In the world of wine, there’s a word that describes the complexity of factors that make up a great glass.
“Terrior,” is used by connoisseurs to describe the physical environmental factors that affect a grape, and historically, it set the stage for the French wine classification we know today, which separates a Burgundy from a Bordeaux. The word represents the story of where and how a grape was grown.
Growing grapes has a great number of variables, like soil composition, altitude, sun exposure, climate and geography, to name only a few. So terrior explains how the adversity that a grape encounters contributes to its unique outcome as a wine.
But ask any two winemakers how to define it, and what contributes to it, and you’ll get mixed answers. It’s more of a quality, a sense, than it is a science.
In the heart of New York’s Finger Lakes region, a place well known for its vineyards, a local mushroom farmer has a similar mindset about the delicacy he’s cultivating.
Steve Sierigk, the owner of Hawk Meadow Farm in Trumansburg, knows his mushrooms are better than what you can buy in a store.
Trained as a scientist and fascinated by biochemistry, Sierigk says he hasn’t found much research on the subject. But he believes that because mushrooms are challenged to compete in a natural environment, they “have to reach into their bag of biological tricks to survive,” he says, much like a vineyard grape.
Today, most of the world’s mushroom production comes from commercially-accelerated farms. Your average mushroom, purchased in a grocer, is likely to have been quickly cultivated in an indoor, factory-like setting. The fungi might be placed in a plastic bag, and fed by sawdust. The environment is climate controlled, which leads to faster production.
Sierigk says that using natural means of farming the fungus, one is able to produce more robust, better tasting mushrooms with more impact medicinally.
“The proof is in the pudding. There isn’t a chef I’ve given these mushrooms to that hasn’t noticed the high quality,” Sierigk says.
At Hawk Meadow, Sierigk seeks out dense areas of the woods each fall, once trees have dropped their leaves and become dormant, which are then cut back to manage the land. The logs from those fresh cuts are left to “mellow out” before introducing the spawn the following spring.
Each log is drilled with one inch holes in a diamond pattern every six inches, plugged with an inoculum made of saw dust mixed with a strain of mushroom, and sealed with hot wax. Those logs then incubate over the summer in the shade, taking about six months to colonize, so by the fall they’re ready to make mushrooms.
Then the farmer has the opportunity to guide production. Once the logs are completely colonized, mushroom production can be induced by immersion in cold water. With this process, known as "forcing" or "shocking," mushrooms will start to appear in about three days. Each log can produce up to a full pound of mushrooms in less than ten days, giving them the ability to sell fresh to restaurants with a quick turnaround.
Over the years, Sierigk has found a growing opportunity with local restaurants as nearby Ithaca became more well-known for its farm-to-table offerings and as restauranteurs sought out purveyors like himself. Restaurants like vegetarian mecca Moosewood and the Stonecat Cafe, the latter which is one of Hawk Meadows customers, helped put the town’s local restaurants in the spotlight for foodies.
Stonecat’s owner and head chef Scott Signori had been buying from a mushroom grower in nearby West Chester, but found that Sierigk’s mushrooms were tastier and more substantial, especially for signature dishes like his barley and spelt risotto with shiitakes and spinach, or as an enhancer in a bisque.
The shorter distance to Hawk Meadow might have been a finite difference for the restaurant, which sources nearly all of its ingredients from within 30 miles from the restaurant. And flavor isn’t impacted by mileage, necessarily. Instead, quality is about how quickly the chef and grower can trade fresh product, and the personal relationships that are forged from the local growing community create stronger bonds that reduce that effort, as each work to support one another. Restaurants that lack those relationships might miss out on fresher goods.
Today, Hawk Meadow sells thousands of pounds of mushrooms each year, close to 60 pounds each week, and leverages and sells other natural resources on the farm, like its locust trees, which are commonly used for fence posting.
Mushroom sales in the U.S. set record highs last year, with prices and demand increasing, according to the trade group American Mushroom Institute. In 2019, it was $1.6 billion industry providing 21,000 jobs.
Until 2015, mushrooms farmed outdoors, like the one ones at Hawk Meadow, weren't recognized as crops in New York. Sierigk was part of a team responsible for helping to introduce legislation to see outdoor mushrooms recognized as a form of agriculture, so that mushroom farms could receive the same benefits as more traditional farmers.
When Sierigk began increasing production 13 years ago, he only knew one other farmer that was producing mushrooms in New York, and on a much smaller scale.
In 2010, Sierigk partnered with Cornell University researcher Ken Mudge to help lead a series of workshops about mushroom cultivation in the Northeast, in states like New York, New Jersey, Vermont and Maine.
Over the course of three years, Cornell worked with local county agricultural cooperative extensions to share supplies and expertise for mushroom production, promising a new revenue stream, up to $9,000 a year in profit for farmers. The workshops were able to reach 1,000 of interested participants, and many kept with it. Siergk estimates that there’s now close to 100 mushroom farmers in New York alone.
Sierigk has lived on the land since 1986, and never felt economic pressure to use the land as a farm. He was making a living as a graphic artist, occasionally selling a small amount of produce in the local farmer’s market. He just wanted to interact with the woods, he says, and spent time cleaning and clearing about an acre per year.
He had come across an article in the Mother Earth News about how to grow Shiitake mushrooms, and started producing a small quantity for himself and his family.
Over the years, the 70 acres of contiguous woodlands at Hawk Meadows Farm has become a managed forest.
Instead of imposing their will on the landscape, like a traditional farm, they work with the landscape to keep it natural and productive. Instead of measuring solely by food production outputs—the amount of crop that an acre is delivering—they evaluate the forest’s overall health, ensuring diversity and balance. It’s a form of permaculture farming, focused on conservation of the land.
“A lot of times, farming can be so energy intensive and almost extractive. I feel like the farming we do really fits into the natural cycles, so we’re not depleting resources. We’re enhancing.”
In 2006, a horrific windstorm was responsible for destroying close to a 1,000 trees on the property. Sierigk remembers being able to walk the path of the tornado-like impact by following the trees that were snapped in half.
The destruction made way for new growth. Now, as you walk the footpaths, you come upon hidden, cleared spaces where thousands of mushrooms grow. For newcomers to the farm, the experience is eye-opening.
“If you were in a vegetable field, a 300-foot row of carrots is really impressive. But to see 300 feet of shiitakes grown in the woods, it blows people away.” Sierigk likens it to the Japanese tradition of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which has been said to decrease stress and improve mood.
“It’s the magic and the lore of the farm,” he says. “I think we’re really meant to be around trees. It’s deep in our genetics.”