Shiitake are sold fresh as well as dried.
Fresh mushrooms are picked when the veil over the gill breaks and the cap is entirely free from the stalk. They should be refrigerated as soon as they are picked, a temperature of 3 degree C will give them a shelf life of up to three weeks. The shelf life is considerably shortened if the mushrooms are soaking wet. Currently the grading for acceptable quality fresh mushrooms is A and B grades: A quality is a well formed, densely fleshed mushroom with the edges of the cap still turned in; B grade is smaller or poorly formed mushrooms with the edges splayed out and fraying and also wet or with browning gills. There is generally some percentage of the crop that is not sellable, so you start eating more mushrooms than you did before or you process the inferior grade mushrooms into a product such as soup stock. Shiitake are very good tasting with a texture somewhat like meat; they are an excellent source of protein, minerals and some vitamins. Shiitake have polysaccharides in them that have anti- cancer effects and which stimulate the immune system, so not only will you eat more mushrooms but you will eat them for longer. There is quite an interest developing in the alternative health community for mushroom extracts due to their medicinal effects, and this may lead to a possible use of the lower grades. The outdoor method of cultivation is almost de-facto organic if you keep the logs away from any sprayed fields. ORGANIC CERTIFICATION can help in the marketing considering the current interest in chemical free products. Vegetable wholesalers, local restaurants, farmers markets, supermarkets, gourmet and health food grocery stores are all possible marketing venues for the fresh product.
The competition to log grown shiitake comes from indoor sawdust block growers. The quality of their product is generally much lower but they can offer it a lower price. The public, and often wholesale buyers, are unaware of how the mushrooms are cultivated and nor are they familiar with the best quality they should look for. Often lowest price, rather than quality, is the criteria used for purchasing. This has a negative effect on the whole industry because the consumer, who is used to low costs for the white button mushrooms, is now asked to pay quite a lot more for these exotic mushrooms. Unless he is suitably impressed by the quality of the product, enough to warrant the extra cost, it is unlikely that there will be a repeat purchase. Fresh mushrooms are generally sold in 3 lb. Boxes. The current (2012) price growers are getting from wholesalers is $ 7-9 per lb. for A, and $5-7 for B grade. This price will obviously vary over time and over locations.
If you plan to market your mushrooms into an established market such as Toronto and are new at this you should consider marketing through another long established grower. You may get a less for your product but it might save headaches in trying to sell your mushrooms. Developing your own sales contacts such as CSA groups, farmer’s markets, your local supermarket etc. will increase your profits. If you are selling directly to the above mentioned groups you should charge either a wholesale price – generally up to 30% above farmer price – or retail price if selling directly to the public. During 2012 we sold high quality Shiitake directly to customers at farmers’ markets in Toronto for $15/1b; during that time we sold Oysters for $12/lb
Gluts in the fresh shiitake market occur periodically but fortunately shiitake can be easily dried, as a matter of fact world wide the bulk of shiitake is consumed from reconstituted dried mushrooms. If the mushrooms are dried to about twelve percent moisture content, sealed in plastic, they can keep practically forever. Care should be taken that they do not get moist as they may mold. The ratio of fresh to dry is approximately 7 to 1. At the moment the North American market for dried shiitake is very competitive due to cheap imports from China, the quality of these imports is very low but consumer ignorance of mushrooms in general makes marketing a higher quality and priced product a struggle. The same CSA groups, Farmer’s markets etc. should still be available avenues for marketing. Alternatively, value added products such as homemade soups, sauces etc. can be marketed.
Japan is one of the largest producer of shiitake but it is also the largest consumer and importer. The Japanese grading system for dried shiitake involves about a dozen grades, the best grades are attractively packaged and used as gift items. Japanese production has declined in the last 10 years due to an ageing farming population not being replaced by younger farmers and by declining oak log resources. Although they have a program to plant and harvest oak trees for shiitake logs, with an average 15 year span between planting and logging , theirs still is a declining resource. Currently more and more Chinese and Korean imports are finding their way into their markets. The Chinese imports are mostly cheap, low quality grades, used for processing. The Korean products are of better quality but are more expensive. My opinion is that we would have success marketing our better grades to the Japanese market, buyers have already shown interest in our production and they are looking for container loads of dried shiitake. Unfortunately our current production is not sufficient to fill these orders on a consistent basis. We are currently trying to co-ordinate a sales effort to smaller wholesalers and to retailers who are willing to start with smaller orders. I believe that outdoor log production, which makes use of a resource which is currently either left in the bush or used as firewood after tree logging, could give farmers and woodlot owners an added income from their bush, while promoting the reforestation of land as the demand for oak logs increases.