the upcoming UCMA Specialty Mushroom Workshop, Dec. 3rd and 4th in Columbia, Mo. See page 10 for workshop details.

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