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Mushroom Industry Preps for Farm Show


[Release date]2019-12-24[author]Dick Wanner
[Core hints]AVONDALE, Pa.Mushroom growers, marketers and their organizations are preparing for competitions at the 2020 Pennsylvania

AVONDALE, Pa. — Mushroom growers, marketers and their organizations are preparing for competitions at the 2020 Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Mushroom contests have special meaning in Pennsylvania, where mushrooms are an important cash crop, accounting for some 8% of the state’s agricultural output. Mushrooms produce $612 million annually, which is close to the value of the state’s corn crop.

We visited the American Mushroom Institute in Avondale on a recent Tuesday to see how the AMI is getting ready for the Farm Show. We talked about their preparations with Rachael Roberts, AMI’s president, and Lori Harrison, the institute’s director of communications and editor of Mushroom News, a glossy monthly magazine aimed at the industry’s movers and shakers.

Mushrooms are a hidden resource, according to Roberts. They grow out of sight in dark buildings that were never built to look pretty. The mushrooms aren’t actually the important part of the fungus — which is not a plant — that gives rise to the fruiting buds that poke their heads out of the compost that fuels the process.
The fruiting buds are what we call “mushrooms.” They grow from a sprawling root-like structure called mycelium that draws nutrients from the compost.

The mushroom life cycle is a fascinating corner of biology. The institute has developed a series of educational displays to illuminate that ever-dark corner, we were told by Harrison, and that’s the story that will be told at the 2020 Farm Show.

We absorbed as much as we could of mushroom science, marketing, history and other lore over lunch at Purebred Deli in Kennett Square. We wanted to record the conversation, but the deli was a busy place full of happy and noisy diners, too noisy for our recorder. We had a notebook, of course, but the Purebred staff served up a delicious mushroom bisque and what was, in our opinion, a blue ribbon Cobb salad. So it was either take notes or eat, and we opted for the latter.
While there was a lot to remember, we did manage to retain a few facts. One thing we learned was kind of a relief. Two ingredients that traditionally — and famously — go into mushroom compost are spoiled hay and horse manure. We had always assumed that the little black specks occasionally visible on grocery store mushrooms were compost, and maybe not actually the hay part. But because we were aware that the composting process raises the temperature of the material to 145 degrees, at which point it is sterilized, we never worried too much about perhaps consuming a tiny bit of horse dung, because it was sterile horse dung.

But still ... horse dung.

That’s actually not what it is, we learned. After the compost and the mycelium are placed on the growing trays, they are covered with a thick layer of peat moss, which helps retain moisture as the crop grows. So those dark brown specks are actually peat moss. Sounds better, anyway.

Compost today can contain a variety of ingredients including hay and horse manure, but also chicken manure and straw. Every grower has his or her own compost recipe. And while some growers might make a show of keeping their recipes secret, everybody pretty much knows what everybody else is doing, we were told by Tony Summa, who directs production operations for To-Jo Mushrooms, which is around the corner and down the road a bit from AMI headquarters.

To-Jo is a fourth-generation business founded by Joseph D’Amico, a stonemason who bought an existing mushroom house that was on the property of the quarry where he worked. Summa married into the D’Amico family and discovered along the way that he liked working with mushrooms more than he liked his previous job. He was an attorney practicing family law with clients who were either getting divorced or battling over wills.

None of that with mushrooms. Take care of your mushrooms and they’ll take care of you, which is a truism that applies to a lot of agriculture.

Summa filled us in on other fascinating bits of mushroom science, like the fact that mycelium is the invisible giant of the industry. It’s just there in the dark, doing its job ... until it gets cold. Summa said when he turns the temperature in one of his growing houses down to 45 degrees, the mycelium thinks winter is nigh. At that point, it pushes mushrooms to the surface. The purpose of a visible mushroom is to grow spores — millions of spores in each fruiting body — so the spores can be released from the mushrooms’ gills to fly away to begin the process all over.

Before we left Avondale, we stopped at To-Jo’s headquarters to talk briefly to the somewhat legendary Carmie Eastridge, who is in charge of office things for the company and also To-Jo’s annual entry in the Farm Show’s mushroom centerpiece contest. Judging for that contest will take place on Friday, Jan. 3, the day before the official Farm Show opening. Eastridge will begin planning for the 2021 show on or shortly after Jan. 4. She gets inspiration from a variety of sources, develops her thoughts throughout the year, then puts them together early in the morning of the judging.

Her creation is carefully loaded into a company car and transported to Harrisburg in time for the judging. If you want to know what the centerpiece looks like, you have to go to the Farm Show. That means everybody, even if your last name is D’Amico.

While she doesn’t work in the dark, Eastridge does work in secret. It’s a method that has served her — and To-Jo — well. Eastridge’s creations have earned her and To-Jo bragging rights for 13 of the contest’s 15 years of existence.

 
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