Grow­ing an ed­i­ble crop you can’t see

The Krum­me­n­acher fam­ily busi­ness is one that goes on silently be­neath their feet

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - Words Kristina Jensen Pho­tos Daniel Allen, Kristina Jensen

"EV­ERY MUSH­ROOM IS ED­I­BLE, THOUGH PER­HAPS ONLY ONCE. "

Hannes Krum­me­n­acher

For most of the year, there's not much to see on Theres and Hannes Krum­me­n­acher's block apart from neatly planted groves of pine, birch, larch, hazel­nut, oak, chest­nuts and Dou­glas fir.

But grow­ing in and around the root sys­tems of these care­fully-cho­sen trees is a gourmet crop that has won them ac­claim from chefs and food­ies around NZ. You can't see it, but you have to be care­ful where you walk so you don't dam­age it.

The Krum­me­n­ach­ers farm my­c­or­rhizal mush­rooms, fungi that grow in a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship on the roots of spe­cific host trees.

“What we see above the ground and har­vest for a short time ev­ery year are the fruit­ing bod­ies of the fungi,” says Hannes. “These are only a tiny part of the whole pic­ture. Be­neath the ground is an amaz­ing process of mu­tual ex­change go­ing on be­tween the host trees and the mycelium threads, or hy­phae, of the fungi. The fun­gus ac­tu­ally pen­e­trates the cell walls of the roots of the trees and ex­changes nu­tri­ents in re­turn for sug­ars pro­duced by the tree as a

re­sult of pho­to­syn­the­sis.”

Hannes and Theres were the first com­mer­cial grow­ers of ed­i­ble wild mush­rooms in New Zealand, in­clud­ing one of the most pop­u­lar in the world, the clay-coloured saf­fron milk cap, Lac­tar­ius de­li­cio­sus.

Slip­pery jacks ( Suil­ius lu­teus) and pine bo­letes ( Suil­ius gran­u­la­tus) were al­ready grow­ing un­der the pine trees on the prop­erty when the Krum­me­n­ach­ers ar­rived. They have since added stands of birch, larch and Dou­glas fir trees in­oc­u­lated with their re­spec­tive bo­lete va­ri­eties, Lec­cinum scabrum, Suil­lus

gre­villei and Suil­lus lakei. Un­der the pines they've added the pop­u­lar porcini ( Bo­le­tus edulis) and de­ceiver ( Lac­caria

lac­cata) mush­rooms. They also grow the much­sought-af­ter white or Bianchetto truf­fle ( Tu­ber borchii).

The cou­ple have over 4500 trees de­voted to mush­room pro­duc­tion and more are al­ways be­ing added as re­place­ments, and to ex­pand the grow­ing area. Ini­tially, their pine plant­ings were Pi­nus

ra­di­ata, the same species used over much of New Zealand for tim­ber, but Hannes and Theres are now re­plac­ing them with stone pines ( Pi­nus pinea). Theres says he wishes they had planted more of these in the be­gin­ning.

“Stone pines are so much bet­ter, be­ing a slower-grow­ing tree with a com­pact, round shape rather than tall and lanky, plus there will be pine nuts to har­vest one day.”

The trees are the guardians of their mush­room em­po­rium, but have also con­trib­uted to a blos­som­ing of lo­cal bird life.

Grow­ing a crop you can’t see

The trees here aren't al­lowed to go wild. In or­der to nur­ture the fungi, Hannes and Theres un­der­take an an­nual prun­ing op­er­a­tion af­ter the mush­rooms have been har­vested.

Un­like com­mon white but­ton mush­rooms which grow in the dark, my­c­or­rhizal mush­rooms need the heat from sun­light to de­velop un­der­ground. This means branches and de­bris must be reg­u­larly cleared away to let in more light.

In many Euro­pean forests, own­ers cre­ate fire pits for mush­room for­agers to use. Their gath­er­ing and burn­ing of fallen branches helps the fol­low­ing year's crop by clear­ing out de­bris from the for­est floor.

Hannes has taken in­spi­ra­tion from that tra­di­tion. All the tim­ber from the prun­ings on their block is used to fuel a cus­tombuilt wood-fired dryer for their crops. The

burner runs 24-7 through­out most of the har­vest­ing sea­son, from late March un­til the end of July.

The trees are ir­ri­gated as mois­ture plays a big part in ac­ti­vat­ing fun­gal growth.

How­ever, there is no chemical spray­ing near the trees, and no ap­pli­ca­tion of fer­tiliser as my­c­or­rhizal mush­rooms don't like it.

There is also a year-round pest con­trol plan, to stop pos­sums, hedge­hogs and rab­bits from steal­ing in and graz­ing on the mush­rooms as they emerge.

Hannes and Theres op­er­ate on or­ganic prin­ci­ples, ex­cept when it comes to gorse. This gets sprayed when it is in the fields without mush­room crops in them. Thank­fully says Hannes, there is less each year.

In the off-sea­son, the neigh­bour's sheep and cat­tle are em­ployed to keep the grass down. They are re­moved once the del­i­cate soil starts to show signs of mycelium growth. Pre-har­vest, the pas­ture be­tween the trees is mowed very short to give the mush­rooms light and space to pop up and show them­selves. A long sum­mer with con­sis­tent heat is the main in­gre­di­ent to en­sure a good har­vest. In late March, the mush­rooms be­gin ap­pear­ing and it's all hands on deck for the har­vest.

Their rapid growth can mean that Hannes and Theres – of­ten as­sisted by their grown-up chil­dren, Cur­din, Ce­cile, Cha­t­rina and Anja – can har­vest up to 50kg a day, con­tribut­ing to an an­nual to­tal of around a tonne. The mush­rooms are then

A long sum­mer with con­sis­tent heat is the main in­gre­di­ent to en­sur­ing a good har­vest

peeled, cut, dried, and sold or turned into other prod­ucts. The cou­ple like to keep busy when their main crop is quiet. They also grow olive, chest­nut and hazel­nut groves. If there are enough olives to press, they make a mush­room-in­fused oil. They've also added a new prod­uct to their line, mo­lasses made from the tips of Dou­glas fir. Hannes and Theres have re­lied largely on their ob­ser­va­tions of nat­u­ral pro­cesses to make the busi­ness a suc­cess. Metic­u­lous record-keep­ing means they can now pre­dict the growth of the mush­rooms down to days be­fore har­vest by tak­ing note of weather pat­terns and other eco­log­i­cal sig­nals. Over time, this at­ten­tion to nat­u­ral rhythms has pro­duced an in-depth knowl­edge of the life­cy­cle of fungi and their role in a for­est.

Cre­at­ing a busi­ness from wild mush­rooms was not the main goal when they bought their block back in 1998. Hannes was an elec­tri­cian and trained-mid­wife Theres took care of their chil­dren and de­vel­oped the land. They built a spa­cious, so­lar-pow­ered, mud­brick home over 10 years.

Hannes fi­nally put down his tools when it was clear that they could make a liv­ing from their mush­rooms.

“It was a safe way to op­er­ate,” says Hannes. “A low risk with no large ini­tial fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment, and even if the mush­rooms didn't grow we fig­ured we could still har­vest wood from the trees.”

Hannes and Theres stress that they are grow­ers, not my­col­o­gists. They say they con­tinue to learn from the fungi and host trees, ed­u­cat­ing them­selves, their mar­ket and vis­i­tors.

“We've had it from the be­gin­ning,” says Theres, “This mush­room thing.”

Hannes built the wood-fired dry­ers him­self. These run 24 hours a day, seven days a week through­out the grow­ing sea­son. Mush­rooms are sliced, then laid out on trays which slot into the dryer.

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