A midyear shortage of raw materials used to grow mushrooms dissipated as winter kicked off, and mushroom grower-shippers seem confident the category should prosper in 2012 as consumers continue to focus on healthful eating.

“There was a shortage (of straw) this year,” said Kevin Donovan, sales manager for Phillips Mushroom Farms, Kennett Square, Pa. “Farmers went to higher-paying cash crops, such as soybeans and corn.”

The company buys a year’s worth of straw at time, but supplies began to run out early, triggering production cuts.

“Production was off pretty badly in September and October,” Donovan said.

However, supplies were building up again by late November, and he said he expects sales to continue to increase in 2012.

“More people are eating mushrooms more now than they’ve ever eaten them,” he said.

Some buyers had to scramble to come up with mushrooms for the holidays, said Fred Recchiuti, general manager at Basciani Foods Inc., Avondale, Pa.

However, the company had ample supplies for its longtime customers.

Recchiuti attributed the tight supplies to a couple of factors.

“Ethanol has driven up the price of corn, and farmers don’t want to grow straw or hay anymore,” he said. “That’s put us in a situation where we’d love to grow more, but our hands are tied without raw materials.”

He also noted the growing demand.

“The Mushroom Council is doing a great job increasing demand and making mushrooms more of a staple in people’s diets than a specialty item,” he said.

To-Jo Mushrooms, Avondale, also was recovering from the hay and straw shortage.

“It is available now, but it’s available at a much higher price,” Paul Frederic, senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in late November.

The cost of ingredients needed to grow mushrooms has risen, and growers have to travel longer distances to secure supplies than in the past, Frederic said.

Bill Litvin, vice president of sales and national account manager for Giorgio Foods Inc., Temple, Pa., said mushrooms have been in tight supply recently and prices should rise.

“Costs are continuing to challenge growers,” he said, and some may be unable to stay in business.

Despite tight supplies, the industry should be able to meet fresh-market demand, he said.

“It will depend in part on the large players in industrial and (quick-serve restaurant) areas,” he said.

Mushroom supplies could remain “fairly limited,” because growth opportunities require time and investment on the part of growers, added Joe Caldwell, vice president at Monterey Mushrooms Inc., Watsonville, Calif., and chairman of the Mushroom Council.

“Cost increases the past few years have suppliers operating pretty lean just to make ends meet.”

Gary Schroeder, president of Kennett Square-based Oakshire Mushroom Farm, which does business as Dole Mushrooms, remained hopeful mushroom prices would improve.

“We’ve had stable or declining prices for several years,” he said. “That trend cannot last.”

He couldn’t predict when that turnaround will happen.

He anticipated a good season for raw materials, despite “all sorts of chaos” that shortages caused in the spring and summer.

“This summer was a wet summer for us,” he said. “We had very good hay crops.”

Recchiuti said mushroom prices need to increase soon to accommodate growers’ rising labor, fuel and other costs.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said.

The bright spot for the industry remains the trend toward healthful eating and increased demand for mushrooms.

“Demand has been up,” Frederic said. “We see a good year coming.”

More quick-serve restaurants are adding mushrooms to their menus, and consumers are becoming aware of the nutrition benefits and versatility of mushrooms, which can be used for any meal part to add flavor without calories, he said.

“We expect to see continued increased demand for mushrooms, both at retail and foodservice,” Caldwell said. “The healthy trend emphasizing flavorful options is a perfect fit for mushrooms.”

The new year should be a successful one for Dole Mushrooms, Schroeder said.

“We are well-positioned for all the macro trends that are going on — what consumers are eating, what they’re preparing, how they’re preparing it,” he said.