Winter's long Freeze finally is lifting and with spring showers comes an abundance of mushrooms to forage. This is, of course, a dangerous hobby for all but those who know exactly what they're doing. Local experts Tom and Wendy Wiandt of Killbuck Valley Mushrooms are veteran foragers with an extensive knowledge of the art and science behind wild edibles.
The couple did not start out as professional farmers and foragers. Tom has an engineering degree and Wendy worked in medical research. Both spent about seven years working in their respective fields before taking the leap to start their flourishing mushroom business.
Their property, located just outside Wooster, is where Tom grew up. It was a small, multi-purpose farm during his childhood but was always ripe for a hobbyist forager given the extensive amount of old-growth forest. "My dad was a biology teacher with a strong background in botany – so I grew up with that knowledge," Tom explains. "Not many farmers have the technical botanical background like my dad."
Tom applied that knowledge to make the transition from hobbyist forager to professional mushroom farmer. These days, the majority of the farm's mushrooms are cultivated, although Tom says he loves to get out and forage when he has the opportunity. The farm occasionally opens to the public for scheduled foraging walks, and once a year, they partner with Ben Bebenroth of Spice Kitchen for a special mushroom dinner.
Those who don't have opportunity to make it out to the farm can get their fungi fix in other ways. Killbuck Valley Mushrooms maintains a presence at farmers' markets in Wooster, Shaker Square, Crocker Park and more. "You get a lot of leeway with the markets," says Tom. "I bring a variety of products and quantities based on what's available. Everyone is always so curious about anything wild you can put on the table. My favorite markets are when I can have a basket full of wild mushrooms and some really strange stuff."
Currently, the farm is selling several varieties of oyster, along with shiitake and lion's mane, mushrooms. They don't have outdoor mushrooms yet, but natural log-grown shiitake and outdoor-grown oysters will begin appearing at local markets in the next couple of weeks.
Farmers' markets are where the Wiandt's business really began, although Killbuck Valley Mushrooms has been selling to local restaurants for years, including Flying Fig, Fire and Lolita. They got their start through Parker Bosley of the now-closed Parker's New American Bistro. "He ran his restaurant almost exclusively from products he got directly from farmers," says Tom. "He actually found us and said, 'Cleveland is the place to be.' Once I got into Cleveland, he opened up the whole world to me. He really went out of his way to make connections which would last long beyond his own restaurant, and I have a lot of respect for that."
Given that Killbuck produces 300 to 350 pounds of mushrooms a week, it might be surprising to learn that the entire operation is run only by Tom and Wendy, with some help from their children. But Tom wouldn't have it any other way.
"I enjoy what I'm doing because I can make a living out of it," says Tom, "I live in the woods and can go fishing, take a walk or collect crawdads. I get to do what I want. I'm an introvert: I just want to live quietly and enjoy the simple things."