Some mushroom marketing agents claim there is little difference between conventionally grown and organically grown mushrooms.

But, they acknowledge, there’s enough of a difference in consumers’ minds to make producing organics worthwhile.

“There’s very little difference between an organic mushroom and a regular mushroom,” said Fred Recchiuti, marketing director at Avondale, Pa.-based Basciani Mushroom Farms.

“It’s not like an apple, grape or pear. Most people haven’t found that they’re getting a return on the regulation they have to follow to gain organic certification.”

The difference is so minute as to not make a difference to some mushroom suppliers.

“People go with the locally grown (over organic) mushrooms,” said Ben Park, president of Burlington, Ontario-based Enviro Mushroom Farm Inc. “I don’t see the value of the products, compared to locally grown. I’d go with locally grown and fresh.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 31.2 million pounds of organic mushrooms were grown in the 2010-11 season, an increase of 4% from the previous season. But only 57% of those were marketed as organic, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service annual report, released in late August. That’s in line with the previous season, according to the report,

Agaricus (white) mushrooms accounted for 67% of the organic category; specialty mushrooms made up the remainder. Certified organic sales represented just 2% of the 2010-11 total mushroom sales, according to the report.

Joe Caldwell, San Jose, Calif.-based chairman of the council, and vice president of Watsonville, Calif.-based Monterey Mushrooms Inc., said the category is making progress.
“Organics are doing well,” he said. “They’re still a small percentage, but that percentage is increasing every year.”

Organics are an important sector for the mushroom industry, Caldwell said.

“There are a lot of retailers that wanted to make sure they had organic mushrooms in their assortment, and they have tailored that to what are usually are the No.1 or 2 SKUs in organic,” Caldwell said. “They’re usually selling an 8-ounce whole white and an 8-ounce baby bellas. It’s going to continue to grow.”

Organics are a viable niche item, but they’re likely to remain just a small part of the mushroom category, said Bart Minor, the council’s president and CEO.

“Organic, like specialties, is fairly small,” Minor said. “It’s certainly important to a segment of the population. We look at the (NASS) report. Year after year, it appears we produce more organic mushrooms than are bought, as such. The industry is committed to that, but we’re waiting for the demand to catch up with our supply.”

Sales are bound to improve as economic problems wane, said Paul Frederic, vice president of sales and marketing with Avondale, Pa.-based To-Jo Mushrooms.

“I think during the downturn, sales were somewhat flat, but I think that was a reflection of the fact that consumers were more cost-conscious,” he said. “But we are seeing a return to more growth there, if not as much as we’ve seen in the past.”