A morel for all seasons?
Morels are important to northern Michigan, but they have a limited season and can be hard to find. They're also difficult to farm, making them expensive and rare. Could a northern Michigan man's new technique make them easily growable?
It’s a beautiful sunny day at Ransom Lake, and Matt Hall is hunting for mushrooms.
He’s been studying them for nine years and selling them commercially from his mushroom farm, Midnight Harvest out of Interlochen, for five years.
Hall can immediately identify most of the mushrooms, but a few stump him, by his own admission.
Foraging isn’t Hall’s specialty — cultivating mushrooms is.
“People always texted me, ‘Can I eat this?’ And I go, no, why are you out in the woods?” he said. “I'll buy you lunch. Come into town.”
In November of last year, Hall shut down his shiitake farm to study the cultivation of morel mushrooms full time.
His goal? Morels by the pound for anyone, anytime of year.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the morel mushroom to Northern Michigan.
The morel hunting season lasts only a short time, from about now through May. During this season, business is in full swing.
Boyne City and Mesick both throw their own morel festivals.
Farmers markets become flooded with morels selling for $30 dollars a pound and up, and scores of restaurants throw annual dinners centered on the mushroom.
The morel’s limited season — and its difficulty to farm — makes the mushroom both rare and expensive.
Cultivating them is a lofty goal to be sure, but it isn’t impossible. Since 2014, Chinese farmers have been exporting morels each spring. Just last year, a pair of Danish twin brothers announced they had a new reliable method for growing morels year round.
Increasingly, more mushroom farms in the U.S. are incorporating the Danish twins technique.
But Hall says his method is different, incorporating both the larger volume of Chinese farms and the year-round availability of the Danish method.
But how Hall plans to do this is kept under tight wraps as a trade secret.
“Patents, they only last 20 years,” he said. “And after that they expire and can be improved upon and you cannot take anyone to court. Trade secrets are indefinite.”
A BETTER SUPPLY?
Hall’s goal is to finish his research and begin producing morels in the fall. He says he’s ahead of schedule.
If Hall can do this, he could help solve a morel supply problem that restaurants deal with year after year.
“A few years back, we had a dinner, a wine paired dinner, sold out for 50 guests,” said Sherry Fenton, managing owner of Black Star Farms. “And we were not having any luck finding anybody that had morels, because it was just not the right year for it.”
They scrambled and found a forager near Alpena, two days before the dinner, “which made us kind of step back and say, OK, so we're relying upon Mother Nature to provide us for this beautiful mushroom in May. But we can’t always depend upon it,” Fenton told IPR.
The State of Michigan has had a certified foragers program since 2015 and only the individuals who pass this course are allowed to sell their wild mushrooms.
So how do foragers feel about the idea that you could just grow this rare mushroom they make money selling?
“You know, I don't think it wouldn't hurt us any,” said Jill Grenchik. She and her husband Aaron are certified foragers and owners of Great Lake Treats.
“I think there's always gonna be a wild forage,” Jill Grenchik said. “You know, there's other vendors that are selling cultivated mushrooms, like at the markets and things like that.”
But the Grenchiks always sell out of morels when they’re at the farmer’s market.
And the mushroom hunt with Matt Hall in the woods near Ransom Lake? It did not yield any morels.
No worries. Hall's own supply should be ready in a few months.
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