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Minnesota couple starts mushroom farm

LEROY, Minn. | A southeastern Minnesota couple's passion for mushrooms may bring them out of the woods and into the region's food markets.

Kalvin Stern and Rachel Davis, founders and owners of the Fiddlehead Knob mushroom farm in rural LeRoy, always dreamed of venturing into growing their own produce for direct sale. After graduating from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Stern, from LeRoy, and Davis, from Ostrander, moved to Boone, N.C., where they lived in the Appalachian Mountains.

While Davis worked at a homeless shelter and crisis facility, Stern apprenticed at an organic and biodynamic farm and became interested more in organic food production. Particularly in mushrooms, as Stern grew an expertise in foraging and identifying wild mushrooms.

Soon, the dreams of operating and owning their own farm grew.

"We wanted the whole farm experience and wanted to do a different style of farming," Stern told the Post Bulletin. "It's a specialty niche market where there seemed to be a hole that needed to be filled around the area. We were moving back from North Carolina and that was the time to start our dream. We're learning a lot, and we learn every day."

When the couple decided to take on mushroom farming, they returned to their roots in LeRoy, to a 10-acre farmstead tended by Davis' family for four generations. They also got married along the way, in the fall of 2016.

The property's proximity to acres of state wildlife forests and prairies provided an abundance of opportunity for the Fiddlehead Knob. There, Davis and Stern cultivate their mushrooms with care. Some are found, or grown on outdoor logs and in wood chip beds used with agroforestry methods.

Fiddlehead Knob grows anything from oyster mushrooms to lion's mane to wine caps to shiitake to chicken of the woods, some dependent on the season for their availability. The couple even started to pursue creating their own medicine from mushrooms.

"My wife and I, we really take care of ourselves with really good food, our own health care, preventative care, and mushrooms was a huge part of our diet," Stern said. "We can replace protein you get from meat with them, and it's great for the immune system. Another benefit is having fresh food all year round and growing our own medicine too."

Growing mushrooms requires extra research and precision. Stern's homemade setup in his basement grow room requires constant vigilance of air quality. A timer is set to change the air inside every 30 minutes.

Since mushrooms create a lot of carbon dioxide, new air must be pumped into the room, and to ensure there is constant humidity that must be between 85 percent and 95 percent. Sometimes, Stern must hand-spray the mushrooms.

"During the first year, we kind of took it slow," Stern said. "When you're actually putting everything to work, it's a totally different ball game. Most of the things for the grow room, I had to build myself. There wasn't something that I can just buy."

There's also the potential risk of contamination, so when Stern tends to the mushrooms, he makes sure that the area is sterilized and that he wears a mask and sanitizes his hands before handling the fungus. He's aware of mushrooms' growth cycles from the beginning of the production cycle to produce spawn, which is eventually transferred to straw logs.

Eventually, the prepped straw is packed into plastic tubes. Even before then, Stern puts the straw into a water barrel and heats it to 160 degrees overnight for pasteurization. Once cooled, Stern fills the logs and pokes holes into the sides where the mushrooms can sprout.

Depending on the mushroom, some can be harvested 13 days after inoculation and potentially double in size. The process is tedious, but the rewards were bountiful. During their first appearances at the LeRoy farmers market and in Rochester, Fiddlehead was able to bring about 25 pounds' worth of mushrooms to sell consistently in the farm's early stages.

Right now, customers can only get Fiddlehead Knob's mushrooms at a farmers market. Sometimes, though, if customers message Stern and Davis on their Facebook page, it's possible for deliveries close to LeRoy.

"We'll work with local community members and get them mushrooms if we have them," Stern said. "We're hoping to get into more places where people can access our products elsewhere, too. Another step for another day. Someday soon, hopefully."

So far, business has been fairly steady for the Fiddlehead Knob.

"Our focus by next summer is to be doing 50 pounds in the grow room, and we'll have outdoor stuff too," Stern said. "That's a whole other process. We thought for sure that this would be a hobby thing to sell at the market and it actually took off. The amount of support we got from locals out here was amazing. We've been really blessed."

Stern and Davis strive to practice sustainable farming and using mushrooms as a mycoremediation tool, which refers to mushrooms and their enzymes having an ability to degrade a variety of environment pollutants, to transform industrial and agro-industrial wastes into products.

"So many things in the world of mushrooms are good for the earth too," Stern said. "We try and take special care of our natural surroundings. We take a certain part of the mushroom and use it to create other organic material."

Some examples include Stern working with his brother's tree service. Normally logs would go to the dump. Instead, Stern brings them back to the farm and uses mushrooms to get all the nutrients out of the wood for their source of food. The couple also uses mushrooms in their animals' feed.

"We're taking a lot of waste product most people throw out and grow food on it," he said. "That's really the kind of approach we're taking. We're reusing as much as we can and growing food off of it. It really gives us a purpose in doing this. We're trying to take care of our surroundings, too."

A community network with other farmers provided Fiddlehead Knob with additional support and educational opportunities. Stern and Davis, in turn, support local businesses.

The goal is to be able to deliver products to restaurants around the area, and to become more active in farmers markets.

"We really love to be a part of the community with its food," Stern said. "We hope to be more involved as well. The community is just as important as the food itself. They know who we are, why we grow our food, and it's for a healthier community. That's just as important to us as growing the mushroom."


Nebraska farmers prepare to provide Costco facility poultry

FREMONT, Neb. | Lincoln Premium Poultry hopes to find 125 producers to provide poultry for a Costco processing plant in eastern Nebraska.

The Fremont plant is scheduled to open in about a year, the Lincoln Journal Star reported. Lincoln Premium Poultry is managing the facilities operations, which includes recruiting farmers to raise poultry, overseeing construction and recruiting employees.

The company was in negotiations with about 80 local farmers last month. It expects to continue recruiting operators into early summer.

Many of the farmers will be new to raising poultry. Doug Oertwich, who has a farm near Pilger, said the poultry project gives him the change to diversify his 700-acre corn and soybean farm. While he's never raised poultry before, Oertwich said he's not concerned about the new endeavor.

"I've worked with guys that raise hogs and cattle, and like any other animal, everything is in the details," Oertwich said.

The company plans to help farmers new to the poultry industry by building a facility where producers and prospective producers can see how the computers and equipment in poultry houses are operated. The company will also send field technicians to help farmers implement and follow the best practices.

The contracts will last about 15 years. Farmers will be investing $2 million to $2.5 million to construct four poultry houses. The longer contract length lessens the risk by guaranteeing farmers 15 years of revenue.

"Nebraska farmers are making a sizable investment, and they are trusting in us to do the right thing by them," said project manager Walt Shafer. "So we are working with Costco to put out a very, very fair contract that gives them every benefit of the doubt."

Costco added a square-footage incentive for the poultry houses, which would give a farmer $120,000 for completing four houses.

"That's one way for the company to invest in these farmers up front," said Jessica Kolterman of Lincoln Premium Poultry. "And it really helps offset costs on the front side."

The operation is expected to process up to 2 million birds a week. The plant is projected to have a $1.2 billion economic impact on the state, said Gov. Pete Ricketts.


Sioux City bridge repair project may be delayed until 2019

SIOUX CITY, Iowa | Officials say there may be a delay in starting repair work on a bridge that spans the Big Sioux River, connecting Sioux City to North Sioux City, South Dakota.

The anticipated five-month closure of the Military Road bridge may not happen until 2019, the Sioux City Journal reported. The city originally slotted the work to begin this year but says a languishing permit process through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could push back the start date.

Sioux City submitted a required permit application to the Corps in February to re-deck the bridge. But the Corps ran into funding issues that hampered its ability to approve and review the permits, leaving the city's permit application backlogged among several other project permits, Sioux City senior civil engineer Brittany Anderson said.

Sioux City has offered an agreement that would allow it to submit its own funding to speed up the process, but has yet to hear back on that offer, Anderson said.

"We're going to have to look at when the permit comes in, when the project comes out for bid and when it comes out for the schedule," she said.

The bridge repair is one of two stages in a 10-month, $5 million project along Military Road. The second stage includes a full reconstruction of the road from the bridge to Riverside Boulevard. Funding for the bridge project, an estimate of $3 million total, will come from Sioux City and the Iowa and South Dakota departments of transportation.


Minnesota Native American tribe seeks farm bill funding

PRIOR LAKE, Minn. | Minnesota Native American leaders are part of an initiative to bring more farm bill funding to Indian Country.

More than 30 tribes across the country have formed the Native Farm Bill Coalition, Minnesota Public Radio reported. Minnesota's Shakopee Mdewakanon Sioux Community is leading the effort. The National Congress of American Indians, the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative and the Intertribal Agriculture Council have partnered with the coalition.

"Indian tribes have been either ignored or overlooked or been the victim of policy changes since we can remember, that's just a fact of life," said Keith Anderson, vice chair of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

The lobbying effort is an outgrowth of programs to improve health and expand access to health food for Native Americans. The coalition illustrates a long term commitment to giving tribes a louder voice, Anderson said.

"The effort of the Native Farm Bill Coalition represents the very first time such a concerted effort has been made on behalf of all of Indian Country and only Indian Country," said Zach Ducheneaux, of the Intertribal Agriculture Council.

The farm bill could help tribes strengthen their agriculture economy by funding projects that add value to livestock or crops produced by Native American farmers and ranchers, Ducheneaux said.

"There's really no part of a reservation community that the farm bill will not impact. Everything from the electricity to the water that you use, the food on the grocery store shelves, the buildings that you're going to house your community activities in," said Ducheneaux. "It's absolutely critical that Indian Country realize how big of a player this could be in their game."

The United States Department of Agriculture says more than 56,000 Native Americans operate farms and ranches across the U.S.

The new bill is expected to provide nearly $500 billion in funding over the next five years.