In the Field: Green Heron Growers
In the farmlands of Chautauqua County, there is a 200-acre farm featuring a variety of food, animal, and event offerings led by Julie and Steve Rockcastle. Green Heron Growers has been certified organic since 2007 for shiitake mushrooms, vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Their chicken and egg production was certified in 2009, along with the pastures where they graze 100 percent grass-fed beef.
Every aspect of the Rockcastles’ operations illuminates their philosophy: They strive to provide nourishing food for their family, friends, and community, while also enriching the mind and spirit through art, entertainment, and education.
The Rockcastles regularly host farm tours, workshops, and culinary experiences, including Night Lights at the Heron from August into October and Great Rhythm Revival during Labor Day weekend. They also host private tours, weddings, and family reunions. The largest of all the events is the Great Blue Heron Music Festival. Held annually around the fourth of July, the three-day music festival is in its twenty-first year and invites people to camp on the property and enjoy family-friendly activities. Around 7,000 people visit to see twenty-five bands on three stages, dance, swim in the seven-acre pond, attend workshops, and patronize food vendors. The music is eclectic, varying from jazz to swing to jam. There are even dance classes available.
In early June, the Rockcastles led a half-day workshop called Fun with Fungus that focused on learning how to grow shiitake mushrooms. Participants prepared mushroom logs and left with a freshly inoculated log for their own cultivating. The Rockcastles were inspired to start a mushroom farm when a friend of Steve’s son told them they had ideal conditions for growing shiitake mushrooms in their hemlock groves. The recommender was the president of the Cornell Mushroom Club.
“We were looking for other things to do on the property besides the festival, so this was something that would fit into what we were doing and not adversely affect it,” says Steve. “So we thought we’d try it—we’ve been doing it for six years now. Each year, we inoculate 400 to 500 logs. We have about 1,400 in production right now.”
The inoculation process involves drilling holes, inserting spawn, and waxing all openings and ends. The logs are then stacked and left to rest until the next spring. During this time, the spawn, which is made up of living shiitake mycelium, grows within the log and colonizes it.
The logs take twelve-to-eighteen months to build up enough energy to fruit. To get the logs to fruit on a reliable schedule, the Rockcastles soak them, one batch each day, and about a week after soaking, mushrooms begin to grow out of the log. During this time, the logs are stacked tepee-style to make the mushrooms easier to pick. The shiitakes are cut from the log one by one, weighed, packed, and refrigerated.
“We go to the market with a log,” says Julie. “It’s very unique.”
The Rockcastles’ goal is to increase production so that there is a steady and ample supply for everyone, which means inoculating more logs each year. They also make and sell products featuring their mushrooms, such as fresh shiitake pate. “After [the mushrooms], it kind of grew into more,” says Steve. “The neighbors’ cows got out one afternoon and started grazing, so it gave us the idea to look into rotational grazing.”
And again, the pair decided to give their new idea a try. They first explored pasture poultry because they considered it a healthy way to raise meat birds. They have had the chickens and cows ever since. “My animals have a wonderful life with one bad day,” says Steve. “The cows get to eat fresh grass in these prime stages, and when I go to move them from one pasture to another, they’ll run and kick their heels up.
“With the surge of people being interested in what they’re eating, we’ve been complimented as far as our beef,” continues Steve. “We have been told by some people that we have the best tasting beef in the area. We have Devons, a heritage breed, and it’s one of the best grass-to-meat converters because it’s naturally tender and does very well on 100 percent grass.”
Most of Green Heron Growers’ sales are made at the farm store on their property or at the Williamsville Farmers’ Market, where they sell every Saturday morning from August through October. Their booth is located in front of Farmers & Artisans, which occasionally carries some of their products. And the Rockcastles feel fortunate to have the support of area chefs who buy from them regularly—such as Ross Warhol of the Athenaeum Hotel at the Chautauqua Institution. Green Heron Growers’ ramps, beef, and chicken have been prepared and served at the restaurant.
While the Rockcastles’ part-campground property is ample, the food farmland is modest, with less than one acre of vegetable production and one greenhouse that doubles as a chicken space and vegetable garden. The couple would like to take on more, but acknowledge that it’s just the two of them running the operations. “It doesn’t really look like a big farming operation, which is kind of typical of the new farms popping up,” says Julie. “We’re just a small farm.”
Green Heron Growers may be small in stature, but its driven owners have already successfully expanded several times by pusuing endeavors that inspired them.