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.
“The explosion in the last 15 to 20 years is dramatic,” he said.
Schroeder said he’s grown shiitakes since 1982 and has watched them grow from “a single row of one size” to a robust category.
At first, most mushrooms were sold to canneries, Donovan said.
The industry switched to fresh and added more varieties due, in part, to competition from foreign canned mushrooms.
The availability and distribution of fresh, wild mushrooms also has grown exponentially, Salvo said.
“We’re all doing a much better job at post-harvest handling, getting the product in, handled, cleaned and graded and getting it to the chefs who want it year-round,” he said.
Breathable films on the packages and other innovations have helped extend shelf life, he said.
Technology also enables growers to control the light while mushrooms are growing and add vitamin D.
Despite all the advances, Fred Recchiuti, general manager of Basciani Mushroom Farms, Avondale, Pa., is concerned about the future of the industry.
“We’re wondering where the next generation of mushroom growers is going to come from,” he said.
“There’s a big lack of interest in college these days for the mushroom industry.”
Today’s generation of students doesn’t want to go to college and then come out and grow mushrooms, he said.
That’s not an issue for Basciani, though, which has 16 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren coming up in the business.
“We’re poised to meet our customers’ mushroom needs far into the future,” he said.