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Latitude Magazine - - Contents - WORDS & IM­AGES Claire Ink­son

Grow­ing com­mer­cial mush­rooms in Dun­sandel

Ed­i­ble mush­rooms, avail­able in a plethora of funky shapes and a va­ri­ety of strains, are a superfood that is in­creas­ing in pop­u­lar­ity, with the mush­room mar­ket ex­pected to grow by 9.5 per cent world­wide this year alone. Recog­nised for their nu­tri­tional ben­e­fits as well as for the unique taste and tex­ture they add to dishes, high-yield mush­rooms such as the White But­tons or Swiss Browns are

com­mer­cially farmed to meet the ever-grow­ing de­mand.

While in na­ture, mush­rooms seem to pop up overnight al­most mag­i­cally, cul­ti­vat­ing mush­rooms com­mer­cially is a much more com­plex en­deav­our, where mush­rooms are spawned in a very spe­cific straw com­post mix in large trays, shelves or bags in tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled sheds.

Around 2300 va­ri­eties are classed as ‘ed­i­ble’, de­pen­dent on whether they have a favourable taste and aroma, and whether they are ‘safe’ – that is, lack­ing the poi­sonous tox­ins con­tained in some forms of fungi. The most com­mon com­mer­cial va­ri­ety, White But­ton mush­rooms, known as Agar­i­cus bis­porus, are the strain grown at Green­dale Mush­rooms, a Dun­sandel

mush­room farm owned by Ge­orge Gibb and his wife Vi­vian.

Mush­room grow­ing is a some­what del­i­cate process, and a com­pletely dif­fer­ent farm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to that of Ge­orge’s child­hood, where he grew up on a sheep farm in North Canterbury, a tran­si­tion that re­quired more than a lit­tle ad­just­ment. ‘It was dif­fi­cult,’ says Ge­orge. ‘I had some things go wrong that were not re­ally my fault, but it took me too long to work out what they were, even with ex­pert help, so this made the first 12 months in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult.’

Those ini­tial is­sues (pre­dom­i­nantly around faulty straw) were ironed out, and Green­dale Mush­rooms, while a

com­par­a­tively small-scale op­er­a­tion, has since had con­sis­tent high yields, with the farm pro­duc­ing around 2–3 tonnes of mush­rooms per week, equat­ing to an av­er­age of around

140 boxes per day which are sold to whole­sale mar­kets in Christchur­ch, Dunedin and Invercargi­ll.

Ge­orge grows the mush­rooms in trays in a pas­teurised com­post mix made on­site from a mix of straw and chicken lit­ter, which is then en­cased in peat, a com­mon sys­tem that was set up by the farm’s pre­vi­ous own­ers. Mush­rooms ap­pear around two weeks af­ter ‘spawn­ing’, a process where wheat grains im­preg­nated with mush­room spawn are seeded through the com­post, which then form mycelium, a fi­brous white web-like col­lec­tion of mush­room cells which grow in the com­post in the dark, tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled sheds. The process is eco­log­i­cally sus­tain­able by de­fault, util­is­ing waste prod­ucts (such as the chicken lit­ter and wheat straw), which can then be reused again as com­post for gar­den­ers.

‘Mush­rooms are ideally suited to ful­fil the needs of some of the big chal­lenges fac­ing the world pop­u­la­tion, and this ex­tends to New Zealand,’ says Ge­orge. ‘They are en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and can be pro­duced in very in­ten­sive sys­tems us­ing very lit­tle chem­i­cals.’The farm em­ploys 12 staff, with mush­rooms be­ing hand-picked as this is still con­sid­ered to be the most re­li­able method of har­vest­ing the frag­ile fungi. ‘We take four crops from one batch of com­post be­fore it is spent,’ says Ge­orge. ‘Then peo­ple use it for their gar­dens which it is ab­so­lutely ideal for.’

While not par­tic­u­larly high in pro­tein, mush­rooms still pro­vide a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to a meat-based meal. ‘They are very healthy as a food, they are not pri­mar­ily car­bo­hy­drate,’ says Ge­orge. ‘Their tex­ture and taste make them ideal to be used to re­place, in part or in whole, some less en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly or healthy foods. You can still have a tra­di­tional ev­ery­day dish such as Spaghetti Bolog­nese, but if you sub­sti­tute some mince for some chopped mush­room the dish in­stantly be­comes health­ier, bet­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment, and un­less you have an aver­sion to mush­rooms, you haven’t de­stroyed the char­ac­ter of the dish.’

Mush­rooms are low in fat, and there­fore calo­ries, while be­ing high in es­sen­tial trace el­e­ments such as potas­sium, se­le­nium, fo­late and B group vi­ta­mins. Mush­rooms are also ver­sa­tile: they can be used fresh or frozen, dried or canned, can be eaten raw or cooked and are ‘low waste’ as all parts of the mush­room can be eaten, in­clud­ing the skin and stalk. Even prepa­ra­tion can be min­i­mal de­pend­ing on the com­plex­ity of the recipe, as mush­rooms re­quire no peel­ing and only a quick rinse or wipe down with a pa­per towel.

While White But­tons are the most com­mon mush­room on the mar­ket, other mush­rooms such as Swiss Browns, Por­to­bello and White Flats (all ver­sions of the species Agar­i­cus bis­porus) are also pop­u­lar and widely avail­able in su­per­mar­kets. Much sought-af­ter Truf­fle va­ri­eties, such as the Périg­ord (known as ‘Black Gold’), are knobby aro­matic mush­rooms that grow on the roots of in­oc­u­lated liv­ing trees, and are deemed the most ex­pen­sive of all fungi, fetch­ing around $3500 per kg as culi­nary del­i­ca­cies due to their rar­ity as they are no­to­ri­ously tricky to grow, and highly sea­sonal.

Ex­otic mush­room va­ri­eties, such as Shi­take or White

Jelly, are be­com­ing more pop­u­lar and ac­ces­si­ble. ‘In places like New Zealand where our diet has been tra­di­tion­ally pretty

‘Mush­rooms are en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and can be pro­duced in very in­ten­sive sys­tems us­ing very lit­tle chem­i­cals.’

re­pressed,’ Ge­orge says, ‘peo­ple are be­com­ing much more open to try­ing new tastes and tex­tures, so mush­rooms can ful­fil this, par­tic­u­larly the more ex­otic va­ri­eties. Ex­otics are quite dif­fer­ent in the way they grow so would need a sep­a­rate grow­ing fa­cil­ity. There is a lim­ited but grow­ing mar­ket for these; in New Zealand this is led by Auck­land, but the South Is­land is start­ing to catch on. It is some­thing to look at for the fu­ture. There are some pro­duc­tion prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with some va­ri­eties, and many va­ri­eties seen over­seas are il­le­gal to im­port into New Zealand due to bio-se­cu­rity risk.’

The New Zealand com­mer­cial mush­room in­dus­try has come a long way since mush­rooms were first grown for sale here in the 1930s. With the in­dus­try tick­ing all the boxes – con­sumers are in­creas­ingly de­mand­ing eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­ity, low en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact and high nu­tri­tional value from food pro­duc­ers – farms like Green­dale Mush­rooms look to be well placed for fu­ture growth.

ABOVE / Ge­orge with a box of White But­ton mush­rooms ready for mar­ket. OP­PO­SITE TOP / Mush­room mycelium – a fi­brous col­lec­tion of mush­room cells. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM / Pre­par­ing the straw and chicken lit­ter for com­post.

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