Ag at large: The splendid fungus maintains its appeal

California is the nation’s second largest production of mushroom behind Pennsylvania with only about 65 growers throughout the state. (Envato Elements)

California is only the nation’s second largest mushroom producing state, and the reason it is not number one may be that we don’t have the right climate.  Folks in Pennsylvania, the nation’s largest producing state, must be as puzzled as our weathermen by that suggestion.

Take into account that mushroom production takes place indoors, and the issue becomes even more confusing.  With a roof over their heads those little blobs of overgrown fungus ought to do well, and feel grateful for the protection.

But this, one of the state’s rainiest years, is frustrating to some mushroom growers because heavy rains and swift drainage scatter or carry away much of the natural material that mushrooms need for vigorous growth.  Of course, some say they don’t grow, they just expand, developing additional weight, size – and of course, taste – as time passes.

Most California mushroom producers are located where the natural growth materials their mushrooms like (need) are plentiful under normal conditions.  Among those are straw accumulated from the growth of some natural grasses and other earthy materials that thrive in their areas.  When heavy rains don’t wash it away the growers can gather and stockpile it as year-‘round sustenance for their growing crops.

Unfavorable weather, especially heavy rains, have been responsible for increased production costs for mushroom growers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere this year as well. They have had to obtain much of their bedding materials from drier areas at increased costs.  Besides Pennsylvania and California, states producing mushrooms include Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

The California mushroom industry includes only about 65 growers, most centered in the Santa Clara-Monterey-Santa Cruz County link, with others along the coast in the Santa Maria area and south through San Diego County.  Moderate temperatures and morning overcasts help maintain the somewhat moist atmospheres the growing fungi prefer.

Although the waist-high bedding tables allow workers to harvest without stooping or bending, and the enclosed beds protect against inclement weather, laborers have not been plentiful.  At least one producer deals with a unionized work force, and all are concerned about the impact of a minimum agricultural wage that will become effective next year and the effect it will have on their ability to operate profitably.

Without those concerns, consumers seem intent on expanding their enjoyment of mushrooms.  The more prolific white button varieties have become standard items in most supermarket produce sections.  The brown or dark colored varieties, led by the large Shitake, appeal to consumers planning specialty uses and are often sell-outs for produce department managers.

Industry figures confirm that production can’t always keep up with demand.  In 2018 national mushroom output reached 917 million pounds.  That was down slightly from the 929 million pounds produced the year before.  The reduction has been attributed to some nasty weather, a tightened workforce and increased trucking and healthcare costs.

In spite of the enclosed settings where mushrooms are produced, weather and other factors impact production for commercial growers, but hobby and at-home growers proliferate throughout the country  For home use and enjoyment the facilities necessary to produce mushrooms can be set up with minimum expense.  The challenge comes from the fungi’s quiet demand for attention and provision at critical growth stages.

California’s commercial growers must deal with all of the challenges that mushrooms themselves demand, plus workforce requirements, several severe regulations, marketing fluctuations and – as hard as it is to believe – the state’s world-renowned climate.

Don Curlee is your man when it comes to Agriculture. His Ag Alert column in our publication is sure to inform you on what you need to know when it comes to the agricultural industry.