PERKINS — Just off the main highway, down a gravel road and past several broken down motor homes, a small farm sits tucked back into the forest. There, thousands of tender gray morsels grow and, with them, the possibility to help an entire continent.
Summer is not mushroom season, but for the farm’s owners, Sandra and Doug Williams, it’s still a busy time. The couple is using the hot weather months to focus all their efforts on feeding Africa.
“We felt called,” Sandra said.
The Williams own Lost Creek Mushroom Farm, located about 10 miles southeast of Stillwater. For the last seven years, the couple has partnered with an non-profit organization in Ghana to improve that nation’s mushroom-growing industry.
Growing up, Sandra, 68, never thought mushrooms would play such a huge role in her life.
Born in Oklahoma City, she’d grown up being shipped around the country in a military family, but ultimately landed back at Oklahoma State for college. She studied to be a technical and creative writer, a great mix of her love of teaching and the arts, she said.
Years later, she met her future husband. Early on, Doug Williams, now 70, shared with Sandra his love for mushrooms and his desire to turn it into a career.
They’ve been together now for 30 years — 21 of them dedicated to the business.
The office where Sandra once went to write is now a greenhouse. Decorations of every variety of mushrooms are sprinkled throughout their house. Their refrigerator is almost overflowing with all shapes and sizes of the little umbrella-shaped fungi.
“We have spent the past two decades making this our life,” Sandra said. “Mushrooms have spread into just about everything we do.”
of an opportunity
Originally, the couple hoped to sell their mushrooms to local chefs and restaurants, but stiff competition from growers in Arkansas and Missouri had a hold on most of the Oklahoma market.
While their competitors were selling 100 pounds a week, the Williams’ were lucky to sell six.
Still, they saw opportunity. People around them were always asking the couple how they were able to grow such big and tasty shiitake mushrooms.
The Williams explained how Doug would pick out oak trees, cut them into 3-foot logs, drill out holes, fill the holes with spores and wait for mushrooms to grow.
“Everybody can grow mushrooms,” Doug said. “But not everyone had the patience.”
While explaining their marketing troubles to a friend one night over a dinner of sauteed mushrooms, the friend suggested they stop trying to sell their mushrooms and instead sell the oak trunks.
The idea was a hit.
Soon their mushroom log kits were selling like hotcakes. The product was featured in magazines, including American Health and Martha Stewart Living, and sold in stores, such as Williams-Sonoma and Urban Outfitters’ Terrain.
The money was great, but the couple still felt they hadn’t tapped the mushroom’s full potential.
“We believe heavily in the power of mushrooms medicinally,” Sandra said. “We knew there was more out there for us to do.”
Then, in 2007, the couple got a phone call from Africa that would change their lives. Bemcom, a non-profit resource, research and training center for women and children farmers in Ghana, wanted them to come to Ghana to consult with more than 3,000 small farmers struggling to keep their mushrooms alive long enough to sell them.
The couple jumped at the opportunity.
Not only were mushrooms a great source of food and protein for the impoverished areas of Ghana, but the couple’s assistance resulted in huge economic gains for the farmers.
Guidance helped farmers
In a country where the average wage is about two dollars a day, some farmers found themselves earning as much as $15 a day after getting advice from the couple.
“That is wealth,” Sandra said. “Farmers only have to pay a small amount for the spores. They open up the compost bag and put water in there and they can have mushrooms in three days.”
Bernard Bempah, founder of Bemcom, stressed the importance of the program and the value the Williamses provided.
“We are trying to look at any means to eliminate poverty through mushrooms,” Bempah said. “(Sandra and Doug) helped make our dreams come true.”
The low-tech nature and cheap cost of mushroom cultivation makes it an ideal crop for Africa. But many of the farmers there didn’t know how to grow them. Many were cross-contaminating their crops by mixing spores. That led to crop failure.
“These people were working very hard for very little,” Sandra Williams said. “We saw it wouldn’t take very much to increase their productivity.”
The couple helped Bemcom develop a sterile work site and other procedures to eliminate contamination. Yields soon increased from 1,200 bags of mushroom per week to 4,500 bags.
Since then, the couple has set another goal — to help African mushroom farmers conquer hunger.
Today, African farmers mostly grow oyster mushrooms, but Doug hopes that shiitake mushrooms, which are much higher in protein, will catch on.
“Looking at the possibility of eliminating hunger, that’s a dream,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?”
The couple grew attached to Bempah, 37, and two years ago flew him to the U.S. so he could see their farm and others around the state. He’s been back several times since.
“Bernard is like a son to me,” Sandra said. “It’s amazing that we have this connection from so many thousands of miles away, but we are able to make each other see and understand each other’s worlds.”
When Bempah visited the Williams’ home, he was amazed at the wild game they had running through their yard. Born and raised in Ghana, Bempah had spent the better part of the last decade trying to teach small farmers from Ghana how to raise enough food to provide for themselves and their families.
So when he saw the brown squirrel in the tree outside the Williams’ house, he made sure not to let the opportunity go.
“He caught the squirrel, cooked it and made stew,” Sandra said. “He just couldn’t believe we didn’t eat them already.”
Last month, a group of emerging entrepreneurs from Kenya, Ghana and South Africa who are enrolled in a graduate program at Oklahoma State University caught wind of Lost Creek’s connection to Africa.
Craig Edwards, project manager for the graduate program, worked with the Williamses to set up an internship at the farm to provide the group with hands-on experience.
“We were delighted when (we) found out about their work in Africa,” Edwards said. “It’s a bit of (a) surprise when you find out a place in Perkins, Oklahoma, has experience with helping the impoverished in Africa.”
The Williamses continue their mushroom project with the hope of seeing the end of hunger in a country with millions of starving people. Even if their part is small, they are glad to help make a difference.
“It takes so little to do so much,” Sandra said. “It makes all the difference.”