Not a lot of people think about how mushrooms are grown or the journey they make on the way to your plate.
Like with a lot of the food we eat it’s not always a pretty story.
Commercial Mushroom Farms
In 2010, just before I was about to start growing mushrooms as a small business, I visited a commercial mushroom farmer to ask for any advice he could give.
His main advice – don’t start a mushroom growing business!
It wasn’t because he didn’t want me to set up nearby (he was based more than 100 miles away) – it was a friendly bit of advice because he didn’t want me to suffer the same fate as he had.
He was about to go out of business as he couldn’t keep up with the low prices offered by his competitors: the huge scale commercial mushroom farms in Poland and the Netherlands.
He has been selling to a big wholesaler and they simply switched to buying the cheaper imports from abroad.
These huge scale operations cost millions to build and churn out tonnes of mushrooms each week using a mechanised production line.
Check out this video from our YouTube channel where I show you how mushrooms are commercially grown:
The whole process from farm to fork gets split up into different phases which are often run by separate businesses hundreds or even thousands of miles apart.
The different steps in the process tend to look like this:
The 4 Steps of Commercial Mushroom Farms
- 1: Spawn ProducerA specialised laboratory-based operation where pure mushroom cultures are multiplied up and expanded to grow on tonnes of grain.
- 2: Substrate ProducerPreparation & inoculation of the bulk growing substrate, from which the mushrooms will eventually grow from.
- 3: Mushroom ProducerMost large mushroom farms just do the fruiting stage and buy in the ready to fruit substrate from others (transported hundreds or thousands of miles to reach the farm).
- 4: Wholesalers/retail food outletsThe produce gets flown or trucked to a huge warehouse, from where it will go to regional distribution hubs before finally being transported to end up in shops or restaurants.
It’s pretty easy to see why this sucks right?
- The raw materials often travel a long way to the substrate production facility, where they are hydrated and then pasteurised or sterilised via an energy-intensive process (heat).
- The hydrated substrate (heavy stuff!) travels, often thousands of miles to the farm for the mushrooms to grow.
- After being picked by a small army of low-paid pickers the mushrooms take days before reaching the point where they’re consumed. They’re not at all fresh.
It’s just not a very sustainable way to grow food.
To top it off, in the UK at least, these kind of mushrooms are often presented as ‘British-grown’ because that’s where the final part of the process (steps 3 & 4) often occurs.
Never mind the fact they have spent the majority of their growing cycle in China Poland or the Netherlands!
Small Scale Mushroom Growers
So, back to the mushroom grower I met in 2010.
Did I heed his advice?
Of course not!
I was determined to go against the big food industry and grow mushrooms on a small scale to sell locally.
I fully understood this was probably going to be hard but I wanted to do it nonetheless.
Fast forward to now and I can certainly say that it’s pretty difficult to make a living as a full time mushroom grower.
A large part of why it’s hard is that you often find your beautiful fresh locally grown mushrooms competing with the inferior fruits of the factory farms.
You need to charge more for your produce because your production costs (mainly your time) are higher, and most restaurants or food outlets will choose the cheapest rather than the best produce to cook with or sell.
However, it’s not all bad.
Mushrooms: Perfect Local Food Crop
There is a surging interest in quality locally produced food – just look at the rise of farmers markets in the last 10 years.
The number of registered farmers markets in the US alone is 8,500. See if your local one made it into the top 101 US Farmers Markets to visit.
Farmers Markets – where the some of the best food in the world is at!
Mushrooms, though, are a crop which is often forgotten about alongside the rows of fresh salad, herbs, peppers and tomatoes.
Good chefs & shopkeepers who value the quality of their produce will be happy to pay more.
Why? They know it’s what their customers want.
Mushrooms don’t travel well and are far superior when fresh.
Growing and selling mushrooms locally gives a huge advantage over the huge scale mushroom farms that need to ship their produce a long way to sell.
I’ve seen first-hand that there is a place in most towns and cities for small to medium scale mushroom growers.
There are restaurants out there crying out for quality mushrooms. And there are people in your community too who would love to be cooking with them at home.
Oyster mushrooms being cooked within hours of harvest – coming to a restaurant near you?
Sure, the mushroom industry sucks – but you can help bring a more positive, sustainable and tasty solution to your area.
Have a look around. Is there anybody growing mushrooms on a small local scale where you live?
If nobody is else is, will you?
Check out our articles:
- How to set up a low-tech mushroom farm.
- How to grow mushrooms outdoors with a mushroom bed
- Growing mushrooms in coffee grounds
You can also join our free email course on low tech mushroom farming to learn more about the idea & take a video tour around our small scale mushroom farm.