Horticulture specialist Jeff Kindhart holds a bag of inoculum that will be spread in the prepared straw bed inside a high tunnel at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. It will then be covered in composted manure and more straw.
Horticulture specialist Jeff Kindhart holds a bag of inoculum that will be spread in the prepared straw bed inside a high tunnel at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. It will then be covered in composted manure and more straw.
SIMPSON, Ill. — Fruits and vegetables have been grown successfully in high tunnels in Illinois for a number of years. Jeff Kindhart would like to know if mushrooms also can be grown in the enclosed structures.

The horticulture specialist based at the University of Illinois’ Dixon Springs Agricultural Center is attempting to grow culinary mushrooms in one of the two high tunnels at the center.

High tunnels — also called hoop houses — are large metal frames covered with plastic sheets that keep the air inside warmer and help extend the growing season.

Using enclosed structures to get a head start on Mother Nature isn’t all that original, according to Kindhart.

“We think we’ve invented some new crop here, but they were doing these kinds of things in the 1880s and 1890s,” he said. “In the basement, they would have an unheated space and, by adding compost, they would warm it up and grow produce.”

Kindhart is growing oyster mushrooms, a common type sold in supermarkets. If the initial planting goes well, he may expand to button and cremini varieties.

Inoculum is spread in the growing medium and covered with straw. Then the process is repeated until the mycelium — the vegetative portion of the fungus — appears.

While most mushrooms are grown on straw, some species are grown on sawdust and woodchips. Kindhart is considering another bedding material.

“We’re going to Cornell this fall to look at raising mushrooms on switchgrass, which is a native grass,” he said. “Then we’d have local mushrooms grown on native grass.”

If mushrooms can be grown commercially in Illinois high tunnels, growers could squeeze two crops out of a year, maybe growing tomatoes or some other vegetables during the summer.

“That’s the model we’re shooting for — mushrooms in the fall and winter, and tomatoes in the spring,” Kindhart said.

One plus in mushroom production would be marketing. It would be relatively easy to sell them locally or ship them to metropolitan areas, according to Kindhart.

“Mushrooms are a good choice for two reasons,” he said. “I think there will be a local market for them. You see more and more varieties in stores. But even if there’s not a good local market, I can put a lot of mushrooms — which are very high value per pound — on a truck and have it dropped anywhere I want to. I don’t have to have a major distribution chain.”

White buttons represent the biggest portion of the mushroom market. Most are grown inside large steel incubators in Pennsylvania. Other varieties grown in Illinois could see good demand.

“In northern Illinois they’ll grow greens in these unheated structures all winter,” Kindhart said. “They can get $10 a pound for organic greens. Here, locally, people would rather give $5 for sirloin than $10 for organic greens. The market is not as lucrative here.”

Local mushrooms, however, could be prized. Kindhart said that if the mushroom research project goes well, he would like to see some incentive for small-farm growers to raise the fungi.

“We’re going to see if we can drive the system,” he said. “If so, we’re going to look at getting grants.”