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.