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Fantastic Fungi

Oyster mushrooms grown by Exotic Edibles of Edgewood, NM.

When you think of the word farm, it's doubtful that the image of a damp dim place lacking in photosynthesis comes to mind but it should, as mushrooms are a very important specialty crop in today's market. For example, the 2008-09 U.S. mushroom crop of 817 million pounds was valued at over $950 million dollars. That's no small potatoes (or fungi).

Although the majority of mushrooms produced each year come from very large growing operations, there is a great opportunity for farmers to get into small scale mushroom production. For current farmers who want to diversify or for growers with limited land access, mushrooms are a unique specialty crop that can expand your current market potential.   Mushroom cultivation is also a fun endeavor for hobby growers or as an educational experiment with kids.

Mushroom Varieties

The most common mushroom is the white button mushroom, but there are a variety of edible mushrooms that can be cultivated.  The type of mushrooms you choose to grow may be dependent on your own personal tastes, or you may choose a mushroom that can be profitable in your local market.  Common cultivated mushroom varities include:

Fungi Facts

  • Mushrooms are classified in the Kingdom Fungi
  • The mushrooms that we eat today descended from water molds about 600 million years ago
  • Mushrooms derive all of their energy and nutrients from their growth medium (e.g. logs, straw, manure) which they decompose through biochemical processes.  The technical term for this is absorptive heterotroph.
  • Mushrooms take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.
  • Mushrooms do require some light to stimulate proper growth, especially the pinning stage where the earliest formation of mushrooms emerge.
  • People who study mushrooms and other fungi are called mycologists
  • Pennsylvania is the top cultivated mushroom producing state, while the Pacific Northwest is known for it's abundance of wild harvested mushrooms.
  • The cultivation of mushrooms for food, medicine and other products is called fungiculture.
  • Mushrooms are high in protein, fiber, amino acids, and vitamins.  They are also very low in fat.
  • Pizza just isn't the same without mushrooms (this is not actually a fact).
  • Shiitake
  • Oyster (see photo above)
  • Straw
  • Maitake
  • Winter
  • Shaggy Mane
  • and more!

Other specialty mushrooms that are not easy to cultivate commercially include Morels, Truffles, and Chanterelles.  These mushrooms are mycorrhizal species, which require the roots of "host" plants to grow.  Although some cultivation of these species occurs, they are generally harvested in the wild.  

Mushroom Growing Basics

Mushrooms are commonly cultivated indoors so specific growing conditions can be met, mainly to achieve certain temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels.  Some people also choose to cultivate mushrooms outside on logs, in orchards, or incorporated into garden beds.  While the controlled conditions of growing inside often produce higher yields, cultivating mushrooms outside can is a lower maintenance approach that continues to produce well into the future.

Whether grown indoors or out, the process is generally the same.  The first step is determining what type of mushroom you wish to grow, as that determines the type of growing medium or substrate (e.g. compost, sawdust, straw) you need for the mushrooms to grow on.  For example, oyster mushrooms will grow well on a variety of materials, while some mushrooms are particular to a specific growing medium.  When choosing a mushroom variety it is important to consider the substrate required, and its cost and accessibility.

Depending on the type of mushroom you choose, you will want to do research on the proper growing conditions to maintain, as well as the time required before mushrooms can be harvested.  Like waiting for seeds to sprout, you may find yourself staring at your inoculated mushroom medium waiting for something to happen.  Although you may not be able to see what is happening, the mycelium is growing within the medium and will become visible as it takes over.  Eventually the fruiting body, or the the edible mushroom, will begin to sprout out of the mycelium.

This basic summary may sound like an easy process, but it is actually quite technical - especially if you are producing mushrooms to maximize yields.  Fortunately, there are many mushroom experts who have shared their knowledge through books and technical manuals, and if you are considering mushroom cultivation those resources are a great place to start (see below). 

More Information

mushroom_chantrele.jpgWild harvested Chanterelle mushrooms

The following resources are helpful whether you are considering a hobby in fungiculture or small scale production for profit.

  • The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service has a free online publication called Mushroom Cultivation and Marketing. This publication has a great section on mushroom cultivation books that offer the necessary technical information.
  • Wikipedia pages on mushrooms and fungiculture.
  • Six Steps to Mushroom Farming, a publication from Penn State geared towards very large scale production. (The photos of large scale production are fascinating!)
  • Looking for a mushroom kit, books, or mushroom cultivation supplies?  Check out Fungi Perfecti, Mushroom Adventures or Mushbox.



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