Thursday, August 8, 2013

Rodney Webb: Salamander Springs Farm

By Kasey Jones

While most farmers spend a lot of time in the sun cultivating their crops that thrive on light, Rodney Webb, who owns and operates Salamander Springs Farm in North Carolina, nurtures his main crop in the damp dimness. With a careful photographer’s eye, Webb nurtures his specialty, shiitake mushrooms, then shares the healthful fungi with Jonesborough Farmers Market customers and grocery stores and restaurants in the Asheville area.

Although his father was in the Army, and his family moved a lot, Webb settled in the East Tennessee area at age 17. He recalls that his family always seemed to have a garden wherever they lived, and despite a higher education in photography from East Tennessee State University, he went into environmental work and activism as vocation and avocation. “I went [to ETSU] for a while and almost graduated,” says Webb. “I got involved with a lot of environmental stuff and got caught up in activism. I was majoring in photography and just decided that I wasn’t going to be a professional photographer.”

Webb’s environmental involvement included forest protection work and direct action, which he says included, “Hanging banners on stuff and [even] getting arrested.”

Webb had always wanted to be a farmer, and his activism was a catalyst for becoming one. “I guess in some ways I was led to [farming] because I feel like being an activist is not very sustainable,” says Webb. “You know, going around telling people, ‘Well, you need to live better. Eat local,’ and that sort of thing. But when you’re driving around telling people how to live, at some point it gets kind of hypocritical. I felt like, ‘I better practice what I preach a little more.’ I feel like this is one of the more environmentally friendly occupations that you can have.”

Webb’s first experience with shiitake mushrooms was in 1997, when his wife, Heather, was diagnosed with stage three Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After his wife’s diagnosis, Webb and his wife went to see some alternative health practitioners, who recommended that they try using shiitake mushrooms, because of the mushrooms’ anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties. Webb began buying the mushrooms for his wife, but before long, he decided to grow them himself. “I had to buy them at first and I saw how much they cost and they were all coming from Japan,” says Webb, “and it was like, ‘That’s not very local.’ So I started growing my own.”

A few years after Webb’s wife was diagnosed, North Carolina began using tobacco settlement money to create a program that gave free shiitake spawn, or mycelium, to replace tobacco with another crop. Webb, who now lives in Madison County, N.C., became involved with the program and has been growing shiitake mushrooms since.

Webb’s wife is now cancer-free and Webb believes that the mushrooms helped to improve her health. “The doctors told her that if she remained cancer free for three years, she would have as good a chance as anyone else of not getting cancer,” he says. “She hit the three-year mark over 10 years ago. I think the mushrooms helped, along with other recommendations, including seaweed in her diet, eating seasonal vegetables, whole grains, eliminating sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc. – essentially eliminating processed foods from our diet and replacing those with healthy whole foods, and making some lifestyle changes.

“She only went through three of the six recommended chemo sessions because she was cancer-free after three months of treatment. I've since learned that there are many benefits to making mushrooms a regular part of your diet. More studies are continually pointing to how good mushrooms are for you.”

Cultivating shiitakes entails a complicated process and Webb has tried different methods of cultivation over the years. “For years I didn’t do all of the fore-soaking,” says Webb. “I just relied on the natural, what they call ‘flushes,’ when the mushrooms come out. After a big rainstorm, I would go pick a bunch. I’d usually end up with about 80 pounds at a time and have hard time [harvesting] them.”

Now Webb grows the mushrooms on hardwood logs that are inoculated with the mycelium, the foundational mass of branching fibers, of the mushrooms. After cutting fresh logs and inoculating them with the mycelium of the mushrooms, Webb has to wait about a year for the logs to be ready to begin producing mushrooms. From there, the process goes a little bit more quickly, he says.

“Then I have to soak logs to have regular production,” Webb says. “I have to soak them in big tanks of spring water and pull them out, stack them and then it usually takes them about a week to 10 days for them to produce through the soaking method. I harvest them, refrigerate them and bring them [to the Jonesborough Farmers Market].”

Webb keeps the logs in what he calls “the mushroom yard” or “the shiitake yard.” Because shade is essential to the mushroom cultivation process, Webb situated the yard at the edge of a deep forest located at the bottom of a north-facing slope. Each log typically lasts three to five years, and each log is soaked one to three times each season, a process that Webb does outside or under a tarp until he can construct a more suitable workspace. 

Although the mushrooms are seasonal, Webb has a few tricks that he uses to extend the standard May-October season. If grown in the proper environment, shiitakes can be grown indoors year-round and cultivated under different conditions – some in cold weather, others in warm. Drying the mushrooms, Webb says, is a good way to ensure that they are available throughout the year.

However, when Webb grows the mushrooms outside, he has to operate quickly. “When it's time to harvest, it's time to harvest,” he says. “Mushrooms are fairly unforgiving. When the weather is warm, that’s about their window of opportunity for harvest.”

While he spends a lot of his time working with the mushrooms, Webb is also still an activist and educator. He has conducted workshops at the Organic Growers School between February and April. He is also on the board of Madison Farms, which is a program through which shiitake growers in Madison County or that area can sell through Madison Farms, rather than having to go directly to restaurants or drive to Asheville. Madison Farms sells shiitakes wholesale to Asheville, and as a result, Madison County is the largest shiitake producer in the state of North Carolina.

In addition to the shiitake mushrooms, Webb also grows seasonal vegetables. He and his family both eat and sell the greens, and Webb grows variety of different crops that include garlic, kale, chard, collards, peas, beans, okra, winter squash, fresh basil and, occasionally, tomatoes.

“I’m a fan of diversity,” he says. “If one crop fails, you have insect problems with something, you’ve got a greater diversity. Something is going to pull through, usually. We try to grow as many different things as we can keep track of.”

Regardless of what he is growing, Webb is doing what he loves. “I always wanted to be a farmer,” he says, “so that’s when I decided that being a farmer is one of the most sustainable jobs you could probably have. I feel like I’m helping people out and it’s a job that I can live with.”

Recipe:  Rodney’s recommendations for cooking Shiitake mushrooms
I like to stay with using traditional Asian ingredients when cooking shiitakes. I think it brings out their best flavor, although they can usually replace button or wild mushrooms wherever they are called for in a recipe. This is a marinade that I've refined over the years. Amounts are estimated. Adjust to suit one's own tastes and available ingredients.

Marinade for ~1/2 lb fresh shiitakes:
- 1-2 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 thumb size piece fresh ginger root, grated and squeezed for juice
- 2-3 cloves fresh garlic, minced or even better crushed in garlic press
- 1 or 2+ Tbsp tamari (soy sauce)
- dilute w/ a little water and/or dash of beer
- stir all ingredients w/ a fork dipped in honey

Remove stems from shiitake caps. Reserve stems for stock, fresh or dried.
Marinate caps for 1/2 hour to 1 day. Preferably at least 2 hours. This can be done in a plastic ziploc sandwich bag or glass bowl. If marinating for a longer time place in fridge, if less than overnight marinade at room temperature.
Cook on the grill to a golden brown or spear on kabobs with vegetables. Can also be cooked in a skillet with a little oil or butter if your cookout gets rained out.
Another way I like to use the same ingredients is to use sliced shiitakes instead of whole and make a gravy. Marinade as above and cook mushrooms in an oiled skillet at high heat. An onion sliced in half moon slices is a nice addition. Add the remaining marinade liquid with a little water into the skillet bringing to a rapid boil in the pan and thicken w/ a couple of Tbsp cornstarch diluted in water. Stir with whisk or fork while pouring in and reduce heat to simmer. Traditional Japanese method for a sauce or gravy like this would replace corn starch with kuzu, starch made from the root of the kudzu plant. Serve gravy over fried polenta, grits or rice.

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