The Avondale, Pa.-based American Mushroom Institute issued a statement in mid-May alerting retailers to expect shortages of the fungi for six to 10 weeks.
Many growers had coolers full of product that had to be donated or thrown out, the statement said.
But the market did a quick turnaround when consumers who were cooking at home drove an increase in retail sales.
“No one could have foreseen the markets’ unpredictability,” Rachel Roberts, president of the American Mushroom Institute, said in the statement.
There have been extensive shortages in the marketplace because of the disruption of the foodservice market as a result of COVID-19, said Michael Richmond, vice president of sales for South Mill Champs, Kennett Square, Pa.
“Starting with lockdowns at the end of the first quarter through the second quarter, followed by new limitations in restaurant seating and overall capacity, demand is still far below where it would be expected year-to-year for every month starting in April,” he said in mid-July.
At first, millions of pounds were not being harvested because of lack of demand.
“The longer-term impact of the continued downturn is that there are fewer crops planted than last year, as suppliers try to match a lower demand to avoid throwing away production at a full loss,” he said.
Industrial and shelf-stable mushroom items, such as individually quick frozen, and Champ’s microwaveable Minute Mushrooms continue to see an uptick in demand, Richmond said.
Things were “coming on great guns” at Ponderosa Mushrooms & Specialty Foods, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, during the first quarter of 2020, said president Joe Salvo.
Then COVID-19 hit in March.
Ponderosa was especially hard hit because up to 70% of the company’s business was foodservice.
“Our restaurant business dropped 95% for the first two months,” he said.
The company was fortunate to have some direct-store-delivery programs with retail customers, Salvo said.
In mid-July, business was slowly rebuilding.
“Week by week, we’re seeing marginal increases in volume,” he said.
Salvo expected to have plenty of mushrooms by mid-August, in part because August is a slower demand time.
To-Jo Mushrooms, Avondale, Pa., was fortunate to have minimal supply interruptions, said Kevin Delaney, vice president of sales and marketing.
“In late March, we started to experience big swings in demand, which lasted several weeks,” he said.
“It was very challenging to not only adapt to the fluctuations at that time, but to try to plan our growing schedule for the next one to three months out.”
By mid-July, he said the company was starting to see a more consistent ordering pattern.
“In a few weeks, we will begin to prepare for the holiday season,” he said.
Retail sales for mushrooms have been strong, he said.
“Within foodservice, there are still a few categories that are performing well, but overall, it has been a challenge in that segment.”
Highline Mushrooms, Leamington, Ontario, has remained in a strong supply position, said Jane Rhyno, vice president, sales and marketing.
“We certainly have seen very strong and consistent demand from retail for mushrooms recently, and it has put stress on the total mushroom industry to supply,” she said.
When COVID-19 hit, Kennett Square-based Phillips Mushroom Farms tried to anticipate an industrywide reduction in total pounds to account for the decrease in foodservice demand, said Sean Steller, director of business development.
“We did not reduce growing or harvesting projections very much beyond normal seasonal changes, and demand has remained strong throughout COVID,” he said.
Organic mushroom sales have increased as well as demand for packaged retails units, he added.
Fletcher Street, marketing and sales director for Ostrom Mushroom Farms, Olympia, Wash., said the situation was “frustrating.”
“I’m in sales,” she said. “It’s my job to sell stuff, and I can’t.”
Demand was heavy, she said, but production was not back up to meet that demand.
The situation was worse for some small companies that did mostly foodservice business and for companies that had a lot of contract sales.
Things were even more challenging at Ostrom Mushroom Farms because the company was in the process of moving production about 220 miles away to Sunnyside, Wash., where an all-new workforce had to be trained under trying circumstances.
“That’s been problematic,” Street said.
She said she did not expect the company to be back up to speed before late August.
The good news is that the mushroom industry is finally coming into its own, she said.
“The whole plant-based thing is definitely not going away.”