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Mushrooms are easy to grow organic, and they are not difficult to be turned into a self-perpetuating crop that is inexpensive to propagate. You can, conceivably, propagate mushrooms indefinitely without every having to buy anything to do so.
The modern method for cultivating mushrooms is to purchase mushroom spawn (like seeds), to use in your own growing medium, or to purchase a kit that includes everything that is ready to go.
If you do that, you'll usually get months, or years, worth of mushrooms from the kit, or from the spawn that you purchase. And that is a good investment in most cases, because you'll already be in a saving situation even if you do it that way.
If you need to, you can reduce costs even further, and never have to buy mushroom starters again. Cultivating your own mushroom spawn isn't difficult, and can be done a variety of ways. It does not require a petri dish, or any specialized equipment.
But first, let's talk about raising mushrooms, and why you might want to do that.
Fresh mushrooms are expensive. Dried are even more costly. And the cheap canned mushrooms are just that. Cheap canned mushrooms. Not being a fan of mushrooms, I can't vouch for this, but people I know who love mushrooms assure me that fresh picked mushrooms are a delicacy that is hard to beat.
There are many types that can be cultivated indoors or outdoors. They include:
- Oyster (many varieties)
- Button Mushrooms
- And many others.
There are two basic cultivation methods, with variations in each type.
Wood cultivation: Typically this means putting spawn into logs. The logs are then left for the spawn to multiply in the wood, until it reaches the point where external fruiting can occur. There are many variations on this, including sawdust, log disks, cardboard, etc. Some types can even grow in straw, though most cannot. If you have access to freshly cut trees, that you do not have to pay for, these types of mushrooms can be cost effective to grow.
Soil cultivation: This can mean either forest litter, or manure. And mushrooms are picky about which you use, some absolutely love manure, others don't. Still, most mushrooms that are cultivated this way are simple to do.
There are some kinds of mushrooms that are simply to difficult for mass cultivation: Chanterelles, and Porcinis are two varieties which require growing conditions that are difficult to duplicate. You'll just need to gather them wild or buy them. We'll concentrate on the ones that are easily grown.
In general, the spawn is allowed to grow in the growing medium, until it is ready to fruit. At that point, it may be chilled, or not (depending on the chilling requirement of the variety). But it is always wet down, in an imitation of spring or fall rains, and exposed to warm (not hot) temperatures. Usually with a matter of days after the soaking, there will be signs of mushroom growth.
Now, if you are going to do this for money, there are some things to understand about the economics of mushroom sales.
1. The majority of the price that you see in the grocery stores goes to the distribution chain. So everybody except the grower and the sales outlet get a good healthy chuck of it. Profit is low if you sell wholesale - you'll get pennies on the dollar. Selling direct to the customer provides the highest profits, though you then have to do your own marketing.
2. Popularity is a huge factor, but so is current supply. In the spring and fall, Shiitake mushrooms are low priced - that is when all of the commercial producers are harvesting.This will be true of most mushrooms, but is more so with Shiitake because of popularity - and it is a nearly saturated market.
3. Dried mushrooms have a separate economy, that is independent of the seasons. If you sell dried mushrooms though, you'll need to build your own clientele in order to get a good price. The highest priced dried mushrooms are the rarer ones.
4. If you want to make money from it, you will probably profit from Shiitake, but NOT if that is the only kind you grow. Portobello mushrooms are also too easily available now to profit from as your only enterprise. If you also grow Maitake, Morel, and Oyster Mushrooms, or a few other rarities, then you'll profit from the Shiitakes as your regular clientele buy them from you as well. Otherwise, it is too hard to profit from them.
5. You can sell many products from your mushroom farm. You are not limited to a single product. Fresh mushrooms, dried mushrooms (whole, sliced, or diced), mushroom powder, mushroom soup mix, mushroom seasoning mix, mushroom recipe books, growing kits, mushroom spawn, etc. You can go in many directions.
6. You'll need a marketing angle that maximizes your product appeal. Do you raise them naturally? Are they cultivated indoors or out (either can be an advantage)? Are they air dried or machine dried (again, either can be an advantage)? Do you give personal attention to every item that comes through your hands? Do you know where your growing medium comes from all the way through production? Do you select out for very high quality? Do you have a guarantee on your spawn or kits?
7. Mushroom cultivation and sales CAN provide an income all its own. But we feel the best place for it is as a companion income stream on a farm with many income streams. Any time you invest in just one industry, you make yourself very vulnerable to impact from changes in that industry. Having many income streams from very different things keeps the risks spread out more, and keeps your income more stable. If you have this as your sole income, then have a plan for what you'll do if the bottom drops out of the market, or if your entire property gets hit with a disaster that kills all of your mushroom patches.
Now, as to perpetuation without reinvestment.
Mushrooms are fungus. As such, any part of them is capable of seeding more fungus. But it will be cloned fungus, not new fungus, if you do it that way. That is fine when you are getting started, and to multiply a small amount of mushroom fungus into a larger amount. But it won't keep things going indefinitely.
Mushroom spawn can eventually wear out. It doesn't in nature, because the new fruits spawn and start new clusters, so it renews itself. But when you limit the growing area, and capture the fruit before it can cast spores, you are stopping that cycle. To perpetuate it, you just need to renew that cycle, by letting some of your mushrooms "go to seed" and cast the spores. You can collect them and create new starter from them, by scattering the spores into new growth medium..
If you read instructions online for doing this, you'll run into all sorts of scientific data, specified requirements, specialized equipment, etc. Enough to give you a headache just considering it. When they start with "using a laminar air flow hood..." you just know you are sunk!
It doesn't have to be that hard! Just mimic nature, and you can keep things going. Nature does not pasteurize anything, and nature NEVER needs a clean room or special booties to do her work. Just keep things reasonably clean to avoid cross contamination with other mushroom varieties or other fungal types, and let nature do her job.
Many people culture mushrooms in between layers of cardboard, in damp grain, or in sawdust, depending on the kind of mushroom. You can also use leaf mold, compost, or rich soil for some kinds. Again, mimic nature as best you can, and they'll most likely thrive.
When you select logs for inoculation, you will want to select those that don't have signs of prior fungus. That means no dark gray rings that spread inward in the wood, no burls, and no obvious signs of decay. If they have lichen on the outside, it should be removed using a wire brush - just don't remove the bark too. Avoid split logs and logs with many side branches that have been cut off.
You can use logs that are anywhere from 1-4 ft long, between 4 and 6 inches for most mushrooms, larger for others. The size of the log will determine in part the length of time that you'll get mushrooms from the log.
If you are willing to market direct to your customers and build up a customer base, you can make enough money from mushroom cultivation to provide a very nice income, either as a sole source of revenue, or as a healthy income stream on a farm with multiple income streams.