Today’s mushroom industry bears little resemblance to that of 30 years ago, or in some respects, to that of even a decade ago.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of change between markets, production and the industry itself,” said Kevin Donovan, national sales manager for Phillips Mushroom Farms, Kennett Square, Pa.
When Donovan got involved with the mushroom industry in 1971, average production per square foot was 2.5 pounds, he said. Today it’s 7 pounds or more.
One growing room back then produced three crops per year. Now that same room produces six or seven crops.
“Efficiencies have increased tremendously, which has kept the cost of mushrooms down,” he said.
In the past, there was little talk of the health benefits of mushrooms.
“Twenty years ago, mushrooms were known as not being bad for you, Donovan said.
Today, they’re “the talk of the town,” said Joe Salvo, president of Ponderosa Mushrooms & Specialty Foods, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia.
“We’re not far away from mushrooms being named a new superfood,” he said.
Several grower-shippers pointed out the explosion of mushroom varieties over the years.
Gary Schroeder, director of Dole Mushrooms in Kennett Square, got his first real exposure to mushrooms as a researcher at Penn State in 1978.
Back then, he said, the supermarket typically had a single row of white button mushrooms packed in 8-ounce containers.
“There wasn’t as much a category as there was a row of mushrooms,” he said.
Now there’s a wide selection of varieties, sizes and packages, including sliced and value-added product.
The biggest change was in late 1980s when “old-fashioned browns” came back into picture.
“It was a mushroom the industry had grown a decade before, and it came back as kind of heritage variety,” Schroeder said.
Donovan had a similar recollection.
“In the ’80s, we couldn’t give away a brown mushroom,” he said.
Today, they’re marketed as portabellas, baby portabellas and criminis and sold at a premium.
Gourmet mushrooms also enjoyed a boost in popularity, said Bob Engel, chef liaison for Gourmet Mushrooms Inc., Sebastopol, Calif.
Shiitakes were sold dried, not fresh, 40 years ago, he said, because chefs simply didn’t want to work with them.
“We eventually brought them around,” he said.
Eventually other specialty varieties, like oyster and enoki mushrooms, started to catch on.