Mushrooms and other fungi seem mysterious to most people: they’re biologically more like animals than plants, yet they don’t move. They seem to come from nowhere after each rain, yet few people will even begin to know how to plant them in their gardens.
Whether you’re reading this in the hope of farming mushrooms commercially, looking for a cheap and easy way to supply some of your own fresh produce or indeed thinking of it as a science experiment, this article will show you that there’s nothing magical about fungiculture, only a few principles to keep in mind.
First Things First
As mentioned, mushrooms are different from plants in that they “eat” their food rather than creating chemical energy from sunlight. This food source and anchoring medium is called the substrate, often consisting of straw or peat.
They are, like us, mostly water – about 90% compared to our 70%. This means that they love high humidity. They also need the temperature to be controlled to grow at their fastest. Paying attention to these two factors is nearly all that’s needed to grow mushrooms successfully.
Dealing With Hygiene
Mushroom farming is usually a highly intensive cultivation method. It doesn’t matter if an intensive farmer’s product is chickens, hydroponic herbs or in fact mushrooms: their worst fear is a biological agent infecting their system and ruining an entire crop.
If such an infection does take over, the only solution is to clear out everything you can reach with a shovel, use a power washer on all surfaces, wash them with bleach and start over.
Maintaining a hygienic environment for your mushrooms basically requires three things, the first thing being that your growing chamber should be reasonably airtight against unwanted airborne spores. This also helps in maintaining the correct temperature and humidity. Secondly, all tools, work boots and hands have to be clean before going in, meaning that a wash station next to the entrance is an excellent idea. Lastly, all feedstock has to be sterilized, which is usually done with steam.
Setting up a large-scale mushroom farm requires heavy capital investment, so it’s strongly advised to try it out in an old fish tank or a small room before taking the plunge.
The first thing you’ll require is known as spawn, which is basically the “underground”, root-like part of mushrooms growing inside a medium such as rotting wood, straw or peat. It’s possible to grow your own spawn, but you should be aware that this is usually done in clean-room laboratories and isn’t that expensive to buy, anyway.
All that remains is to place the spawn into the substrate. How exactly this is done depends on the species of mushroom you’ve chosen (many find oyster mushrooms to be the easiest and most resilient). Some are grown on vertical columns of substrate, some on level surfaces; some require near-total darkness while others are actually farmed in the open air. Aside from these differences, though, the basic process is literally as simple as obtaining some spawn and substrate, introducing one to the other and providing the proper conditions for growth.
Turning a Hobby Into a Business
One of the advantages of growing mushrooms for sale is that it can be done on any scale and expanded gradually. Whether you’re considering converting an unused shed into a growth chamber or planning to set up an operation on an industrial scale, the best first step you can take is almost certainly learning as much as you can. There exists plenty of literature on the subject, as well as consultants for those who can afford them.
The second will be to figure out who might buy your mushrooms, which will determine much of what is to follow. Local delis and restaurants might be interested in small amounts of specialty species, greengrocers can take larger volumes only if they can rely on a steady supply, while supermarkets generally require the highest degree of quality control and regulatory compliance.
What comes next depends on too many factors to speak about generally, but you can rest assured that starting a mushroom farm is something many people have done successfully. There is even a free business plan template available to help you get started.