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The Wiandts

March Profile

When talking to the Wiandts, one word comes immediately to mind: deliberate. Tom and Wendy Wiandt operate a mushroom farm on a deep, shady hollow near Burbank, Ohio. And, if mushrooms require one thing, they require deliberate farmers.

Tom grew up on this farm but attended college to study mechanical engineering. According to Tom, he “increasingly hated” the seven years he spent working in the industry, but he used his engineering job to save up seed money for a farming enterprise. Tom says, “There are too many people looking for immediate gratification going into organic farming. It’s better to earn your money, have some cushion, and develop your skills and your land on a small scale.”

Tom and Wendy were interested in farming even back in their college days, but they didn’t immediately set their hearts on mushrooms. “We were able to think about what we wanted to do before we took a wild, sudden plunge,” he says.

They evaluated more than a dozen specialty agricultural operations, following the news and tracking their demand, prices, and market potential. Tom knew he wanted to create a unique enterprise, something that would take advantage of the expanding culinary niche market.

Tom explains: “We chose mushrooms because it was the [operation] that suited our facilities, our conditions, and our skills.” Tom used his engineering skill to design and construct the mushroom growing facilities. Wendy worked in a hospital laboratory as a medical technologist and now uses her knowledge to grow the mushroom cultures in her own laboratory.

Tom, who enjoys reading, gathered extensive information about mushroom growing and hunting wild mushrooms from books. “I happen to feel that part of the reason we’re good at growing mushrooms is because we hunt wild mushrooms and we’ve become familiar with how they grow in the wild… And once you understand how that [variety] has adapted to grow well in nature, then you can design a controlled environment that will optimize those natural conditions,” he says.

The Wiandts first started growing mushrooms on a small scale to develop their skills. In 1999 they began growing at full capacity, though, the task is challenging because the operation requires constant monitoring and adjustment. In talking with Tom, it is obvious that mushroom farming is a fine art form.

Shiitake and Lion’s Mane mushrooms are grown on sawdust blocks set on shelves inside the mushroom facility. The sawdust is aged and mixed with water and rye grain. The sawdust is formed into blocks and autoclaved (or pressure-cooked) for several hours to sterilize them. They are then cooled and seeded with the mushroom spawn (a mycelia culture on rye grain), mixed with sawdust, pressed, sealed in six-pound bags specially designed to allow airflow while keeping out contaminants, and allowed to colonize for two to three months. Once fully colonized, the outer bag is removed to allow the culture to fruit, or sprout mushrooms. When the mushrooms are fully grown, the Wiandts harvest them. The sawdust blocks gradually lose moisture, but will fruit about four times, total, if they are soaked in water every few weeks. Once the blocks are completely harvested, they are turned into compost for the garden. “The nice thing about running a small mushroom operation is that it does provide a lot of the materials you need to run a quality organic operation, otherwise,” Tom adds.

Flat, oyster mushrooms that resemble thick rose petals compose the second part of the indoor operation. These are grown on tall bags stuffed with pasteurized straw. At the time of my visit Tom is in the process of moving two years worth of organic dry straw into his barn. He finely shreds the straw through an ordinary straw chopper. The straw is boiled for about an hour to sterilize it and to get moisture to a desirable level. Once the straw is drained and cooled, he adds the oyster mushroom spawn. The straw mixture is stuffed into dozens of tall cylindrical plastic bags that resemble the shape of punching bags that hang vertically from the ceiling in rows. Five varieties of oysters—yellow, pink, blue, white, and brown—sprout from the bags in neat intervals.

Surprisingly, Tom says that marketing is the most challenging part of his job and some of the most important knowledge he has had to acquire. The Wiandts’ marketing strategy is complex because they avoid selling to distributors in favor of maintaining direct relationships with chefs and local farmers’ market customers. The reason the Wiandts’ marketing strategy works is because it is built on relationships of trust and mutual reliance. Tom explains it best:

“I think a lot of people start growing because they don’t want to work in a highly social environment, and that’s a lot of the reason I got into it. But regardless of that, probably the most valuable skill you can have on an organic farm is being able to develop relationships and trusting business ties. You need to be able to get out and talk comfortably about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Nobody’s looking for a cheaper source of something in a long term relationship. We develop our relationships on more sustainable bases: it’s got to be that [the customers] want quality, that they support organic agriculture, that they can market your product.”

Organic certification is another important element in direct marketing. Certification is an investment in long-term customer relationships because it contributes to reputation. Tom understands that there are costs and paperwork involved but believes that the cost-benefit analysis involves “more than just dollars and cents. It really has a lot to do with how people view you philosophically, and that’s what keeps customers faithful to your business.”

Killbuck Valley Mushrooms became certified in 2002. Tom makes sure to tell customers that he is certified by OEFFA because OEFFA is “much more than a certifier…and it is so meaningful to customers.” While the Wiandts live far from OEFFA’s headquarters, Tom feels he can call OEFFA anytime to voice his opinions and have them addressed. “That’s important—feeling like you’re a member, as opposed to somebody who just signs up on a mailing list,” he says.

Tom has three important pieces of advice for any new farmer: “Start small, grow slowly, be creative.” Expanding on this advice, Tom says, “Be economical. Don’t think you’re going to buy land and instantly put it into full-scale production and find somebody to buy all that stuff. You’ll run out of money before you get there unless you’re just a magician of a salesman. It’s all about building and all about going slowly.”

It is also important to keep economics in mind. “What seems easy now is utterly undoable at a factor of ten the next year,” Tom explains. Tom believes it’s better to earn your money first and make investments later. “Farming is a risky adventure to start with and taking out loans only compounds that risk,” said Tom. When you are an organic farmer, you can at least take comfort in the fact that time is on your side:

“We try not to grow beyond our means. It’s always tempting, especially if you make a good profit one year. But farming isn’t like a regular career where you work 30 years. Farming, you’re likely to be working in it for 50 years. You’ve got time. The most honorable thing to do with a farm is to just get it up and stable, get a steady base of customers, and be able to leave something good for your kids.”

But, Tom also believes in being creative and doing something no one else is doing. For example, Tom refuses to grow popular varieties of mushrooms like Portabella, because there are huge supplies of them at supermarkets. Tom advises researching niche farming opportunities on the internet at local agricultural agencies. He recommends new farmers talk to people at the grassroots level—chefs, other farmers, consumers—before planting a thing.

Following this advice, the Wiandts have built something wonderfully unexpected and innovative. One gets the feeling that the farm is constantly humming, all its intricate small parts working in concert like a single organism. The Wiandts’ inexhaustible gusto belies the joy they find in their work. “The quality of life aspect is ridiculous to even talk about. We love it out here,” Tom says.

About the writer: Danielle Deemer is working on her master's degree in Rural Sociology at the Ohio State University. Danielle, through her OEFFA internship, profiled some of the organization's most accomplished members and their successes, creating OEFFA’s Profiles of Success series. Lauren Ketcham has updated and edited content. This series is being unveiled throughout OEFFA's 30th anniversary celebration year.