How the owners of Niagara's Shiitake Creek became 'the mushroom people'
Matt and Margaret Williams of Niagara didn’t plan to have a mushroom business. Their careers didn’t point to a future in farming.
Matt had traveled the country as an adventure sports guide and managed and consulted whitewater rafting companies throughout the U.S. He eventually landed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he owned a whitewater rafting company. Margaret was a big city person, and after earning advanced business degrees, worked for larger corporations.
Then came the rafting trip that changed the course of their lives.
Margaret, who was living in St. Paul, Minnesota, and her best friends decided to have an adventure weekend, and drove the six-hour trek to take their first rafting trip. While there, she met Matt, who was her rafting guide, and it was love at first sight.
The relationship blossomed and they eventually married. When their first child was about to be born, Matt wanted to be a stay-at-home dad, and they decided to make a big life change to farming.
“I am a farm kid and wanted to be a farmer since I was a child; to live in the middle of nowhere and live off the land," Matt said. "It might not seem like it, but my two worlds did collide. I was always an outdoors person, and wherever I was, had the talent to grab fresh ingredients off the land and make a meal.”
Having succeeded at one business, Matt said he understood business models and was confident he could start another from scratch. Margaret, for her part, had always been an avid gardener, and with corporate experience, understood business.
As they worked together, the farm thrived. Both believed in the importance of healthy food and sustainability and wanted to share that passion with the community.
In the beginning, they grew organic produce and sold CSA (community-supported agriculture) memberships. They noted that customers kept asking for mushrooms. As the demand increased, the original business plan pivoted. In response, they decided to serve that niche market and created one of the premier mushroom and wild food companies in the upper Midwest, Shiitake Creek, located in Niagara.
They sell at both downtown Green Bay farmers markets and also sell at a market in Marquette, Michigan. In addition, they recently opened a store at their expanding farm.
“There’s a lot going on here," Matt said. "We may have cattle and beef and vegetables, but what we are is the mushroom people. Even as we plant berries for the future and enlarge the farm, by and large, we are mushrooms.”
That has been their focus since 2014. Their goal is to provide the highest quality mushrooms and wild food in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula by continuing to adapt to the demands of the market. They grow, forage, run the farm store and online shop, and offer classes.
Matt, who is a certified wild mushroom expert, teaches a two-day Mushroom Cultivation course, and a four-hour guided mushroom foray. There are a lot for participants to learn and it can sound intimidating. Shiitake mushrooms grow in logs or sawdust, and when using logs, there is a process the includes timber selection, log inoculation, incubation tips, log care and maintenance, and construction of a log-based habitat.
“There is a big learning curve,” Matt said. “I’m getting pretty good at this after eight years; I select varieties of mushrooms based on need and ease of cultivation. I try to do as much as I can and diversify.”
Days are long — especially at this time of the year during prime mushroom season. Matt works in the log yard, and in his lab where he spends hours creating bags to grow mushrooms — up to 16 hours a day. Both also tend to their three small children, and Margaret is well-known for her sewing — a skill that helped them survive the pandemic.
“COVID was tough on the business," Margaret said. "It isn’t economically feasible to ship fresh mushrooms, and most of our sales come from the farmers markets which were mostly shut down. During that time, I got an email from Etsy (the online craft market) and it said there was a big need for masks, so I decided to try that.”
The result was a mask made of organic materials that came to be featured in USA TODAY as one of the top 10 masks to buy. The business exploded, and the couple hired seamstresses to meet the demand for thousands of orders.
The masks may no longer drive the business, but Margaret continues to sew and sells on Etsy and in their shop. Her specialty? Mushroom people and everything mushroom.
As they go forward, they balance each other. Margaret tends to be cautious while Matt is more of a risk-taker.
“I have always trusted my gut and went with instinct,” Matt said. “To be successful, you need to be creative, adaptive and reactive. You don’t want to be so set on a plan that you miss an opportunity.”
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.