Question: I’m interested in farming with mushrooms. Where do I start?
Cultivating mushrooms can be tricky. To succeed, you need to understand every step of the process, says Ross Richardson from Highveld Mushrooms.
Ross Richardson grew up on a mushroom farm that his dad started in 1979. The decision to go into mushroom farming was one of growing the family business. The business is very challenging, but the bug bit and he enjoys the challenge of running it.
He thinks one of the best ways to get into the industry is to gain experience by working on a mushroom farm. “Without an in-depth understanding of the tricks of the trade, the risk of business failure is much bigger. There are many steps in the production process, and if you want a good yield, you can’t take short cuts,” he says.
Do your homework before you start. Make sure you have the finances to start and sustain the business once it gets going, Ross says.
“It is difficult to estimate the total cost of setting up a growing facility. you have to consider the cost and availability of raw materials, market size and proximity, technology needs for the composting process, the growing system (bags, trays or shelves), labour costs and the size of the facility.”
Labour is expensive as all harvesting is done by hand. Workers have to be trained to handle the mushrooms as little as possible during picking and grading. “The quality of the product lies in the harvester’s hand,” says Ross.
You won’t be able to produce mushrooms without a food source – in this case compost. Ross says their biggest challenge is to prepare high-yielding compost consistently.
Producing the right compost is so important that Highveld Mushrooms employs a specialist compost manager. “Making compost is a scientific process and you need someone with the right expertise,” Ross explains.
According to the South African Mushroom Farmers Association (SAMFA) the following ingredients may be used to prepare synthetic compost:
- Water is essential for the composting process and growth of the mushroom.
- On average, 70% to 90% of all the mushrooms’ water requirements are extracted from the compost.
- Straw (mainly wheat) supplies carbohydrates.
- Chicken litter acts as a nitrogen source and supplies microbes needed for the composting.
- Gypsum is added to improve the structure. It buffers the pH and helps to release ammonia.
- According to SAMFA, the quantities used depend on the chemical analysis of the ingredients, in particular the nitrogen content of the chicken litter.
- When making compost, remember that the composition of the ingredients is always changing. Depending on the season, straw will be soft and weathered or tough and hard.
- The nitrogen quantity of each load of chicken manure will also be different.
“This is why growers have to carefully adjust their recipe with each batch of compost they make,” Ross says.
Mushroom production has a much lower carbon footprint than many other agricultural products, because waste products are used to grow it. The growing process does, however, require a lot of electricity to heat and cool growing rooms.
Timing is critical. Ross explains that mushrooms have to reach the market at the right time. “The product is a bit like milk. It has a limited shelf life and quality starts to decline after harvesting.”
You have to send the mushrooms to the market on the buying days. To access the retail market more easily, a supplier must be able to deliver nationally.
- This article was written by Wilma den Hartigh and first appeared in Farming SA.