Sunday, December 28, 2014

Shreegaun on Shrooms

The mushroom craze has hit my quiet, rural Nepali village. These days, it seems like my every conversation and action is, in some way, influenced by mushrooms.

Let me clarify: we’re talking about oyster mushrooms, not the magical kind. Apparently one of the volunteers in Armenia was almost administratively separated (i.e. fired) from Peace Corps when staff overheard that he was growing mushrooms and assumed he was doing something illicit. In the past month, I’ve trained almost 200 people on how to grow mushrooms (which may have been irresponsible, in hindsight, as I had never actually done it until just now), and more are begging me every day. What makes mushrooms so great? Here’s a little background:

In many Nepali villages, a lack of year-round irrigation severely restricts agricultural productivity, thus limiting villagers’ daily access to nutritious foods. In addition, villagers who don’t own much land struggle both to generate income and to provide a well-balanced diet for their families. Moreover, as Nepali agriculture becomes increasingly feminized (that is, performed by women), an increasingly large burden is falling on Nepali women to both provide for and care for their families.

As a food rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals, mushrooms can provide many of the nutrients lacking in food-insecure households. Even on a small scale, cultivating mushrooms requires few resources and produces considerable profits (from around 50 cents of investment, a mushroom colony can yield up to $10 profit). And as an activity that requires a small investment of time and labor, it is suitable for rural women’s lifestyle.

As for the how, mushroom cultivation is relatively simple. Straw, which is in great abundance after the rice harvest, is cut into small pieces, washed, and steamed to kill off any microorganisms that might interfere with mushroom growth. Then, plastic bags are filled with alternating layers of the sterilized straw and mushroom spawn, forming a beehive-like structure. After the bags are tied off and holes are poked in the sides for aeration, the colonies are placed in a dark room protected from the elements and pests. After a few weeks, the bags must be opened, given light, and watered a few times a day. The colonies begin producing mature mushrooms within 30 days and up to 90 days, yielding as much as 3-5 kg of the tasty toadstools.

A few villagers had been cultivating mushrooms on a small scale, but there was great demand—especially among the women of my village—to learn. So I worked with my village’s women committee to develop a grant that would provide materials, training, and construction of two mushroom cultivation buildings. The women established six small collectives throughout the area, the members of which would share responsibility for the mushrooms’ production, care, and sale. A fantastic Nepali women’s rights NGO, WOREC Nepal, provided a technician to deliver a training. Together, we taught the 37 women who attended about nutrition and cultivation, as well as conducting a practical session in which they performed all the steps (described above) for preparing the mushroom colonies.

Kicking off the mushroom training with Dipa (right) and Jhuma (middle)

Cutting straw

Packing the mushroom bags

I had just accidentally torn a pretty sizable hole in this bag

At the training’s conclusion, the collectives received bags and seeds to make their own colonies, which five of the six collectives produced by the following week.

I had some extra bags of seeds after the training, so I went to a nearby government school where the teachers and students had asked me to give a mushroom training. All the students brought straw from home, and over two days I taught the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders about mushroom nutrition and growing. Together, we made 23 colonies. Not all the kids were interested, but a fair number were determined to do every step of the process. The school will use the proceeds from the sale of the mushrooms to fund a class trip.

Each student brought a bag of straw that they'd precut

Washing the straw

Steaming the straw

My enthusiastic teacher-helpers

I spent much of the next few weeks running around between the mushroom groups and giving any assistance I could. In total, the women produced over 350 bags of mushrooms, which could generate up to USD $2,000 worth of mushrooms in just two months.

We constructed a “mushroom cultivation center” in the village bazaar, which we hope will be a model for good mushroom cultivation practice for the collectives. If desired, the center operators can experiment with different mushroom varieties and growing conditions to diversify and optimize production. Following harvest, the center will serve as a platform for advertising and sale of the mushrooms. Finally, as the capacity and output of the collectives grow, we hope to convert it into a collection center, where the various mushroom producers can amass the mushrooms for transport to a larger bazaar nearby, where the demand and price for mushrooms is even greater.

Putting up the frame of the mushroom house

Using local resources

We also built this mushroom house, using money from the grant.

Not every group constructed a mushroom house, but we're making do (although the setup below is pretty absurd.

I’ve also met and fostered a working relationship with a guy from a nearby village who spent three months doing mushroom production in Kathmandu. He’s made about USD $1,000 (which is more than the average annual household income, in my village) just from growing mushrooms these past four months.

He seems to have been successful at producing his own mushroom spawn, which could be huge for the women's groups.

Lately, he too has been visiting the collectives to give advice to the women.

A few weeks later, the collectives began harvesting the mushrooms to sell locally and in the nearby bazaar. The women are tracking the sales of the mushrooms, setting aside a portion of the profits to purchase materials for the following year and dividing the remainder amongst the collective members.

One of the groups brought a basket of their mushrooms (about 12 kilos in all) to our weekly farmers' market, which they sold out.

The mushroom colony above won first prize in our category.

So what if it was the only entry. The women were thrilled.

Because fresh mushrooms spoil quickly, in the coming months I’m hoping to train the women on how to construct simple solar dryers. Drying the mushrooms in this way will enable them to preserve the mushrooms for later sale or consumption, with minimal loss of nutrition. So far one of the groups has built a solar dryer, and I'm experimenting with the drying protocol.

This only took me 10 hours to build!

At this point, all the collectives intend to continue production in the future, and several are already discussing constructing mushroom houses for next year. “Mushrooms are healthier and cheaper than meat,” boasted one of the women in an effort to sell the mushrooms to another villager. “It’s much less work than rice farming, and you can earn much more money,” commented another. As mushroom farming continues to spread, its nutritive and financial benefits will benefit the growing population of Nepalis involved in their cultivation, sale, and consumption, and the women running the collectives will be ever more empowered. In the words of one of the women, “This is money that we will have earned ourselves, for us to use as we like.”


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