By Lee Allen –
Southern Arizona’s Fast-Growing Specialty Crop
If some dedicated mycophiles have their way, Tucson will not only be known as a City of Gastronomy, it will also become THE Western hub of the fast-growing gourmet mushroom industry.
According to the American Mushroom Institute, sales volume of the 2015-2016 U.S. mushroom crop was valued at $1.2 billion, based on consumer sales of nearly 950 million pounds of the tasty morsels.
“Mushrooms represent one of the fastest growing specialty crops worldwide, a growth driven by increased demand for locally grown product as part of a healthy diet,” said Barry Pryor of the University of Arizona School of Plant Sciences.
Pryor is the driving force behind the fledgling Arizona Mushroom Growers Association that feels the state is uniquely positioned to capture a share of the expanding multimillion dollar market. “We clearly have an opportunity since other states are not yet poised to do this kind of work. We can make an impact both in Arizona and throughout the West.
“Historically, since 1850, mushroom production has been concentrated in Pennsylvania, specifically Chester County, as producers of durable field mushrooms like the white button, crimini and portabello, grown in open beds. These mushrooms travel well and have a shelf life of three weeks or so – unlike specialty mushrooms like oysters, shiitakes, lion’s mane and others that begin to degenerate within a week. So there’s a demand for local production of specialty mushrooms grown in controlled environments.”
The American Mushroom Council estimates per capita consumption at four pounds of mushrooms per year. Pryor guesstimates that if we all eat shrooms at that rate, Arizona growers would need to produce 26.8 million pounds each year. That’s a tall order for the current limited number of growers statewide – but those numbers are growing, especially in Tucson where small growers are adding a shed or hoop house for limited production while a half dozen or so local commercial growers expand to meet market needs.
That’s where the association, in concert with researchers at the UA Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, the UA student MycoCats come into play. “There’s no incongruency with growing mushrooms in the desert – all you have to do is control the environment, Pryor said.
“If Pennsylvania can grow mushrooms in the winter, we can grow them in the summer – and year-round. And we have the advantage of CEAC being here – an intellectual center for controlled environment agriculture – to act as a focal point for research to increase our bio efficiency and optimize our production.
“This is where our footprint in Arizona can become really important because mushroom growing is a controlled-environment type activity – and the nationally recognized and well-respected CEAC facility is right here.”
As part of Western growth, Sylvan, the world’s largest producer of mushroom spawn, has already built a huge research and cutting-edge production facility east of Reno, Nevada, right in the middle of their desert, to serve a growing Pacific Rim demand, as well as mushroom industries in China and Japan.
The big dog on the local porch when it comes to mushroom making in the Old Pueblo is the family-owned Sonoran Mushroom Company. Currently operating out of a single eastside grow-house location and producing 1,000 pounds of specialty mushrooms a month, ground has already been broken on a new expansion site on five acres that will quadruple square footage production – along with contemplated plans to open yet another grow site adjacent to Interstate 10, which would allow quick transport to supply the Phoenix market.
“We grow in climate-controlled clean-room conditions that require strict control of carbon dioxide and light and temperature levels in a trade-secret process to produce mushrooms in commercial quantities,” said family member John Jacobs Jr.
John Sr., who handles the growing end of the process, said, “it doesn’t take a lot of space to generate income.” The Jacobs family has already committed to being in this game big time, contemplating 6,500 square feet of incubation facilities to produce 10,000 pounds of mushrooms monthly by this fall and to double that output by 2018.
“That’s a lot of mushrooms – but right now we harvest twice daily and still can’t grow enough to supply our current restaurants, grocery stores and farmers’ markets in Tucson. We are pre-sold for the next two years and distributors throughout the state are waiting for the ability to take delivery,” John Jr. said. “Demand in Tucson and Phoenix is literally hundreds of thousands of pounds per month and demand is growing faster than our supply can keep up.
“Although we’ve invested a couple hundred thousand dollars to this point, we’re still short of the profitability mark. It’s a big leap between trying to grow some mushrooms and growing them commercially in Tucson. There’s only one way to do things right and that’s to do them seriously. Timing is everything in the business world – and while we may be early in this market, we’re close, right there on the cusp of success.”
Son John, with an MBA in international business, handles the marketing/publicity side of the pesticide- and herbicide-free oyster mushrooms, in particular their pink oyster species they promote as looking like and tasting like bacon. “The resemblance is uncanny. It’s a niche market within a niche market – and because a lot of our customers are vegetarian/vegan, this is a smoky-flavored meat alternative.”
Other growers are scattered throughout the state:
• Tucson Village Farm, the UA’s small-scale urban farm, grows mushrooms housed in a single solar-powered, swamp-cooled shed with product sold at the farm’s weekly U-Pick events.
• Maggie’s Farm in Marana grows pearl and blue oysters in partnership with the UA.
• The five-acre Aravaipa Creekside Growers in Dudleyville (formerly Tucson’s Old Pueblo Mushroom Company) grows both oysters and shiitakes.
• The 4-year-old Symbiotic Farms in Scottsdale, where owner Clinton White produces a thousand pounds of oyster mushrooms monthly, as well as hot-season mushroom specialties like lion’s mane, turkey tail, reshi and wood ear.
• Other players can be found in Chandler, Prescott, Sedona and elsewhere throughout the state.
Industry research conducted by the UA MycoCats seeks to find innovative methods of completing the cycle of sustainability by studying ways to grow fungi in mushroom substrate made out of recycled agricultural and post-consumer waste products. Though straw or wheat is a traditional substrate for the mushroom spores, mesquite bean pods have proved to be a successful growing medium as have used, greasy, ground-up pizza boxes that provide an additional food source for the mushrooms.
One of the reasons for a rising interest in the edible community is not just their novelty, but the health aspect that comes with including shrooms in a diet. They’re miniature pharmaceutical factories. “Although they’re 80-90 percent water, when fresh, they’re 40 percent dry-weight protein,” Pryor said. “They contain all nine essential amino acids, are high in B and D2 vitamins and have a higher digestibility index than beef, pork or chicken. They’re so good for you.” Pryor sautés mushrooms several times a week and serves them on saltine crackers as appetizers.
As to the anticipated continued growth in popularity of exotic mushrooms, John Jacobs Jr. said, “It’s like comparing mushrooms to beer. You can drink one of the mass-produced major brands – but many people prefer the uniqueness of craft beers.”