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Mycophilia Takes Root in Northeast as Pioneering Massachusetts Mushroom Farmer Grows Market for Organic Caps

December 14, 2012 |

Leo Mondragon of Forest Harvest Farm with a harvest of mushrooms. Photo Credit: Forest Harvest Farm.

There’s a mystery to mushrooms that’s missing from say carrots or kale. Devoid of chlorophyll, they lack the color we associate with health and vigor. In that ‘destroying angel’ and ‘death cap’ are names meant to quell appetites, it’s logical that some would never sample even the tiniest taste of wild mushroom. That said, few tastes delight more than oyster mushrooms sauteed in butter and seasoned with a splash of sherry, or a warm broth made of fresh hen-of-the-woods. Leo Mondragon owner of Forest Harvest Farm, an organic wild mushroom farm in Petersham, Massachusetts, knows this well and has made it his business to share the pleasure.

What grows on Forest Harvest Farm is mushrooms, some where Mondragon scatters their spores, and some where he can only hope to find them. Mondragon, in having a bit of mystery about him, is something like the mushrooms he tends and hunts in the Berkshire forests. Partly it’s his accent, which rings of one old country or another; possibly Italy but actually Mexico. In fact, when asked, Mondragon lets on that he was born in central Mexico, north of Mexico City to parents of European blood.

As Mondragon tells it his interest in mushrooms began when he was young.

“It was a hobby, something I did for recreational purposes,” he explained. And like many early passions Mondragon’s interest in mushrooms never left him. Eight to ten years ago, now transplanted to the far reaches of Massachusetts, Mondragon set himself up as a mushroom farmer.

“It didn’t really exist as a business in the Northeast. We created it with the chefs,” he said of his agricultural enterprise.

As it happens the chefs Mondragon speaks of are among the best in the country. Winner of the 2009 James Beard Outstanding Chef Award, Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant of Pocantico Hills, New York is one, and Mike Anthony, Executive Chef at Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern and Bill Telepan the owner and chef of Telepan at 72nd and west 69th street are two others.

Asked what it took to secure such high caliber clients Mondragon gives a simple answer:

“I just went in and talked with them,” he said. “But the quality of the mushrooms is the best.” Naturally when making these visits Mondragon brought along some product for the chefs to sample.

“The presentation has to be immaculate,” he acknowledged.

Mondragon’s Forest Harvest Farm is profitable and growing. Slowed at first by lumbermen unaccustomed to thinking beyond timber as unprocessed planks and 2×4’s, Mondragon has now established a business relationship with several who provide him a steady supply of hardwood logs, specifically the tops of oaks and maples.

A sea of Shiitake mushrooms grow on inoculated logs at Forest Harvest Farm in Petersham, MA. Photo Credit: Forest Harvest Farm.

“This year I’m ready to inoculate 3-5,000 logs,” said Mondragon putting a fine point on the scale of his operation. Not sized for the average woodstove, the logs in question average four to five feet in length.

“It is farming, it is a lot of work,” says Mondragon making it clear that mushroom cultivation requires much the same input of sweat as any other form of agriculture.

And like corn or soybean farmers, the biggest challenge Mondragon faces is Mother Nature and the weather she whips up.

“Lately the climate has been topsy-turvsy every year.”

For Mondragon Climate Change isn’t a question, it’s a certainty. But he isn’t concerned about it’s impact on mushrooms.

“The mushrooms will definitely adapt,” he said adding that he has read there have been sightings of southern varieties in North Carolina.

Another challenge Mondragon faces daily is that mushrooms have a particularly short shelf-life. Because he rarely dries the mushrooms he collects from the forest or harvests from prepared logs, Mondragon must get them into the hands of buyers and into kitchens without delay.

“Some decompose overnight,” he explains.

And overnight shipping is not an option due to their delicate flesh. The logistical hurdles are significant, but are not an issue that Mondragon dwells on. The care and transport of the shiitake, morels, matsutake and other delicacies he delivers is figured into their pricing.

The chefs in Boston and New York that Forest Harvest sells to represent the largest portion of Mondragon’s business. But as the venture has grown Mondragon’s clientele has expanded to include a CSA, a farmer’s market and Siena Farms, a fine food store located in Boston’s South End neighborhood. Farmer Chris Kurth, owner of Siena Farms sells Forest Harvest shiitake mushrooms both at his store and at Boston’s Copley Square Farmer’s Market.

“Leo delivers the most beautiful shiitake mushrooms that I’ve ever seen,” says Kurth.

Like all farmers Mondragon is rarely idle. On a recent day in mid-December he was out preparing to take in his last shiitake harvest of the year. Looking ahead he has plans to build a greenhouse and to set up his own CSA. And as always he’s thinking about mushrooms. At current he cultivates as many as fifteen varieties of shiitake mushroom and forages more than twenty eight wild species from his farm forest and places beyond including Quebec and New Brunswick. But at present it is the Lion’s Mane Mushroom that preoccupies him. Like many mushrooms it is said to have powerful medicinal properties- and it is delicious. In Mondragon’s estimation it has the taste and texture that will make a mushroom lover out of anyone.

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