by Carol Cain. Photos from Hawk Meadow Farm.
Steve Sierigk, grew up in Yonkers, NY, and was in the middle of completing his graduate studies in entomology, before, as he says, he wound up farming organic vegetables in West Danby. “This was the early days of the organic farm movement,” he said, “I never went back to grad school to finish my degree…I think I may still be on a leave of absence!”
Anne Sierigk grew up in North Carolina and had started her college journey in music, before changing direction to study animal science at Berry College in Georgia, where she farmed a few years before moving to Ithaca.
They met while both working at Ithaca Farmers Market where Steve was selling his Acorn Designs (wildlife art) wares and Anne worked as the Market Manager. A not-so-impressive first date to a Cornell hockey game almost became their demise, but Anne gave Steve a second chance – 8 months later, and now they both run Hawk Meadow Farm, which specializes in log-grown woodland mushrooms such as shiitake, lions mane, and turkey tail.
Learn about these wonderful farmers, their farming philosophy and journey, and even tips in finding and maintaining the perfect mushroom.
Edible Finger Lakes: Tell us about your farm – what brought you to farming, specifically farming mushrooms?
Steve: I bought this property 36 years ago with a group of people looking to start an intentional community. Most of us living on this land at the time followed the macrobiotic diet, which incorporated many foods sourced from Japan, like shiitake mushrooms. In Japan, in particular, log-grown mushrooms fetch a much higher price than indoor sawdust-grown mushrooms. We decided to give this a whirl and it worked like a charm, though we did it as a way to grow some of our own food. In 2006, after a huge wind shear took down hundreds of trees, many of them oaks, which are the preferred substrate tree for shiitake, we tried the shiitake experiment once again. The culture had shifted enough that people now knew what shiitake were and our customers could definitely appreciate the high quality. Ever since then we have devoted a lot of farming towards shiitake as well as other wood digesting mushrooms grown outside under natural conditions.
Anne: I have always loved farming, it has always been my passion. Mushrooms, not so much!
EFL: Describe some of the daily tasks involved this time of year in running Hawk Meadow Farm. What are some of the challenges? What inspires you most to keep going?
Steve: During the winter months we collect the bolts (the logs) for spring inoculation. We often work with loggers who are cutting timber- especially oak, maple, and beech. We take the tops of the trees which are perfect for us but of little use to the logger. It is good work for winter! Spring is all about log inoculation. Just like apple varieties, there are many cultivars of shiitake each with its own characteristics.
Some varieties we grow start to come in with the first warm temperatures in early April. However, our workhorse varieties really start to produce in earnest from June through October. Other mushrooms we grow are at the whims of nature for harvesting, although we generally recognize their triggers. A large part of our farm labor this time of year is the active management of our black locust fields which we manage for fence post-production.
What inspires me most is to feel deeply connected to the cycles of nature with this type of farming, directing the decay of trees and seeing them turning back into decomposed entities all the while producing high-quality food. This also relates to our own woodlot management plan for our woods which includes improving the long-term native ecology. The positive feedback about the mushroom quality from customers definitely inspires me.
Anne: The whole agri-tourism movement is exciting to us as well. It is inspiring to know that people want to learn about farming and how food products are grown or made. Most people are quite removed from nature in general so getting them outside is wonderful, and they seem to receive something intangible as well.
EFL: How was farming during COVID? What lessons did you learn from farming during a pandemic?
Steve: I felt that during this last year people had increased awareness about where their food comes from and the importance of high quality. Also, the realms of the pharmacological effects of plants and mushrooms were much more appreciated to help enhance natural health and immunity. Part of the philosophy of the macrobiotic diet was food as medicine; the incorporation of a daily shiitake was looked upon as a natural way to boost health and immune function. Parts of our culture have increasingly embraced these principles.
Anne: It was a crazy year! We were putting up a new straw bale building for our mushroom production during the whole thing and that actually was helpful to have something to focus on that was beautiful and fun. Jaime Carestio of Live Edge Building is the builder from Trumansburg.
EFL: What is something you wish more people knew about running a farm?
Steve: It certainly comes with economic challenges as quality food, in general, is undervalued in the US. We do what we can to educate our customers about food quality. Also, the deep ecological connections that can be made with the piece of land you are stewarding when farming is profound and can become spiritually fulfilling in ways hard to put into words. After spending time on a piece of land it can begin to speak to you about some of the best uses. Our farm is not a typical farm in that we are not plowing fields, but rather tending to manipulate our forests to produce food. I like to think that in the best sense of stewardship, a farmer can leave a piece of land better than when they found it.
Anne: And also, how fun it is! Being outside in fresh air, getting exercise without the need for a gym-what could be better! It is a lot of work and I feel that farming requires one to be an entrepreneur, a bit of a gambler, a bit of an independent cuss, and an eternal optimist all at once!
EFL: How do you split up the work of running the farm?
Steve: When we were just beginning Anne and I did all aspects of the farm together. As we have grown I specialize in the hands-on work of mushroom production as well as locust field management. We also have a modest Maple syrup operation which Anne tends to.
EFL: What do you wish more people understood about growing mushrooms and shopping advice can you give to someone purchasing them?
Not all shiitakes are created equal! Natural simulated shiitakes grown outdoors on logs are much more labor-intensive than indoor grown shiitakes. The struggle outdoor mushrooms endure makes a much more biologically challenged organism with rich biochemistry that results in very flavorful mushrooms. Look for robustness of color in the cap, size of the stem, and tightness of the gill exposure. Once gills are fully opened spores may have been released, the life purpose of the mushroom is over and it degrades much more quickly. Shiitakes should be harvested just after the outer margin begins to separate from the main stem with the beginnings of some gill exposure.
EFL: What tips can you give on cleaning, storing, caring for mushrooms? Do different mushrooms have different seasons?
You only need to brush off any debris. They are still an actively respiring organism, and so need oxygen. To prolong their freshness you can store them in a paper bag under refrigeration. Don’t use plastic to seal off air! Alternatively you can dry mushrooms as this offers a long term storage option and can enhance the flavor of mushrooms.
Shiitake in particular is one of the best mushrooms offering the “umami” experience and this is enhanced by drying. Different shiitake varieties have their temperature range preferences so may come out at different times. Natural flushing of shiitake is often induced by rainstorms, especially involving lightning. We generally have shiitakes flushing reliably from June-October.
Other mushrooms we grow intentionally like Lion’s Mane have discrete seasons and natural flushing in the Spring and Fall. Turkey Tail intentionally flushes in the Fall as well.
Hawk Meadow Farm, 5066 Mott Evans Rd., Hector, NY 14886; (607) 387-3424