Specialty mushrooms such as oyster are relatively easy to grow on a small scale, making them attractive to those looking to diversify a farm, engage in a hobby, launch a small business, or even emerge from a war-torn region of Africa.
A recent Penn State Extension webinar held in collaboration with Virginia Cooperative Extension — “Specialty Mushrooms Cultivation 101” — covered mushroom varieties and the supplies and equipment needed to grow them at home. The webinar was a hit, with 116 people from nine U.S. states in attendance.
Among the audience were 14 Southern Cameroonians who tuned in from the Ogoja refugee camp in Nigeria. Interested in growing specialty mushrooms to start making a living in Nigeria, the refugees attended the webinar at no cost.
Maria Gorgo-Gourovitch, a horticulture specialist with Penn State Extension, connected with the refugees through Isaac Zama, who works with Amba Farmers Voice, a free agriculture educational program produced in collaboration with Southern Cameroons Broadcasting Corporation and broadcast via satellite across West Africa to assist Southern Cameroonian farmers and refugees who are victims of war. The organization aims to equip farmers with the skills and technology to improve food production. Zama contacted Gorgo-Gourovitch to inquire about the mushroom training.
“Extension’s mission is to bring research to the public, and we are in a global market now,” Gorgo-Gourovitch said. “Our mission doesn’t stop within the United States when we can provide crucial information for food sustainability to people around the world.”
Mushrooms are popular in Nigeria.
“Mushrooms are used in the local cuisine,” Gorgo-Gourovitch said. “The refugees were interested in learning something new that would be easy to sell in Nigeria.”
Mushrooms have seen increased consumer demand in the U.S. According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the value of sales for commercially grown specialty mushrooms in 2021-22 totaled $87.3 million, up 32% from the previous season.
The webinar covered current international production data, economic impact and nutrition of specialty mushrooms.
Gorgo-Gourovitch said market growth in brown, specialty and organic mushrooms points to increasingly health-conscious consumers.
Often called the superfood of the produce section, mushrooms contain powerful nutrients and are low-sodium, low-calorie, and cholesterol and fat-free. Mushrooms have more protein than most vegetables, are rich in vitamin D, and can benefit cognition and disease-fighting, according to studies.
John Pecchia, manager of the Mushroom Research Center in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, discussed production and engaged in a question-and-answer session with webinar attendees.
He said beginning farmers typically start with oyster mushrooms, which can be grown reliably with low-tech methods.
“They can grow these mushrooms on any kind of an agricultural, carbon-based waste,” he said. “Instead of throwing away the plant material from corn, for example, you could chop up the corn stalk, inoculate it and grow mushrooms off the corn stalk.”
Gorgo-Gourovitch also leads Penn State’s Latinx Agricultural Network, a group that seeks to enhance engagement and continue to provide support for Pennsylvania’s Latino agricultural community.
According to Gorgo-Gourovitch, Latinos make up 75% of the agricultural workforce in the U.S. In the mushroom industry, it is as high as 90%.
“The demographic of our audience is changing, and we need to open our portfolio to everybody who can find our information useful,” she said. “It feels good to work for an organization that cares about what happens not only locally or in our state, but nationally and in other parts of the world.”