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Shortage of wheat straw impacts mushroom farms

Issue Date: December 1, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman

California mushroom farmers may have drawn the short straw this year: Between supply chain issues, rising labor costs, droughts and scarcity of raw materials, growing the popular fungi is getting tougher.

"This is going to be a very hard year for us," said Don Hordness, who grows mushrooms in Morgan Hill. "Our No. 1 raw material is wheat straw, and it's in very short supply this year. And the price of it is up about 20%."

Wheat straw is a key ingredient in the compost Hordness makes in house to grow his crop, and its availability and quality this year have been hammered by the drought. Wheat prices were lower last year, so farmers grew less, diminishing supplies of straw needed by mushroom growers.

"If you feed the mushrooms a better straw that's survived a nice, healthy growing period, it seems to do better for us," Hordness said.

Hordness' wheat-straw supply is holding steady—for now.

"I was one of the lucky ones that overbought last year," Hordness said. "I'm still using last year's straw, not this year's straw. That'll all change as I get into January, February—I'm going to have to start blending in some of this year's straw with last year's. That's helped me out from a production standpoint, but some of what I'm hearing from people that have production problems is, it's basically a straw issue with them."

Peat moss is also in short supply, Hordness said. A mixture of peat moss and limestone is laid over the compost to help the farmer water the crop; the mushrooms themselves will grow through the layer in a climate-controlled environment.

Hordness said his peat moss comes from Canada, and pandemic-related production challenges north of the border are making the stuff hard to come by.

"Normally, at this time of the year, we're able to get all we want," he said. "Luckily, we put in a pretty good supply. I think we're good until June, at least here. A lot of the guys are going to be short on peat. If you're short on peat moss, the whole growing process goes away."

A mushroom farmer's growing medium is "like a recipe," said Lori Harrison of the American Mushroom Institute in Avondale, Pennsylvania. A shortage of any given ingredient in that medium compromises a farmer's ability to mitigate crop threats and maximize yields, according to the institute.

"Everyone does it a little bit different, but there's multiple ingredients, and it can be upwards of 20 or 30 different inputs," Harrison said. "When you have difficulty finding one or two, or more, of those inputs, when you're pulling them from further away, then it certainly impacts the amount of mushrooms that you can grow and your capabilities."

The reduction in production is colliding with rising demand for mushrooms, Harrison said.

"You can put them in everything from breakfast to dinner," she said, adding that the holiday season is the busiest time of year.

"We all like mushroom gravy and stuffed mushrooms," Harrison said. "You add on the global supply chain shortages, the transportation constraints—all of it—and it just makes for a challenging time."

The main issue is that no one knows what's coming up next, she said.

"The core thing here is that there's uncertainty," Harrison said. "Mushrooms do best when there's certainty. There's uncertainty in timing of when you'll get the materials and the ingredients." She compared COVID-19 disruptions to the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that also rattled the marketplace.

Another issue is labor. Nationwide, according to the institute, mushroom farms are running at 75% of the workforce they need. Harrison noted that the H-2A guestworker program, which allows farmers to hire seasonal nonimmigrant employees for set periods, is unavailable to mushroom farmers because they operate year-round.

Labor is getting more expensive in California, Hordness said. On Jan. 1, the minimum wage will rise to $15 for employers with 26 or more employees and $14 for employers with 25 or fewer.

Also beginning Jan. 1, California employers of 26 or more employees must pay one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for the ninth through 12th hour of work in a day or for more than 40 hours in a week.

Hordness said outside labor and picking crews work according to the needs of the crop.

"They may work 12 hours one day but five the next," Hordness said, adding that the overtime change is "going to really jack up our wages."

Harrison said there should be a supply in 2022.

"I have not heard from anyone in the industry that there aren't going to be mushrooms on the shelf," Harrison said. Mushroom farmers, she added, "have to plan ahead," because it takes nine to 12 weeks to grow mushrooms.

"They're looking at different ways to create compost; they're looking to bring in workers," she added.

Hordness is wishing his wheat-growing brethren a bountiful harvest.

"I'm hoping for a big wheat year," he said. "I'd like to see us get some rain and let these growers grow some wheat."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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