An Introduction to Mushroom Farming
Mushroom farming is a new industry for the urban farming and food co-op. However, it is ripe for development by urban farms and hobbyists. Mushrooms have a low cost entry point. Production is centered in Pennsylvania, so most of the country cannot state that their mushrooms are locally produced.
Why Is Mushroom Farming Considered to Have a Low Cost Entry Point?
Mushroom farming is fed by food waste that is cheaply and easily acquired from restaurants, schools and food processors. Starbucks is giving used coffee grounds to many small mushroom farms, while wood mill shavings and straw from small farms are available to others. Animal manure is another major source of compost. The soil in which mushrooms grow can be shared or recycled with earthworm producers. However, human manure should never be used to grow mushrooms.
Mushroom farmers can choose from a number of varieties to meet local demand.
Mushroom farms do not need industrial grow lights or heat in the winter in most climates. While mushrooms need to be kept moist, they do not demand the same amount of water required for hydroponics.
Mushroom farming is versatile. It has been done in basements and caves for centuries, and mushrooms can be grown in dimly lit warehouses and storefronts today. Mushrooms are even grown under the dark space under raised vegetable beds and shelves in greenhouses. Unlike hydroponics operations that have to locate in rural areas or warehouses, mushroom farming has far more locations in which it can comfortably operate. For example, mushroom farming could take root in unused, underground parking garages, large basements or otherwise unused warehouses. These areas are low rent because there are so few tenants interested in them.
What Do Small Mushroom Farmers Raise?
High end shiitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, button mushrooms or common table mushrooms can be raised side by side. Mushroom based teas and grow-your-own mushroom kits are other products mushroom farmers can offer to their clientele.
While truffles are sometimes raised on small farms, they only grow on trees. This precludes them from most small scale mushroom farms and urban gardens.
How Many Mushrooms Can I Grow?
Mushrooms start out as spores and develop to full size in a matter of weeks. Mushroom farms can turn out five or more crops per column per year. Fifteen pounds per year per hundred square feet is not an unreasonable yield to expect, if temperature, humidity and growth media are properly managed and supplied.
What Is the Market for My Mushrooms?
Small mushroom farmers should reach out to local restaurants and grocers to promote locally produced mushrooms to tap into the locavore or local food movement, so that buyers do not have to ship in their mushrooms from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania where about half of America’s mushrooms are raised.
Locally produced mushrooms by various small companies can sell their mushrooms in farmer's markets, grocery store chains willing to work with small providers and restaurants.
Mushroom farmers who raise their products with environmental and bacterial controls are more reputable than someone who says they picked up mushrooms from the forest, some of which may be toxic wild species.
Is Mushroom Farming Year-Round?
Mushroom farms can produce a constant stream of product for a small area, especially when raised indoors. Mushroom crops are staggered by planting groups of trays each week. Harvesting and “planting” then take place each week at a constant pace instead of struggling to harvest a huge crop in the fall. Unlike other crops, mushrooms can be produced and sold at the peak of summer or deep in the winter, yielding farmers year-round cash flow.
While fungus gnats can be a problem, these can be managed with UV lights and regular full irrigation of the mushroom beds. Mushrooms do not require the pesticides, nor will organic mushrooms need the careful screening and removal of insects by hand.
Mushroom farmers may have highs and lows in their production due to limits on the supply of growing media. Fresh cut logs are best for Shiitake mushrooms, and mushroom farmers who are relying on low cost logs from wood clearing and stump removal operations. Those who use sterilized manure will have a year-round supply of growth media. Straw is a steady, low cost growth medium. Those who grow Shiitake traditionally use fresh logs, but some growers are experimenting with pieces of nude furniture.