Mushroom farming fails to catch on

(This is the 10th in a series on the Grow More Food campaign)

Much vaunted plans to grow mushrooms – the type of initiative being targeted in the Grow More Food campaign by the government – have failed to ignite interest and the project has been abandoned while the edible fungi continue to be imported to satisfy local consumption.

Director of the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), Dr. Oudho Homenauth confirmed to Stabroek News last week that mushroom production is not being pursued at this time.

Production of mushrooms on a commercial scale had in the past been played up as one way to go in agricultural diversification and there were a few attempts at this. The edible varieties of the fungus are used extensively in cooking in various cuisines like Chinese, Korean, European and Japanese. Back in 2004, there were high hopes that following trials, there would be expanded cultivation here.

But this hope has not been realized. Contacted recently, Dr Homenauth said that NARI is no longer involved in cultivating mushrooms at this time. He said that this is because many persons did not show much interest and attempts stopped about two years ago. He noted that the University of Guyana was doing some research. Questioned on whether there are plans to resuscitate mushroom cultivation anytime soon, Dr. Homenauth said that he did not think so. “At the moment we are formulating plans. I doubt it”, he said.

A check of major supermarkets recently revealed that chilled and canned mushrooms were sold. The chilled mushrooms were imported from the United States. The canned products were imported from places like China, India, Indonesia, and the United States.

In January 2004, NARI had unveiled plans for mushroom cultivation here. A release from the Government Information Agency (GINA) at the time, said that NARI would focus on commercial mushroom production with assistance from the government of China. It had pointed out that the Ministry of Foreign Trade and International Cooperation and the Chinese Ambassador to Guyana had signed exchange notes on this project in October 2003 and this would have allowed for a feasibility study and the training of local farmers by experts starting in 2004. Initial studies were undertaken by NARI to identify species that could be cultivated locally, the release had said.

In February that year, President Bharrat Jagdeo, during a tour of NARI’s Mon Repos facility, urged the institution to develop a plan to move from mere experimenting to facilitating expanded agriculture commercialism. He had observed that the institute has the capacity to facilitate large-scale commercial farming in many non-traditional agricultural products, but noted that some of the processes are taking too long.

The president had said that there is a tendency to keep focusing on a few issues without any forward movement in terms of opening up a sustainable agricultural drive in the non-traditional areas. “I am here to see that the things you are working on are not just pilots. Money spent here will be the stimulant for the diversification of the economy,” Jagdeo had said. “NARI must lead the way,” he stressed. He had urged that in the area of non-traditional products, mushroom and potato cultivation should be looked at.

The president had advised that emphasis be placed on developing a seed production facility for much of the food Guyana imports, such as potatoes and mushrooms. With regards to mushroom cultivation, Jagdeo had said that it is taking too long to transfer from the experimental stage, since, at the time, it was reported that there were only two known entrepreneurs who took up the challenge to cultivate the product locally, although on a very small scale.

Shiitake, button and oyster mushrooms were the varieties expected to be planted locally because of their capacity to be grown under more humid conditions. Dr. Homenauth had said at the time that the agency would also like to see the local mushrooms capture export markets in Trinidad and Tobago or Barbados, where tonnes of mushrooms are imported annually.

It was also reported at the time that NARI would have installed a facility to house its mushroom operation. It was explained that mushrooms are produced using a special type of fungus which is mixed with sawdust, pegasse or rice straw.

The fungus and the other secondary materials are usually placed in a sealed bag with holes, to allow molasses to be poured in. At the time, it was reported that while NARI would grow mushrooms, arrangements were also to be made to give farmers the opportunity as well. It was envisioned that farmers would have been able to get the mature fungus (it takes two weeks to mature) to grow at home.

One bag of mature fungus takes three weeks to develop into mushrooms. NARI officials had said that since farmers may find it difficult to build a mushroom facility, it is more convenient for farmers to get the mature fungus from NARI.

It was reported at the time that the design and the equipment for the mushroom facility was being reworked by a Chinese team which had visited Guyana. In April 2004, officials at NARI said they expected a design and planned to start construction in June 2004. Some $2M had been budgeted to build the facility.

Observers say the failure of the mushroom plans is troubling as it may be an indicator that growers are not interested in diversifying their base either because there is no local market or that the export market is unfeasible.

These factors could also impact on other crops such as spices, butternut squash, cauliflower and broccoli which NARI has promoted from time to time.

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