The rising demand for mushrooms has been a mixed blessing for growers.

The closure of two large farms in Colorado and Southern California last year left supplies tighter than normal over the holidays, and some growers expect it to remain that way for some time.

“Because our farms are indoor and capital intensive, it takes a couple of years to add capacity,” said Joe Caldwell, vice president of Watsonville, Calif.-based Monterey Mushrooms. “And because we always operate pretty much at full capacity, the industry couldn’t just step in and fill the demand when those farms went out.”

Time needed to catch up

Monterey and other growers, including Temple, Pa.-based Giorgio Foods Inc., say they’re doing what they can to expand production, while Avondale, Pa.-based Basciani Foods Inc. has announced it’s about to break ground on a major multiyear expansion.

“Over time we’ll be able to catch up and get ahead of the demand curve,” Caldwell said, “but it’s a real challenge right now.”

Rick Watters, sales manager of Aldergrove, British Columbia-based Champ’s Mushrooms, also felt the market tighten with the farm closures.

“Generally around this time of year there may be cannery loads going out,” Watters said. “We’re not seeing that this year. … Everything is still pretty much going to fresh market.”

On the East Coast, Peter Wilder, marketing director of Avondale, Pa.-based To-Jo Mushrooms Inc., said he doesn’t feel demand is outpacing domestic supply.

“We have ample supplies for our customers,” Wilder said, “and I think the industry has done a good job making up for the loss of the farms.”

The strong demand for mushrooms is the result of a perfect storm of trends, said Fletcher Street, director of marketing and sales for Olympia, Wash.-based Ostrom’s Mushrooms.

With the U.S. Department of Agriculture permitting schools to buy mushrooms for school lunches and the concept of blending ground mushrooms with ground meat for healthier meals starting to take off in schools, institutions and foodservice, the work of the Mushroom Council in San Jose is paying off, said Street.

Vitamin D boost

At the same time, she said more and more health and nutrition information is coming out about mushrooms, consumers are discovering different varieties — from the seemingly unstoppable brown crimini to the royal trumpet — and they’re learning how to cook them.

The fact that mushrooms are the only natural source of vitamin D in the produce department is another big plus for marketers, said Kathleen Preis, Mushroom Council marketing coordinator.

“Consumers are becoming more and more nutrition-focused and they want to receive their vitamins and nutrients in a natural way rather than taking a pill,” Preis said.

“Packers who include just one message, like ‘100% vitamin D’ or ‘a great source of D vitamins,’ have been increasing sales,” she said.

With the growing interest in meatless eating, mushrooms are moving to the center of the plate, said Meg Hill, director of marketing for Sebastapol, Calif.–based Gourmet Mushrooms Inc.

“They offer the same mouthfeel and texture people get from eating meat,” Hill said.

Mushrooms are also starring on more restaurant menus and in more recipes because they’re healthy and add great flavor, said Gary Schroeder, president of Kennett Square, Pa–based Oakshire Mushroom Farm, which markets under the Dole brand.
“With the crisis of obesity in this country, we have to learn to eat differently than we have been,” Schroeder said. “Mushrooms are absolutely going to be part of that.”