Tucked away among the oak forests in Perkins, OK, Doug and Sondra Williams are trying to change the world, one plump mushroom at a time.
In greenhouses surrounded by Oklahoma scrub forests, hundreds of cut logs stand in criss-crossed diagonals in long rows, kept company only by the blood-thirsty Okie mosquitos. Each log has a secret, a mission. They are inoculated with shiitake mushroom spawn, and when soaked in clean water and left out, those logs become covered in the fungus.
Doug and Sondra sell mushroom log kits to home growers, but those mushrooms also have a higher mission. Sondra and Doug use their experience to help farmers in Ghana, West Africa combat poverty and hunger.
Owners of the Lost Creek Mushroom Farm, the Williams’ are lending their expertise in mushroom farming in Ghana, helping the BemCom Youth Enterprises Association in training poor African farmers—mostly women—in how to grow, harvest and sell mushrooms.
Doug Williams has always loved eating and cooking with mushrooms. When he and Sondra married, they met a neighbor who grew his own mushrooms, and that’s all it took for Doug to get hooked.
“My neighbor showed me a picture of these logs that had mushrooms on them,” said Doug. “My mind lit up like a Christmas tree.” Doug immediately ordered a kit to start growing shiitakes on logs and experimented with different wood. “We had so many,” Doug said. “The mushrooms grew like crazy. Now, we don’t farm the mushrooms anymore—we instead sell mushroom kits. It’s easier to sell the kits, because they grow high-quality mushrooms.” Throughout their experiences growing and selling mushrooms, the Williams’ had a bucket list dream of visiting Africa one day. One day, the opportunity came to combine these interests.
“It was March 2007 when the phone rang. A woman from Opportunities Industrialization Centers International called and said, ‘You wouldn’t want to go to Africa as mushrooms consultants, would you?’” Sondra said. “They were looking for small-scale agricultural entrepreneurs to help consult with mushroom farming. I said yes, of course.”
A Mission for Ghana
At the age of 19, Bempah started a farm in Ghana, West Africa. Within a year, he had a larger vision for his people—to teach other farmers to raise small livestock and oyster mushrooms, and BemCom was founded. The oyster mushrooms are rich in protein and easy to grow. In June 2007, the Williams’ contributed their love and lore of shiitake mushrooms to continue Behmpah’s mission at the BemCom Training and Resource Center in Techiman, Ghana. The center had the oyster mushroom production operation, but also taught beekeeping, livestock management and more.
For the Ghana farmers, their average income was less than $1 a day. The farmers are now making from $2 to $10 a day and more, with more than 3,000 farmers relying on BemCom to supply them with the tools and spawn to grow. However, the oyster mushroom spawn wasn’t performing the way it should—contamination was a problem, and the Williams’ were brought in to try to find a solution. “The contamination reduced the production load by 35 percent, and there simply wasn’t enough spawn to meet the demand of the farmers,” said Sondra. “We provided them with better levels of sanitation and care.”
The Williams’ also raised money to bring farmers to the United States to learn about mushroom farming and to also build a small lab. Sondra’s dream is to increase the number of spawn labs in Africa so more and more people can grow the food source. “If you have more than one crop type of mushroom, there is less failure,” Sondra said. “We also put in a research project to identify which trees in the area can be used to grow shiitake mushrooms.”
After their work in Africa, the Williams’ gave ten percent of all their sales to another foundation in Ghana. Today, they have created a new non-profit organization called the Mushrooms for Well Being Foundation, which promotes education about the health and nutritional benefits of mushrooms, mushroom production and mushroom consumption worldwide.
“We were making presentations all over that province in Ghana,” Sondra said. “I think people are shocked when they discover how good mushrooms are, and how easy they are to grow,” Sondra said.
For more information, visit shiitakemushroomlog.com.