Sheltowee Farm Mushrooms: The Rise and Fall

A trip to the Sheltowee Farm in Salt Lick felt like the broader extension of how I start most of my days.

I am often out in the early morning, walking and photographing the beauty that is everywhere.  It’s not uncommon for me to drive without a destination in mind, intuitively, to explore a new microcosm.  Today, I found filtered sun pouring over a beautiful stream where the cold fall air rose visibly off a warmer creek bed. 

My Sheltowee Farm visit had the same sense of expectancy I experience every day, and I love a long drive.  My passion for food notwithstanding, autumn is my favorite time of year and is, yet, another excuse to explore.

Billy Webb’s previous life was that of a special operations naval officer, and his under-graduate education in chemical engineering and post-graduate degree in toxicology and hazardous substances seemed an odd foundation for the segue into his life today as a mushroom grower.  Read on.

The timing of the $4.2 billion settlement to the Commonwealth of Kentucky for the re-training of tobacco farmers more than a decade ago was aligned with Billy’s interest in considering mushroom growing as a future business.

In Japan, Korea and China, shitake are grown on the shea tree.  It turns out that the closest genetic relative to the shea tree is the American white oak, the largest stand of which anywhere in the world is in eastern Kentucky.  With the birth of public interest in gourmet mushrooms and with consultants’ advice and serious planning for best-case and worst-case scenarios, a business plan to grow shitake on white oak tree tops (following the timber industry harvest) was borne.  It was a ton of physical work and an outdoor project.

With the exponential growth of the Sheltowee Farm mushroom business over the next five or so years came the shock of the drought of 2007, and the failure of all progress to that point in time.

Enter chemical engineering.  More to follow.

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