If you are wondering how to start mushroom farming in South Africa, look no further. Here you will find the outline of mushroom cultivars, how to farm mushrooms, as well as some tips from mushroom farmers who have been in the business for years.
Mushroom farming is not just about white button mushrooms and portabellos – there is a wide variety of exotic and medicinal mushrooms to cultivate, say industry insiders.
Marietjie Kruger, owner and director of Chanmar Mushrooms in Heidelberg, Gauteng, says that being a mushroom farmer was a lifelong dream for her.
“My favourite part of mushroom farming is seeing a quality product at the end,” Kruger says. “And knowing that it only comes with hard work and a passion for mushroom cultivation.”
Wilmaré Lotz, owner and manager of Boland Mushrooms in Worcester, Western Cape, on the other hand never thought of being a mushroom farmer. After six years at university getting an MSc in agriculture behind her name, she started working at Boland Mushrooms.
“I wanted to work for a month or two at Boland Mushrooms, but that was almost 20 years ago!” says Lotz, who ended up loving the job and staying.
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“The making of compost and growing of mushrooms was not easy at all,” says Lotz. “But I think this was the thing that grabbed me, because I love a challenge and growing mushrooms is definitely a challenge!”
These two mushroom farmers want to stress that mushroom farming is not for the faint of heart, and if you are not farming with exotic mushrooms then it is not a viable activity on a small scale. But with passion and dedication you can become a successful mushroom farmer.
1. Picking a mushroom cultivar
Mainly white button and brown mushrooms are grown in South Africa, according to BizBolt. But there are also a variety of exotic mushroom cultivars to consider, such as Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms which will have more niche markets to enter. Less than 5% of South Africa’s mushroom market is taken up by these exotic mushrooms.
You have to decide what your target market is, and who you will sell to before you get started. If you want to remain small scale, Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms are a better bet. According to Greig Wishart, a trainee farmer at Cape Mushrooms, exotic mushrooms seem easier and less complicated to grow, but don’t think they are any easier to farm than button mushrooms!
Depending on the mushroom cultivar you choose to farm with, you need to get the correct compost as a growing medium.
2. Compost composition
The growing cycle of mushrooms starts with compost. It is therefore important to ensure that this has the right ingredients and is treated optimally from the beginning.
“Preparation of your compost and to get a perfect end result with good quality raw materials are a challenge,” says Kruger.
“Compost is the heart of your business. If the composition isn’t correct, it can affect your crop and your yield,” says Lotz.
You can’t ignore it: the compost is the first thing you have to get correct when farming with mushrooms. All mushroom farmers in South Africa have their own compost yards and growing facilities, unlike other countries where specialised companies prepare mushroom compost.
According to Lichen Group the basic components of mushroom compost are water, wheat, broiler chicken litter, and gypsum. This mixture of raw ingredients need to ferment for three weeks, being opened and aired daily.
3. Compost development
After the compost has fermented it has to be moved to a closed room to undergo three developmental stages, as stated by the Lichen Group.
Phase one includes wetting and mixing the compost mixture. It then gets formed into long, narrow stacks. The stacks have to be mechanically turned with compost turners (usually every other day) and watered. This phase allows micro-organisms to grow and reproduce within the compost, causing the temperature of the compost to rise, and nitrogen to be turned to ammonia.
Phase two needs to be carried out under carefully controlled conditions in specifically designed tunnels with aerated floors. In this phase the compost undergoes pasteurisation to free the compost from undesirable weeds, microbes and pests.
In the third phase the ammonia and nitrogen content is converted to protein to act as a growth medium for the mushrooms.
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“I have seen many people over many years that jumped on the mushroom wagon and did not make it,” says Kruger. “There is more to farming with mushrooms than one, or two, or three factors to consider.”
You can buy the spawn of your chosen mushroom cultivar from suppliers and mix it into the compost you have made. The spawned compost is filled into the final growing containers (bags, trays or shelves) for incubation or ‘spawn running’.
This part of the process takes place in purpose-built tunnels, spawn running rooms or in the growing rooms.
If you haven’t noticed by now, farming with mushrooms can be a bit tricky. Here is some advice from Lotz to keep in mind:
“Do not believe everything you read on Google! There is no easy way to grow mushrooms and you will have to learn from somebody who knows what mushrooms growing is all about. It takes a lot of effort and endurance as well as a well-designed facility.”
And she is not joking about the well-designed facility being a necessity; the spawning rooms on their own must be well insulated and equipped with systems that maintain temperature and humidity levels. The air that enters the rooms must be filtered to eliminate dust, bacteria and fungal spores that may cause disease.
When the spawn grows, threads of mycelium are spread through the compost and will completely cover it.
5. Growing the mushrooms
After a bag of compost is fully colonised with mycelium, a casing layer is added. This layer can be made from many different materials and is necessary to provide moisture for the mushrooms.
Most mushroom growers use peat moss, but is has to be imported to South Africa, meaning it is expensive and has a high carbon footprint. Lotz switched from peat moss to a cheaper, local alternative made from by-products of sugar cane processing.
After the mycelium has grown to its full extent within the casing the doors to the cultivation rooms can be opened. The change in temperature and air composition signals the mycelium to start growing its fruiting bodies that we know and love: mushrooms.
“To walk into a new flush and see a bed of white button mushrooms!” exclaims Lotz when asked about her favourite part of mushroom farming.
Another reason why mushroom farming is difficult and expensive at a small scale in South Africa is because mushrooms are picked by hand. That makes mushroom farming a hugely labour-intensive exercise employing many people in the areas around the farms, according to AgriMag.
A mushroom doubles in size every 24 hours, so it is important to check on the mushrooms daily. Button mushrooms are picked when the cap reaches maximum size. They are individually picked with an upward, twisting pull.
Mushrooms have to be picked immediately otherwise their quality decreases, which will have a negative impact on your profits.
It is of utmost importance that mushrooms should be handled with extreme care as they are bruised easily. When storing or transporting mushrooms they have to be kept at low temperatures and relatively high humidity, which means even more specialised equipment that you need to invest in.
On a final note…
“It is not easy to grow mushrooms if you don’t have passion and if you think you only work 45 hrs a week,” says Lotz. “It takes determination, and the margins are very small, and there is no room for error.”
While this might seem like a lot of work, nothing is impossible if you have dedication and passion. With enough research, and through trial-and-error, you can start your own lucrative mushroom farm.
Photo: Supplied/Food for Mzansi