The white one-storied building could have passed for any other house. Yet on entering the compound, a beehive of activity confronts you as a man in his 20s rapidly doles out instructions.
The employees, numbering more than 20, are arranging bags of spawn in the various rooms, harvesting, sterilising the growing areas, packaging and loading the final produce onto trucks for distribution.
Selling a tonne of mushrooms to retailers every day, Fine Funghi, as the enterprise is called, is one of the largest mushroom farms, at Tannerbergstrasse, Gossau on the outskirts of Zurich city, Switzerland.
The farm is co-owned by two farmers – Herr Romanens and Michael Manalle – the man we found supervising workers on an afternoon during our visit recently.
I was in Switzerland with eight other University of Nairobi students on an agricultural research tour.
Fine Funghi cultivates a wide variety of mushrooms that include Shiitake, King Oyster, Pleurotus and Button.
The farm packages its mushrooms in bags branded with the different retailers’ names and not their own company.
This is a business tactic we would later learn helps the company to remain in good terms with the biggest retailers because there is a lot of competition in the mushroom industry.
Until recently, mushrooms were not a big deal on Kenyans’ dining tables. They had always been the stuff the children stumble on and pluck from the soft ground during play.
They would later bring them home to make themselves a juicy snack – roasted or fried.
FEW FARMS CULTIVATING IN LARGE SCALE
Nonetheless, a few farms have started to cultivate it in large scale but it has not grown so popular as to attract a vibrant business and a raging market of consumers.
Much of the mushroom cultivation that is also going on in Kenya is done inorganically with a lot of chemicals involved in the whole process.
In Switzerland, however, farmers have taken mushroom cultivation to higher commercial and dietary scales. The crop is mainly cultivated organically.
Fine Funghi sits on less than an acre and it has joined Bio Suisse, a federation of Swiss organic farmers with over 6,000 members that works to bring people, animals and nature in balance.
Mushrooms at Fine Funghi are, therefore, grown with a lot of attention, care and love. Their rooms are structured to suit their different climatic needs.
Some require humid conditions while others like it dry. Yet some yearn to be taken for a walk and others want to be caressed.
“Mushroom is not only a food but a sensitive organism, each kind with its personality, its specific preferences and needs,” says Manalle, who initially didn’t like anything mushroom; whether as food on the table or just as crop on the farm.
But after several experiences where he saw how mushrooms are grown, he liked them. When he got the opportunity to co-own a mushroom farm with his older partner, he just couldn’t let the opportunity pass by.
Different mushrooms also do well on different substrates. For instance, Oyster mushrooms flourish in straw; Shiitakes do well on hardwood dust; button mushrooms grow best in composted manure.
“These different growing media reflect the different nutritional needs of each species. However, each of these species can be grown readily enough in sawdust or straw,” Manalle, who studied agricultural science and was employed before he moved to the
mushroom business, explained.
ANYONE CAN BUY
And to tap into the rising market of those who are increasingly seeking to grow their own mushrooms at home, the farm has come up with mushroom boxes that have mycelium in them already.
Anyone can buy, take it home and cut a part of box and the mycelium starts to grow out to become mushrooms and in two weeks it is ready for harvesting.
“A consumer can, therefore, buy the box and place it under appropriate weather conditions depending on the species of mushroom in the box. The box is then dismantled on the sides to allow the seeds to sprout,” said Manalle.
After maturity, which takes at most 14 days, mushrooms are harvested still with so much care to ensure that they survive longer out of the farm.
Manalle says that the one tonne of mushrooms they produce a day is not enough to satisfy the demands of the market, which has of late been growing so fast due to increased global health awareness and adoption of healthy eating habits by most people.
Mushroom is gradually replacing meat in most menus in the country. They are low in calories and fat, high in fibre and contains high amounts of fibre.
Interestingly some mushroom varieties in Switzerland can be eaten raw just like apples.