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South African mushroom growers have high hopes for the future

Following the political uncertainty of the past years, South Africa is facing the future with hope. The gross national product and investments are increasing and consumer spending power is rising. All factors that will boost mushroom production and consumption. But there are also other reasons why the small group of mushroom growers are flourishing.

By Leo van Griensven

South Africa is a huge country covering an area as big as France, Germany and Italy combined, with a population of 44 million. The oceans flanking South Africa give the coastal regions a pleasant, temperate climate; the central high plains housing the densely populated city of Johannesburg are dry.

Cape Province is home to the main fruit and vegetable producers. Its not surprising that the seventeenth century Dutch settled here to grow vegetables as provisions for the crews of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie sailing on to the East Indies. TodayCape Province, with capital cityCape Town, forms the centre of fruit and vegetable production. The excellent South African wines also originate here. The University of Stellenbosch, situated in the town of the same name and named after the Dutch VOC vegetable grower van der Stel, is the scientific home base for wine, vegetable and fruit production. The large University of Pretoria near Johannesburg (57,000 students, of whom 30,000 live on campus) that has recently been entirely renovated by government funding also plays a major role in contributing to scientific research for the agricultural sectors. Forestry is one of the most important areas as much quick growing wood is grown to supply the paper industry.

Mushrooms

As in the UK, mushroom growing in South Africa traces its origins to the end of the Second World War. Former RAF fighter pilots and other demobbed soldiers turned their hand to business, which included agriculture and horticulture. Over the years and with much trial and error many became successful. These companies form the foundation of the current sector. Contemporary growers have a wealth of practical experience and have nearly all attended training courses given by the former Mushroom Grower's Training Centre in Horst, the Netherlands - now known as the C-Point consultancy. For such as huge country as South Africa, the actual number of mushroom growers is small. A total of 17 companies reach annual joint production of 15,000 - 17,000 tons, all for the fresh market.

Denny Mushrooms

Tongaat Mushrooms was the oldest and largest mushroom growing farm. A management buy out about a decade ago turned the company into the present day Denny Mushrooms. Denny is responsible for slightly more than 60% of total mushroom production in South Africa.

Denny consist of three production units, the largest being Deodar in Johannesburg with weekly production of 90 tons of mushrooms. The two other Denny companies, in Durban and Port Elisabeth, produce the same amount together.

Deodar has 32 growing rooms with shelving 6 tiers high; each room measures 720 square metres growing surface. Dynamic manager Roddy Cairns runs Deodar. Deodar was built by Voskamp and Vrijland and expanded initially by Agrisystems. The climate control systems, at least the newer systems, were supplied by AEM. 

Deodar is not just interesting because of its size of 23,000 square metres; this is nothing unusual in Dutch circles. But just like everywhere in this part of the world, mushroom producers have to make their own compost and casing soil and pack, and if necessary, can, their own mushrooms. They also have to market their produce and use their own refrigerated transport.

In the Netherlands, only Heveco has succeeded in running a similar operation with any success.

Other production companies

The second producer in South Africa is Highveld Mushrooms, near Johannesburg. The owner is Ross Richardson, son of Chris Richardson, who also started his career like Roddy Cairns at Tongaat.

Highveld Mushrooms has two tray companies with joint production of 52 tons per week.

United Mushrooms, formed by Mushrooms Cordon Bleu and Country Mushrooms, is close to the Cape Town area and produces 45 tons per week. The list of growers is completed by Medallion Mushrooms in nearby Stellenbosch that brings 17 tons onto the market weekly. The other 10 to 12 growers are small-scale, contributing 17,000 tons of mushrooms annually.

The market

After years of political uncertainty, South Africa faces a hopeful future; the gross national product is rising annually by about 3% and the government is pumping a great deal of funding into improving living conditions for the black population, starting with a programme of housing improvements and job creation. The effects are already visible, and the market for much agri-and horticultural produce is already improving.

Mushroom production is rising at an annual rate of 10% and average consumption by the white population is 2.4 kilos per year.

The price of mushrooms in the shops is similar to the Netherlands, but cheap labour keeps production costs lower.

Increased consumer spending power is not the only reason for this rise in sales. In the first place, the quality of the fresh mushrooms supplied is very high; growers - even the small ones - use their own refrigerated transport to supply their customers. Growers invest jointly in general PR activities. They also organise an annual 2-week mushroom festival with participation from 280 restaurants. This event attracts widespread coverage by the radio and TV. As in the Netherlands the costs are covered by an annual contribution from the growers, not as here in the form of a levy from a product board, but as a surcharge on spawn.

Concerning general collective interests the level of cooperation is high, and the costs are born by all involved. The surcharge is also used to finance contract research carried out by the University of Pretoria. This research is mainly aimed at finding an alternative for the casing soil currently used: as exploiting peat grooves is expected to be banned shortly. A notable fact is that the South African government doubles the amount paid by the growers for practical research - something that used to happen in the Netherlands.

Compost

All producers make their own compost. The raw materials used are wheat straw, chicken manure and gypsum. Horse manure is not used, as its composition is too variable. Larger companies use bunkers with spigot floors to provide fresh air for phase 1; smaller companies follow old composting methods in windrows - a technique with a total time of sometimes more than 20 days.

Generally, much care and attention is devoted to mixing in chicken manure, for example 40 % on day 2, 40 % on day 3 and 20% at the same time as the gypsum on day 8. The windrows and flat heaps are turned mechanically, and sometimes 2-3 day bunker treatments are used. Phase 2 is done either in tunnels or in trays in a Phase 2 room. Supplementing is common practice, sometimes at filling, otherwise at casing. The moisture content and compost structure is comparable to Dutch compost. Three or four flushes are harvested, with production between 270 and 320 kilos per ton of compost, depending on grading.

It's very interesting that the bunker process for Phase 1 at Highveld Mushrooms produces no odour emission. This can be explained by the fact that the material used is relatively dry, the chicken manure is added in stages and anaerobic conditions in the compost are avoided. Highveld Mushrooms also thank this achievement to advice given by German consultant dr. Hans Tschierpe.

Casing soil and spawn

This is the greatest problem facing growers in South Africa. Ancient black peat is used with a pH above 8. This peat is dug by the growers and contains relatively large amounts of roots and reed waste. The peat is mixed with light brown young peat and rinsed with added powdered calcium carbonate. It is carefully mixed, then the casing soil undergoes a Phase 2 process; pasteurised for 6 hours at 60 degrees Celsius, and 5 days at 50 degrees.

The casing soil is kept lumpy in appearance, with the end result being remarkable similar to the casing soil used in the Netherlands.

But there are two problems. The first is that black peat has a very high carbon content which causes low heading mushrooms to turn black. Not all growers can manage to make their mushrooms form pins higher.

The second concern is that peat in South Africa is considered limited and its use is expected to be banned shortly. There is a frantic search going on to find an alternative.

Spawn is supplied in South Africa by Sylvan, who have a factory there run by dr. Mart-Marie van Greuning. All the customary strains supplied in Europe are also available, including a brown strain that retains its fine colour throughout all the flushes. Oyster mushrooms and shii-take are hardly produced at all, and their spawn is supplied from elsewhere.

Diseases

The major mushroom disease is ‘wet bulb’ caused by the Mycogone perniciosa mould. If casing soil is not pasteurised, this infection occurs rapidly and can infect the entire growing room, which then has to be cooked out to eliminate the mould.

As in the Netherlands many infections are caused by Verticillium fungicola; this is treated in the same way as in South Africa, with a copious amount of salt.

An advantage of mushroom growing in South Africa is favourable environmental planning regulations. The companies are well distributed, with often huge distances separating them. There were no flies or midges to be seen. The hygiene standards were good with well-ordered farms, neatly uniformed pickers and equipment such as trays being thoroughly cleaned with soap. 

The future

South Africa is a dynamic, developing country. The majority of the population is at present poor and badly housed, but the government is making huge efforts to address these issues. The GNP is expected to grow explosively, especially as South Africa is rich in raw materials. South Africa is self-supporting, with the Cape Province supplying tropical and subtropical produce and excellent wines. Industrial production amounts to 25% of the GNP and service providers 65%.

Mushroom growing performs at a high level and is characterised by stable development with yearly growth that suits industrial developments and keeps pace with increasing wealth. There is plenty of room for expansion and export to neighbouring countries.

You have to meet high demands in order to survive as a mushroom grower in South Africa. An advanced degree of entrepreneurial spirit is the first requirement. A potential grower has to be able to manage all aspects of production, from preparing the raw materials to the cultivation process. Experience with multi-cultural relations is essential - plus it's handy to be able to speak Afrikaans, English and some words of Zulu and Xhosa. Finally, you have to ensure a steady market to supermarkets, vegetable traders and restaurants. Organised auction sales are non-existent and so are professional consultants ready to give advice via the telephone!