Discover more mushrooms (and how they grow)
( By Amy Sowder )

A fog envelops visitors who step into one of the 30-plus growing rooms for exotics at Phillips Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square, Pa. 

Because of the way they grow on logs, specialty mushrooms can’t be watered directly the way white and brown buttons can on their netted beds.

“When we started growing shiitake in 1979, initially the rest of the commercial industry thought specialty mushrooms was a fad,” said Jim Angelucci, general manager at Phillips, which has five farms in Pennsylvania and one in Maryland.

There are thousands of mushroom varieties, so what you call exotic might be 98% of them. But that doesn’t make specialty mushrooms any less visually jaw-dropping and enticing as demand for this category creeps up. 

The price per pound of specialty mushrooms is inching up, from $3.79 per pound in 2015-16 to $4.06 two seasons later, in 2017-18, according to the August 2018 mushroom market report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Agricultural Statistics Service.

More recently, specialty mushroom sales were up 19.5% in the week ending Nov. 4, compared to the previous 52 weeks, retail data from IRI/Freshlook, a marketing research firm, showed.

“Exotic and wild mushrooms find a ready audience in the foodservice sector,” but grocery shoppers are showing signs of catching on, said Bill Litvin, vice president of sales at Giorgio Fresh Co., Blandon, Pa., a major U.S. fresh mushroom packer and shipper.

The more sophisticated appetites of consumers are looking for the next best thing, and exotics are it in the musky, damp mushroom world.

After all, the yellow and gray oyster mushrooms look positively marine as they pop through log posts covered in black plastic sheeting in one of Phillips’ LED-lit growing rooms. And even at first encounter, you’ll see why lion’s mane mushrooms are also called pom poms. If you don’t first see a sprout of feline fur, you might spot those tools of a cheerleader’s trade.

Shiitake is still No. 1 in the exotics category while growers and marketers try to figure out how to make up-and-coming exotics like lion’s mane better able to withstand customer handling without getting bruised, said Peter Gray, Phillips’ exotics grower.

It’s worthwhile, especially as lion’s mane, or H. erinaceus, has been found to help people with dementia. 

“Regular consumption may promote nerve and brain health. This is particularly useful during injury (as in an accidents) or as we age,” researchers wrote about lion’s mane in the January-March 2013 Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, in a study led by Vikineswary Sabaratnam. Unlike peat-moss-covered compost beds where white and brown mushrooms grow, farmed exotics grow from man-made logs and compost bags. Shiitake are most cost-effective exotics because they can grow and be harvested from the same log over and over for six weeks, Gray said. 

They’re efficient like mainstream white and brown mushrooms, which can double in size in 24 hours. But oyster and maitake, the second and third most popular of exotics, can only be harvested one time from a single bagged log.

But then Phillips, one of the largest growers of specialty mushrooms in the U.S., shut down its shiitake log-making in December 2017 because imported Chinese logs were so much cheaper without sacrificing quality, Gray said.  So now, Phillips buys its logs from China but continues the growing process in its U.S. grow houses, along with all the other varieties. The company is converting its shiitake area into an expansion of the packing house, Gray said.

“We fought it for a long time, but dollars and cents-wise, it just makes sense,” Gray said.  

At more than 250 million pounds of fresh mushrooms produced a year at its 10 farms nationwide, Monterey Mushrooms Inc., Watsonville, Calif., sells much more of the mainstream varieties like white, brown baby bellas and portabellas than exotics such as oyster, shiitake, king trumpet, maitake, white beech, brown beech and enoki.

So-called “wild mushrooms” are popular on restaurant menus, but “most of us can’t spend our time hunting mushrooms in the woods,” said Mike O’Brien, Monterey Mushroom’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Truly wild mushrooms such as chanterelles, matsutakes and porcinis are scarce and expensive.”

And what about those non-browning CRISPR gene-edited mushrooms? Those are out, say major mushroom marketers.

The lagging interest in this gene-edited variety might be a way to keep the technology away from China to alleviate competition, or because consumers don’t want anything with a whiff of “GMO,” say O’Brien and Fletcher Street, director of marketing and sales for Ostrom’s Mushrooms, Olympia, Wash.