Kochi: Newspaper vendors in the small town of Ponkunnam in Kerala do not just drop papers in the mornings. They also collect orders for mushrooms so Felix Mathew can supply packets of the edible fungus by late afternoon.
Felix, who says he was the first in the country to grow Ganoderma lucidium mushroom—a variety known for its antioxidant properties, is among 10,000-odd mushroom farmers in Kerala.
Mushroom cultivation has grown from a hobby into a mini industry in the state,as all it needs is an investment of about Rs1,000 and a small farm. “It’s a small business undertaken mainly by women in their houses. It is not lucrative because the product is easily perishable and has to be sold out in a day. And given the small size of these farms, annual production does not go beyond 50,000 kg,” saysA.V. Mathew, a scientist with the Kerala Agriculture University (KAU).
The climate in Kerala is mostly tropical and large-scale mushroom cultivation with temperature control would need an investment of about Rs2-5 crore. Which is why, unlike in Himachal Pradesh or Haryana where the common button mushroom is grown in large quantities, cultivation in Kerala is restricted to home farms but with high-value varieties.
Mathew points out to the oyster mushroom, which has high medicinal value. And Felix’s Ganoderma lucidium, known for its antioxidant properties, is taken as a food supplement.
Felix, a 30 year-old management graduate who returned home to help his family in its paint and rubber tree rain-guard compound business, started growing mushrooms as a hobby in a shed in his farm in 2002, buying the seeds from outside.
Soon, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, an institute for farmers run by KAU, advertised a training course on mushroom cultivation. Felix attended the class and soon the old shed took the shape of a laboratory where he started tissue culture of varieties such as pink oyster, paddy-straw and milky mushrooms.
The culture from each test-tube is put into two packets that are filled with 250g of boiled paddy. These are tightly closed and sown a fortnight later. The mushrooms take about 12-20 days to grow, depending on the variety, after which they are packed in 200g packets and sold at Rs25 a kg. The vendors are paid a commission of about Rs3-4 per order.
The ganoderma lucidium mushroom, his flagship variety, takes about 100 days to grow. This is plucked, dried and powdered so pinches of the mushroom can be added to milk or juice to be taken as food supplements. About 80% of Ganoderma lucidium cultivation is done in China and food supplements prepared with this variety are sold for more than Rs1,500.
“I can sell them at less than half this price,” Felix says. The next step, he says, is to register a company to sell his mushrooms as a food supplement. He is even thinking of preparing flavoured health drink mixes using mushroom powder. The company will be set up in a year, he says.
The possibilities for other home farmers like him go beyond the corner of a room. Felix plans to grow mushroom seeds on a large scale to sell to others who can grow them at home. He will then buy back the grown mushrooms to expand his market.