January 12, 2023
By Andrea Franchini

Throughout history, specialty mushrooms have been enjoyed for their culinary value and medicinal properties. In the U.S. the specialty mushroom market is growing as customers are looking to buy locally grown and nutrient-dense foods, which is good news for small-scale and urban farmers.   

The University of Maryland Extension aims to meet the needs of Maryland’s farmers by providing education and resources for success. In light of the growing interest in specialty mushroom production and consumption, UMD Extension’s Neith Little and Dave Clement brought service providers, Maryland mushroom growers, aspiring growers, and experts together to learn, share and build on Maryland’s specialty mushroom production. 

The event was sponsored by Horizon Farm Credit and hosted at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, with 40 in attendance from across the state. As well as being an interactive educational opportunity, agricultural service providers had a chance to share current and upcoming programs to support farmer success. Coffee, tea, snacks, and lunch were provided, and multiple peer-to-peer learning and networking opportunities.  

Starting the event, Dr. John Pecchia, Director of the Spawn Laboratory and Mushroom Research Center at Pennsylvania State University, presented an overview of specialty mushroom growing methods and nutrient and risk management for indoor and outdoor cultivation. Focusing his presentation on common and not-so-common specialty mushroom varieties, including shiitake, moral, wine cap, maitake, oyster, reishi, and lion's mane, participants learned that while every variety has particular cultivation needs and substrate preferences (a medium for the mycelium to grow), balancing sufficient humidity with adequate airflow is a constant. 

Specialty mushrooms can be grown in various settings, from natural to controlled environments. They can offer consistent production and high-value market supply. However, mushrooms are susceptible to contamination, pests, fungal diseases, and mold, even in controlled environments. "Green mold is the enemy of mushroom production," said Dr. Pecchia. But with a preventative approach, specialty mushroom production presents a unique opportunity for local food production because cultivation is not necessarily bound by space and soil.  

Yolanda Gonzales, Urban Agriculture Specialist from Cornell Cooperative Extension, followed with lessons learned from the NYC specialty mushroom education program. Yolanda's presentation focused on specialty mushroom production for small and urban farms and Cornell Cooperative Extension's work building a Community Mushroom Educator (CME) Network to increase access to mushroom knowledge in diverse communities around the U.S. 

While specialty mushrooms offer farmers a high-value niche product, access to supplies, particularly fresh logs, is a barrier for urban farmers. As mushroom cultivation becomes more popular among Maryland's farmers, Cornell Cooperative Extension presents a path forward for addressing such barriers and provides a fantastic resource for mushroom education, sourcing, cultivation, and wild harvesting. It is important to note that mushroom regulation information on their website is specific to New York State. The University of Maryland Extension can provide resources on Produce Safety rules and regulations. 

Dave Clement, UMD Extension's Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Specialist, introduced mushroom disease management using integrated pest and disease management methods. How growers get help diagnosing symptoms of mushroom diseases and pests depends on whether they are being grown for yourself or for sale. 

Neith Little, UMD Extension Urban Agriculture Agent, presented market research with helpful guides for farmers to discover market opportunities and business model strengths. Food producers face a myriad of changing external variables, said Little, but she stressed that through customer discovery and market research, producers can assess and reassess their business based on the resources and skills available to serve customers' needs and values.   

Paul Goeringer, Sr. Faculty, and Extension Legal Specialist, who gave general information, steps, and benefits of forming a professional association. He was followed by Courtney Cohen, from Spore and Seed, who shared stories from the field to wrap up the presentations.

Service providers In attendance were Geoff Delamater from Horizon Farm Credit who provided an overview of farm credit services. Jason Keppler, MDA Conservation Grants Program Manager, shared programs to address farmer resource concerns. Bill Tharpe, MDA Program Administrator for Urban Agriculture/Small Scale Farms, shared information about newly developed programs for Urban and Small Farms. Steve McHenry, the Executive Director of the Maryland Agricultural and Resource Based-Industry Development Corporation represented MARBIDCO's mission to support rural agricultural communities and agricultural land conservation. Kelly Dudeck joined from Grow and Fortify, a resource hub for added-value agriculture products, and Karen Fedor spoke briefly on MDA's Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP). 

Home gardeners and hobbyists are encouraged to submit questions to Ask Extension, which connects producers with a team of Maryland Certified Professional Horticulturists, Extension faculty, and Master Gardeners for pest and disease identification and consulting. Generally, commercial farmers can submit samples to the UMD Plant Diagnostic Laboratory. But mushroom farming is an emerging industry in Maryland, and the Plant Diagnostic Lab is primarily set up for identifying plant crop diseases. So if you are farming mushrooms and want help identifying mushroom disease symptoms and pests, contact Dave Clement at clement@umd.edu. Penn State also has reference literature on basic IPM for mushrooms.

For advice and takeaways from the symposium, check out this resource, and to learn more about starting a farming venture, go to our Beginning Farmer Success program page.