When the Dane County Farmers’ Market opened for the season at 6 a.m. on April 18, vendor Jaime Ramsay was in the same stall he and his wife Diane have occupied since 1992, right where Wisconsin Avenue intersects with Mifflin Street on the Capitol Square. With him, as always: his mushrooms.
Ramsay is a mushroom farmer, and has been one significantly longer than his 23-year tenure at the market. While he grew up on his family’s dairy farm near Merrimac, Wisconsin, and still lives there, he’s since become a staple of the community’s mushroom-lovers, including a weekly barrage of chefs from some of Madison’s finest restaurants.
“I first read about shiitake mushrooms back in the ‘90s,” says Ramsay, who studied dairy science at UW-Madison. “There was a lot of information available and I thought that this would be something fun that we could do.”
Shiitake mushrooms, Southeast Asian in origin, are known by epithets like sawtooth oak mushrooms or black forest mushrooms, based on the decaying oak and other tree varieties from which they naturally grow. The mushrooms have what Ramsay describes as a “woodsy, garlicky flavor” and a fairly meaty texture.
Once a novelty only found in Asian dishes and miso soup, shiitake have become a mainstay among professional chefs and talented home cooks interested in stretching their families’ palates.
Ramsay originally tried growing his shiitake in the traditional fashion, where freshly cut logs with holes drilled in diamond-shaped patterns are used to house spores that will fruit and become edible fungi. That process, Ramsay says, proved costly and cumbersome.
He now uses sawdust blocks. Ramsay acquired his original blocks and other supplies used by a Sun Prairie mushroom grower that had gone out of business, purchasing the gear from the bank holding a lien on the property.
“One grower’s misfortune became our good fortune,” he says.
The 6-pound blocks look like large loaves of bread and are comprised of sawdust, wheat and millet that provide the spores with a place to grow and a modicum of nutrition.
Placed on metal shelves in three barns on Ramsay’s property, which operates as Indian Farm Mushrooms and Hops, the mushroom requires a relatively warm, clean and humid environment and about four weeks to germinate and a total of 10 weeks to fruit-out with mushrooms ready for picking.
“We have about 4,000 square feet devoted to growing mushrooms,” Ramsay says. “I think we must have several thousand blocks growing at any one time.”
Oyster mushrooms, also known as abalone or tree mushrooms, are a little different. Ramsay grows yellow, gray, brown and pink oyster mushrooms, each of which has slightly different characteristics.
“The brown and gray oysters are similar in taste and texture,” Ramsay says. “The yellow oysters have a sharper flavor and are the lightest in texture, while the pinks have a texture similar to the browns and grays.”
Oyster mushrooms are grown on wheat straw and then the mixture is put in hanging plastic bags into which small holes have been cut. After four to six weeks of incubation, the mushroom fruit pops through the holes, ready to be harvested, a process that repeats itself every two weeks.
“Between the two we get 300 to 350 pounds of mushroom per week,” says Ramsay, who sells his crop for $3.50 per pint or two pints for $6. “I like to be competitive and tend to price my mushrooms below what you might pay in the grocery store.”
Ramsay also sells grow-your-own oyster mushroom kits for $10, each of which produces 1½ to 2½ pounds of mushrooms for the novice grower, he says.
Low prices and year-around availability are good news for Madison-area chefs, who often shop the Dane County market on Saturdays for produce to use during the week.
Regular diners at Forequarter, Harvest, Cento, The Old Fashioned, Heritage Tavern and other establishments may have eaten Ramsay’s mushrooms. The grower sees the restaurants’ involvement as essential to the public’s “mushroom education.”
“Some people are afraid to try the mushrooms on their own, but the chefs put them in dishes that are fantastic,” he said. “I tell everyone to just try them and you will enjoy them.”
In addition to mushrooms, Ramsay also grows hops, which he sells through the Wisconsin Hop Exchange, a cooperative formed to provide locally grown hops to the state’s craft brewing industry. The hops towers occupy only about a half-acre of his farm and that’s about as deep as he wants to get into the brewing industry.
“I don’t think my wife would want me to grow more,” Ramsay says.