Mexico and its 100 million inhabitants are comfortably situated on the southern border of the United States of America. In this case comfortable refers to Mexico's position as an exporter of agricultural produce, as the general economic position of Mexico can hardly be called comfortable. Even though imports from their southern neighbours are (still) on the small side, American mushroom growers have every reason to fear competition from developments in Mexico.
Total mushroom production in Mexico last year amounted to 45,000 tons and is still growing; Canada, to the North of the United States, produced 85,000 tons and also holds a strong export position.
Although production figures for mushrooms in the United States are many times higher, new developments in mushroom cultivation have drawn to a halt. The largest but one producer in the world reaches annual production of 300,000 tons, but figures are stagnating. Growth has ceased; there is no funding whatsoever available for research, not to mention development.
Add to this the steep price elasticity of mushrooms, rapid expansion of production in China, now reaching 650,000 tons annually, plus the ‘most favoured nation’ status that country enjoys and the picture is complete. The future of mushroom growing in the USA is uncertain.
Training course edible fungi
The 8th Mexican Mycological Association congress was held in Toluca, 100 kilometres to the south of Mexico City from the 14th to 17th October. The conference was preceded by a training course about cultivating edible fungi and their importance.
The course, organised by dr. Jose Sanchez Vasquez was given by a number of American and Canadian researchers and myself, Around fifty highly motivated university students and several oyster mushroom and shii-take growers were the participants. The students were engaged in researching the incidence and identification of wild fungi and how to effectively cultivate them in controlled situations. The growers were more or less professionally involved in the same process.
Interesting were the efforts to promote job-creation opportunities for the native Indians populating the rural areas. Groups of women grow oyster mushroom co-operatively on locally available substrate - then sell the produce collectively at neighbourhood markets. Both yields and quality were reasonable. Co-operative cultivation schemes make rapid development possible, and with the Chinese as an example, a massive expansion in production can be expected.
Attempts have also naturally been made (by men) to set up larger-scale farms, but the results I saw were disastrous: not even the faintest idea of any type of management practice, hygiene, climate or even the rudiments of cultivation techniques - consequently with zero profits. Total oyster mushroom production in Mexico is 1800 tons annually; contributed to by countless tiny farms.
This is the current situation. However, in the not too distant future, oyster mushroom and shii-take cultivation, and that of white mushrooms, will be supported by the knowledge being gained in the many universities - so dramatic increases can be expected.
This positivism was heightened by the subject matter of the 8th National Mycological Congress, attended by 300 researchers and scientists. In Mexico there is huge interest in mycology, partly due to the many human, veterinary and plant diseases caused by moulds, but also due to the country's wide expanses of still unspoilt natural scenery. Here the search continues for as yet unknown moulds, which have to be identified and classified. The moulds are then cultivated and investigated for possible future applications such as biotechnology or nutrition.
The congress was of a high standard and covered all aspects of mycology: taxonomy, fytopathology, medical mycology, ecology, biotechnology and biochemistry, mycorrhizas and ethnomycology and last but not least, edible fungi.
Interesting news: the contribution of Rafael Vasquez Duhalt about how to remove sulphur from petroleum using lignin destroying moulds; Sanchez-Colin inoculated broad beans with an arbuscular mycorrhiza mould and achieved a remarkable increase in production; and experiments carried out by Garcia, Jose Sanchez and Dan Royse into using spent Pleurotus substrate to breed worms, then use the residual material as casing soil in mushroom cultivation without any damage to the cultured crop.
On the final day I held a closing speech explaining that cooperation is essential for the survival of family-run farms. Cooperation also makes preparing raw materials easier, knowledge transfer via study groups is very efficient, and business, research, information and education are all means towards the same end. The Dutch mushroom growing industry is a good example of adhering to these principles and demonstrates that co-operation is the key to success and that a lack of cooperative spirit - certainly in a saturated market with heavy competition- only leads to stagnation and huge losses.
Hongos de Mexico
Just six mushroom companies of any significant size exist in Mexico. They have a joint total production of 35,000-40,000 tons per year. Hongos de Mexico is by far the most important with six facilities. The largest of these, Monteblanco, is situated in the Toluca valley, close to Mexico City. 5,000 tons of mushrooms are grown annually on this farm. 90% of the total production of Hongos de Mexico - currently 20,000 tons - is for the domestic market while the rest is exported to the USA in a so-called attempt to test bureaucratic procedures.
On the farm, conventional, good quality compost is produced, but the valley's high altitude and corresponding low air pressure quickly dehydrate the compost during the windrow phase. An added advantage however is the near absence of any typical composting odours.
Four large Phase 1 tunnels are used; the compost produced here is still placed in windrows for a while before starting Phase 2. Phase 2 is done in tunnels for 7 days, Sylvan 512 is used exclusively for spawning. The spawned compost is packed in plastic and used on site or transported to the other farms.
Monteblanco comprises 104 growing rooms, each with a growing surface of 340 square metres. There are 5.2–5.5 growing cycles each year. Yields add up to approximately 25 kilos per square meter per cycle (including stalks) at a filling weight of 95 kilos spawned compost. The feet are sold and cleaned for use as an ingredient in soup making.
If sales are weak, a percentage of the mushrooms is preserved on the same premises in a newly built, efficient, perfectly clean preserving factory, which complies with all hygiene regulations.
Monteblanco employs 350 men and women. The entire Hongos group has 1300 employees.