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Demand for specialty mushrooms surges

Issue Date: April 20, 2022
By Kevin Hecteman
Nirmal Nair, founder and chief executive of Sempera Organics in Morgan Hill, looks over lion’s mane mushrooms on the growing racks. Nair opened the business because he wanted to get into wellness, a trend that is driving organic mushroom growers to diversify into varieties for culinary and medicinal purposes.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Sempera Organics CEO Nirmal Nair, left, and upstream operations manager Nathaniel White grow cordyceps mushrooms intended to become part of dietary supplements.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, Nirmal Nair acted on a long-held idea: opening a mushroom farm.

"In the back of my head, there's always been this wanting to get back to wellness, and build something remarkable for the benefit of people, pets and the planet," Nair said.

A mechanical engineer by trade, Nair launched his Morgan Hill mushroom farm, Sempera Organics, in late December 2019. The arrival of the pandemic on U.S. shores less than three months later only reinforced his interest, he said.

"You go read about mushrooms, one of the first things you learn is how it helps your body with immunity," Nair said. "That was, I would say, a driving force to say, 'now is the time.'"

Nair's company specializes in medicinal mushrooms such as reishi, cordyceps and lion's mane, each of which, he said, comes with its own benefits for restfulness, oxygen use and mental clarity. These mushrooms, he said, will find their way into "nutriceuticals," such as dietary supplements.

"It is not your conventional mushroom farm, or your concept of what a mushroom farm would look like," Nair said. His company grows mushrooms in a clean and sterile environment. No compost is used, he said.

"Mushrooms are not well known here in the modern culture," Nair said. "We now have an opportunity to bring it to the modern world, make it more contemporary and teach our society about the benefits."

Chris Bailey, vice president at Gourmet Mushrooms in Sebastopol—which sells under the Mycopia brand—noted that "specialty mushrooms are a top trending produce item for the last five years, and not only just at the fresh market, but within the dietary-supplement market."

Back in the day, he said, many people didn't know what a shiitake mushroom was. Now, "they'll tell me something like, 'My favorite mushroom is maitake,' or 'My favorite mushroom is cordyceps.'" These mushrooms "are rising in popularity, from culinary for maitake and the nutraceutical for the cordyceps," Bailey said.

California has 21 organic-mushroom growers, according to California Certified Organic Farmers, which certified Nair's operation.

"Everything that comes into this facility and goes anywhere close to the product has a complete traceability of coming from an organic source, right down to everything that we are using in the lab," Nair said.

The wellness trend led to a shift at Mountain Meadow Mushrooms.

"We were a white-mushroom farm for many, many, many years, but when the pandemic hit, we actually diversified our number of different varieties that we're growing," owner Roberto Ramirez said, noting the Escondido farm now has about 18 varieties, and white-cap mushrooms make up about 5% of production. "Chefs want the next best thing on their culinary plates, and they want to offer their customer something that the chef next door doesn't have."

Ramirez cites the pandemic and an aging population with driving increased interest in specialty mushrooms.

"Now we're seeing a trend that people want to get back to better health," Ramirez said. "I think that's one of the reasons why we're seeing a huge increase in demand, for not just your culinary fresh mushrooms but also your medicinal (mushrooms). They've been around forever, but nowadays you see them all over the place."

Mushrooms, Ramirez said, are inherently organic.

"They utilize some of the stuff that they can break down in nature that no other plant or vegetable could do," he said. What makes a mushroom farm organic is the lack of inputs not allowed under organic-certification rules, he added.

Bailey has his hands full trying to keep up with demand. His farm pivoted to retail after COVID wiped out wholesale accounts for "a good solid year."

"The good thing about that was we saw those people coming back, and maybe stronger than before, even," Bailey said. "The challenging part was that retail didn't let up. We didn't see a pivot back to wholesale. We saw just an increase in overall demand for product." For now, he's maxing out his available space—but as with many other farmers, he's run into trouble getting enough people to get the work done.

"We've all seen the labor problems in getting crop picked, and we still experience that," Bailey said. "One of our greatest challenges is really finding people to pick mushrooms who are going to hang around for more than seven days."

The rising cost of labor helped Ramirez make the decision to diversify.

"The max that I could get, even organic, was $2.25 a pound" for white mushrooms, Ramirez said. "Right now, with organic lion's mane, I'm getting with no problem $15 a pound."

Nair also wants to cultivate community connections. Soon after opening his business, Nair learned he'd set up shop in a town that bills itself as the Mushroom Capital of the World—with a festival to match.

"I did not know about it after we moved in," Nair said. "A couple of months later, I met somebody who said, 'Did you know that there's a Mushroom Mardi Gras?'" The festival's 41st edition is set for Memorial Day weekend, and Nair said he intends to participate.

(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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