Free From School
By Rahul Alvares
Public Domain Books
Chapter 4: Learning about Mushrooms
Attending the Green Heritage plant festival in Siolim had one more advantage for me. It brought me into contact with Mr Miguel Braganza, an agricultural officer of the Goa Government. It was through him that I learnt of a two-day course on mushrooms to be conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) at Ela Farm, Old Goa in the last week of August.
This programme also marked the beginning of my experience in getting around on my own. For, although the course was conducted in Goa itself I had never been to Ela Farm nor did I know anyone at the programme.
Mr Braganza had informed me that participants would be offered free accommodation on the campus. However, it was not compulsory to stay there. I assumed that most people would avail of the accommodation facilities offered since late evening transport is not very good in Goa. At any rate I enjoy camping out and so I asked my parents if I could spend the night on the campus. They agreed. My assumption however proved wrong as I turned out to be the only residential participant!
Anyway, on the morning of 24th August, after taking directions from my dad, I left for the ICAR at Old Goa which is about 22 kms from my home. I arrived there without any difficulty. The ICAR is located within Ela farm. At the gate I had to fill in a gate pass. Down the right lane was the ICAR office. On either side of the road were coconut, guava and chickoo plantations. Further down was a small office which looked more like a lab with various specimens of preserved mushroom. I enquired about the course with the man in charge and was directed to the Farmers Training Centre.
Mr Miguel Braganza and Mr Oscar-the two persons conducting the course-were already there and so were some of the participants. We were first made to register our names for the course and immediately after and to my total surprise we were informed that each of us would receive a stipend of Rs.500 for attending the course. This appears to be a sort of bonus or incentive which is provided to the participants and is meant to cover expenses for transport, food, etc.
I noticed that all the other participants (there were thirty-three other students) were older than me. Most of them were farmers, so all the people who gave talks either spoke part English and part Konkani, or if the lecturers spoke only English then Oscar would translate into Konkani.
The course which basically comprised lectures and demonstrations started with a talk by the tall, thin, long-haired Nandakumar Kamat. His first question was: “What do you want to cultivate mushrooms for? Kitchen gardening, small scale production or large scale export?" Depending on your objectives you can decide on the variety and the quantity, he told us. His talk included slides of different varieties of mushrooms, poisonous and non poisonous.
The talk was lengthy but very interesting. It ended well past lunch time and most of the participants including myself were happy to go straight to a meal at the FTC canteen where a delicious fish curry thali could be purchased for just Rs.6.
The second session began at three in the afternoon. There were two talks in this session, the first by a scientist from the ICAR who spoke on pests and diseases that attack mushrooms. Among the problem areas he mentioned insects, fungi, bacteria and improper management.
Unfortunately most of the remedies he suggested were limited to spraying of insecticides and pesticides such as lindane, malathion dichlorose, copper sulphate or citronella oil. To be fair, he also laid stress on proper management and hygiene as an effective way to reduce diseases. Since none of us had ever grown mushrooms before there were not many questions or doubts raised at the end of his lecture.
Then there was a talk by a woman who explained to us the nutritional value of mushrooms. For half an hour she spoke on the low fat and sugar content of mushrooms and how mushrooms prevent pain in joints of bones, tooth decay and bleeding gums. It made me feel that I should make mushrooms my staple diet!
The programme for the day ended at 6 p.m. That’s when I was surprised to discover that everyone was going home and I was the only residential participant. I decided to stay the night anyway since the organisers told me that adequate arrangements had been made for anyone wishing to do so.
I spent the evening and early in the morning the next day looking around the campus. I noticed that the ICAR had a small nursery, a flower garden, a small fish pond, pens for small animals such as rabbits and chickens, cattle sheds and vast paddy fields. There was also an orchard with a variety of fruit trees such as mango, chickoo, coconut palms etc.
In the midst of all this greenery were the residential buildings with the canteen in between. I occupied one of the rooms on the first floor of the four-storey building. It was a small room, with two beds, a few lockers, a table and a mirror. Since there was no one else staying the night, the watchman was asked to stay with me for company. The canteen served good and cheap meals. I had already eaten there in the afternoon with the others. For the night the cook prepared some fish curry rice for me. The next morning I had a breakfast of bread and vegetables for three rupees only. That night, not having much to do, the watchman and I decided to walk up the hill at the back of the campus, at the top of which was a temple.
Most of the second day was conducted by Oscar. Oscar’s presentation was more of a practical exercise. He gave very practical information on how to grow mushrooms and interspersed his talk with slides and live demonstrations. He showed us the inoculation and culture room for tissue culture as well as the ultraviolet tube where the mother spawn is prepared. Rushing up and down the lab and the lecture hall we were shown how straw is boiled, how the mushroom bags are filled, and so on. We were allowed to actively participate and fill in the bags ourselves. All the participants enjoyed Oscar’s session and wished it could have been longer.
None of the participants had any experience with growing mushrooms for commercial purposes so Oscar had invited two people who grew mushrooms for the local market as well as for export purposes to address us. They had been growing mushrooms for the past one year, selling them fresh or dried according to the demand and they gave us very practical information based on their personal experience. They said that they filled two hundred bags of straw everyday. They told us of the problems they faced with pests (mainly rats) and diseases and also the difficulties they initially faced when selling mushrooms. The programme finally concluded with a speech by the Director of the Farmers’ Training Centre who told us about the general activities of the FTC and the ICAR.
Some of the students took spawn-filled bottles home. I didn’t, because I knew I wouldn’t be in a position to get into action immediately as my travel plans for getting out of Goa for the next few months were already underway.
So although I didn’t really get into the act of mushrooms-growing, I learnt much and also made many friends.
Field Work Notes:
How to Grow Mushrooms
There are many varieties of edible mushrooms, of which the oyster and button mushrooms are the most popular with both the mushroom cultivators and the general public.
Mushrooms can be eaten by anyone including children since they are easily digested and absorbed by the body into the bloodstream within two to three hours. They contain iron, vitamins, calcium and protein. They are especially good for pregnant mothers, and diabetic and blood pressure patients. Mushrooms have medicinal properties and are known to reduce heart, liver and blood diseases including cholesterol and stomach cancer.
Mushrooms can be profitably grown using little investment. However one has to master the techniques and follow all the procedures and requirements very carefully. One does not need land to become a mushroom cultivator for one can grow mushrooms even in one’s own house.
Climate: Mushrooms require a temperature of 20-32o Celsius and about 35-90% humidity. They also require adequate ventilation, diffused light and semi-darkness. Too much light makes mushrooms dark in colour.
If the room temperature increases above 32oC, it should be decreased by hanging wet sacks around the place. However the sacks should be first sterilized using savlon, formalin or dettol to avoid fungi or bacteria entering the room. If the temperature decreases below 20oC, then a 200W bulb (for a small room) should be lit to generate heat.
Spawn: Mushrooms are grown from spawn. The colour of good spawn is milky white with a sweet smell or no smell. The spawn should be compact, white on all sides and cottony. If it is yellow, it means that the spawn is old. Any other coloured patches seen on the spawn signify contaminant fungi in the spawn. Spawn should be maximum 18 to 20 days old.
To prepare mother spawn, one needs good quality jowar, wheat or gram. The seed should be of uniform size, good quality, free from pests and diseases and dry. The grain should be washed, all hollow grains should be removed and the remaining boiled for one hour so that it is half cooked. While boiling some formalin or savlon should be added to disinfect the grain. The grain is then spread on a disinfected muslin cloth and mixed with calcium carbonate. It is then filled into bottles which are tightly corked using nonabsorbent cotton. The bottles are then put into a pressure cooker.
The inoculation or the culture room for tissue culture was also shown to us. This room should be about 2.25 m in height and 1.25 m in length. Two tubes i.e. an ultra-violet tube and a normal tube light are used. A spirit lamp is also used. One can produce up to six generations from one bottle of mother spawn with the help of tissue culture. After six generations the strength of the spawn decreases and the yield of the mushrooms will be less.
Substratum: Paddy straw is the main substratum used for growing mushrooms-it contains cellulose and lignin, both of which are necessary for the growth of mushrooms. However many other kinds of substrata are also used, for example, saw dust, sacks, banana leaves, dry mango leaves, coconut leaves, sugarcane, wild grass, rice husk, etc.
The paddy straw must be carefully selected. It should be brittle, yellow or golden brown in colour and not older than 6 months. The straw should be dried in the sun for several days, stored if necessary in an air-tight container and used within two months. The ratio of paddy straw to mushroom spawn should be 1 kg “prepared” straw to 4% spawn.
Procedure: First the straw must be prepared. The straw should be cut to 3-5 cm pieces. It should then be filled in cloth bags and soaked in water (1 kg straw to 10 litres water) for 10 hours. The straw should be weighted down in the water so that no part of it remains above the level of water.
The next stage is pasteurization. Water must be boiled to a temperature of 80 to 85oC. When bubbles appear, the soaked straw, surrounded by the cloth bags, should be weighted down and fully immersed in water. The bubbles will disappear when the straw is immersed and then reappear. Thirty minutes after the reappearance of bubbles the straw should be removed. It should be drained of water and cooled at room temperature, then spread out on a clean surface and dried for two hours.
The moisture content of the straw should not exceed 60%. To judge the moisture content one should hold some straw between one’s fingers and squeeze tightly. If only one drop of water comes out, then the moisture content is correct.
Polythene or polypropylene bags are now required to fill the straw into. The bags should be approximately 35 x 50 cm and should weigh 150 gms each. Before using them, they should be washed with savlon or dettol or formalin. Four strings should be tied together at one end which should be placed at the bottom of the bag. The four free ends must be held outside the bag. The bag can now be filled. First a 5 cm layer of straw should be put in and the straw pressed lightly against the bottom. Mushroom spawn should then be spread over it. Then another 10 cm layer of straw, over which the spawn should be spread and so on till one reaches the top of the bag. Finally it must be covered with a final 5 cm layer of straw, and the four pieces of string and the bag must be tied together. The bags can either be kept on the ground or hung in the room. Hanging them enables one to get at the mushrooms from the bottom of the bag easily.
The following day, 30 to 35 holes should be made in each bag with a sterile needle. The bags should be kept in darkness, with very little ventilation allowed to them, for 15 days. The bags should then be moved to another room. Here they should get four hours of diffused light and cross ventilation. After one and a half days the substrate should be sprayed with water three times a day with a shower pointing upwards so that the water falls on the bags like rain. On the following day small mushrooms, the size of pinheads will appear. Two days later fully grown mushrooms will appear. The mushrooms should not be pulled out because the substrata will also be pulled out with it. Instead they should be cut or twisted and broken off from the base. If the substrata is dry the bag should be given a quick dip in water. Otherwise continue spraying with water. The second crop of mushrooms will reappear one week later. The process can be continued upto 4 times. Then one has to start afresh. This is because after 4 crops the substrata begin to attract disease and get contaminated.
Pests and Diseases: Mushrooms are easily attacked by pests and diseases and therefore require utmost care and good management. Of the two well known types of mushrooms, the button mushroom is more prone to disease whereas the oyster mushroom is hardier.
Insects which attack mushrooms are the Scearid fly, the Phosid fly, Spring Tails (small insects like grasshoppers) and mites. To prevent insects from attacking mushrooms it is best to keep the mushroom bags at least one foot above the ground. One can burn sulphur in the room before seeding the mushrooms. Citronella oil mixed with water can also be used for spraying on the bags. It is absolutely essential to maintain the highest standards of hygiene to prevent attack by insects.
Bacteria and nematodes are other causes for worry. Bacteria occur when there is too much humidity and this shows in a wet rot or a brown blotch. To avoid this problem it is essential to constantly monitor the humidity level and maintain it as required. To prevent the occurrence of nematodes, the substrata should be constantly changed-it should never be older than six months to one year. The straw must be carefully selected and should be disinfected thoroughly before use. 100 gms of potassium permanganate, or 20 ml of formalin should be sprayed on the bags if the disease should appear.