How Plant Science Can Help in Growing Small Business
UA mushroom experts are teaching a workshop on how to raise mushrooms — a highly lucrative crop.

By Faith Schwartz, UA Cooperative Extension, UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Jan. 29, 2016

An effort to teach potential farmers in Arizona how to sustain an easy-to-grow, nutritious and lucrative crop is mushrooming.

Supported in part by a $37,000 Arizona Department of Agriculture grant, University of Arizona mushroom specialist Barry Pryor and instructional specialist Thom Plasse have been teaching a new public workshop on how to grow edible fungi — mushrooms, one of the more lucrative crops in the U.S.

"For a very small footprint, people can make a lot of money," said Pryor, a plant pathology and microbiology professor in the School of Plant Sciences, housed in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "It's great for small-business development."

Mushrooms are a robust crop. They can produce steep yields with a tiny footprint. Pryor estimates that with a plot at about 25 feet by 15 feet, a person could make about $50,000 in profits annually from a mushroom crop.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in August that the value of all mushroom sales for the 2014-2015 crop totaled $1.23 billion, which was up 10 percent over the previous season. The agency also reported an increase in the number of mushroom growers, now at 354.

"In the U.S., there are only a few crops that have higher market value than mushrooms.  It is an industry that’s growing in all states,” said Pryor, who also has an appointment with UA Cooperative Extension and is a member of the BIO5 Institute

Public outreach is a central tenet for Cooperative Extension, which takes science produced by the University community to the general population throughout the state.

About 25 people participated in the first workshop Pryor and Plasse led on Jan. 13 at Cooperative Extension's Tucson Village Farm. Other workshops are currently being planned.

Mushroom production is promising because the crop can be vertically organized. Also, it is not a difficult crop to nurture.

"People aren't aware how accessible mushroom growing can be," Plasse said. "It's relatively easy once the infrastructure is in place."

The infrastructure is basically a misting system with a small shed (or an enclosed area) and a swamp cooler. 

Tucson Village Farm's mushroom shed is cooled by a solar-powered evaporative cooler, and the misting system uses collected rainwater. The "substrate," or growing medium, needs to be soaked in water before growing; otherwise, mushrooms do not need much water to thrive.

Mushrooms also are being grown in a "hoop house," which is somewhat like a greenhouse or a controlled environment, at the Campus Agricultural Center.

UA student members of a club Pryor launched, called the MycoCats, help bag the substrate containing growing mushrooms. The mushrooms are then produced in the temperature- and humidity-controlled environment of the hoop house. Students are able to work as interns as well as in the lab as members of MycoCats to gain real-world work experience. Some may even go on to be mushroom farmers.

Yet some drawbacks exist, as mushrooms are highly perishable, which can make shipping across long distances difficult. 

Pryor says when mushrooms arrive in a grocery store, they often are broken and old and may not be as flavorful. Being closer to the source is better all around, he said.

"Local production means better quality for the consumer," Pryor said.

For those involved in the workshop, class participants leave ready to produce for local consumers.

"Fungi are microbes, so the cultures can be easily contaminated. So, while growing mushrooms is profitable, it requires a little more technical expertise," Pryor said. "Mushroom production is different than, say, growing watermelons from a seed."

Workshop participants learn about the biology of mushrooms, which are nutritional powerhouses high in vitamin D, protein and antioxidants. Different metabolites in mushrooms fight heart disease and cancer.

Each participant receives an active mushroom culture that they transferred, as well as a substrate bag fully colonized by oyster mushrooms, to take home. Also, workshop participants are able to transfer oyster mushroom cultures into a petri dish and learn about sterile technique.

One class participant, Tucson resident Petra Barten, has loved mushrooms all her life.

"In my childhood, I picked a lot of mushrooms with my family, family on both sides, overseas and in this country," Barten said. "I just love mushrooms and want to learn more about them."

Barten added that she plans to grow mushrooms at home with her knowledge from the workshop, noting that it was "so much more than what I was expecting."


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Faith Schwartz

UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences