Mushrooms, the plant of immortality? That’s what ancient Egyptians believed according to the hieroglyphics of 4600 years ago. The delicious flavor of mushrooms intrigued the pharaohs of Egypt so much that they decreed mushrooms were food for royalty and that no commoner could ever touch them. This assured themselves the entire supply of mushrooms. In various other civilizations throughout the world, including Russia, China, Greece, Mexico and Latin America, mushroom rituals were practiced. Many believed that mushrooms had properties that could produce super-human strength, help in finding lost objects and lead the soul to the realm of the gods.
France was the leader in the formal cultivation of mushrooms. Some accounts say that Louis XIV was the first mushroom grower. Around this time mushrooms were grown in special caves near Paris set aside for this unique form of agriculture.
From France, the gardeners of England found mushrooms a very easy crop to grow which required little labor, investment and space. Mushroom cultivation began gaining popularity in England with more experimentation with spawn and publicity in journals and magazines.
In the late 19th century, mushroom production made its way across the Atlantic to the United States where curious home gardeners in the East tried their luck at growing this new and unknown crop. However growers had to depend on spawn imported from England which, by the time it reached the U.S. was of poor quality.
This industry text suggested that mushroom growing was perfect for florists. Since they grew flowers on benches, florists could just slide mushroom beds right under their flower benches and gain a profit in growing two crops in the area of one. Falconer also thought that mushroom growing was ideal for farmers who had access to growing their own manure and spawn. At the time skilled labor was not a necessity of mushroom growing. It was recommended to house wives as well as a source of home income. Not only did Falconer’s book develop target groups for which growing was suited. It also contained much practical advice on building beds for cultivation, the perfect growing temperature and where mushroom markets were developing.
The first producer of pure culture virgin spawn was the American Spawn Company of St. Paul Minnesota, headed by Louis F. Lambert, a French mycologist. He began the production of brick spawn and advertised it across the country as “Lambert’s Pure Culture Spawn.” It soon proved to be a very popular product. This spawn received a silver medal at the Universal Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. A measure of Lambert’s success was that English spawn was soon being sold under the name “English Pure Culture Spawn.”
By 1914, mushroom marketing began to play a much greater role in the industry. It was estimated in one publication that four to five million pounds of mushrooms were grown in the U.S. Cost to the mushroom grower was fifteen to twenty-five cents. At retail, the price was forty to sixty cents per pound. Marketing became very important with a popular theory being to bypass the middle man and aim directly at consumers. It was pointed out that attractive containers would move product and only good looking product would sell.
U.S. Mushroom Cultivation
In 1891, the first book on mushroom growing was published and it shed new light on the theory of cultivation. William Falconer, a mushroom grower and experimenter from Dosoris, Long Island agreed with the recommendations of agricultural journalists and compiled their theories in Mushrooms: How to Grow Them; A Practical Treatise on Mushroom Culture for Profit and Pleasure.
At this time of budding industry developments, one problem continued to face farmers intent on perfecting the growing conditions–poor spawn quality. With such an important ingredient standing in the way of mushroom cultivation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began work on manufacturing spawn as an alternative to the English product that had proven to be unreliable. In 1903, after much experimentation, two USDA scientists had produced the perfect pure-culture virgin spawn. The U.S. Mushroom Industry was finally freed from depending on imported spawn that had caused so many problems in the past.
Moving from an easy back yard crop in the early days of cultivation, to a large money maker, the mushroom industry began to grow in certain parts of the country. Concentrated areas of industry growth were Long Island, Central Massachusetts, Chicago, Michigan and California. Southeastern Pennsylvania was (and still is today) the largest center of mushroom production in the country. In 1924, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture boasted that 85% of U.S. mushrooms were grown in Pennsylvania.
In 1930, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that there were 516 growers in the U.S. and that 350 were in Chester County, Pennsylvania.
After 1930, the industry changed rapidly with better spawn production, the development of synthetic manure, and improvements of mushroom growing houses- hence the production of healthier crops. Organizations such as the Mushroom Growers’ Cooperative Association were developed to assist and protect growers. In attempt to find better marketing techniques for mushrooms, the Farm Credit Administration became involved.
Pennsylvania State University also became a major factor in the growth of the U.S. mushroom industry helping improve productivity dramatically in the 70’s and 80’s allowing growers to produce more and more mushrooms per square foot of growing area.
Development of AMI
One organization was developed to coordinate the actions of independent growers and act on behalf of the mushroom industry as a whole. The American Mushroom Institute was brought to life by the Chester County, Pennsylvania growers. Unfortunately, the first meeting for the development of the AMI was held December 4, 1941, only three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With America’s involvement in World War II, this new mushroom growers’ organization was put on hold.
After the war was over and things began settling down for the nation, the American Mushroom Institute was finally officially organized with over 275 growers signed up to join. On January 14, 1955, AMI was legally incorporated as a non-profit organization.
Their goal was to promote the consumption of all cultivated mushrooms through research, advertising, publicity, merchandising, consumer education and government relations as well as to assist the industry in developing better growing and handling methods.
Every broadcast medium was employed to promote mushrooms. Radio, television, magazines and newspapers told of different ways to eat them. Even produce stores and supermarket chains were displaying mushroom merchandising posters. The American public was learning that mushrooms weren’t something just used to garnish steaks. The AMI promoted recipes that used mushrooms in casseroles, appetizers, salads and other combinations. These were the first organized marketing efforts of the American Mushroom Institute.
The National Mushroom Growers Association
In 1985, the National Mushroom Growers’ Association was established in Illinois to promote the sale of fresh mushrooms on a national basis. They developed a newspaper and magazine promotion program. In spite of its small budget, the program was very successful in receiving coverage from national women’s magazines and newspapers.
The Mushroom Council
In 1990, the Mushroom Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act was passed by Congress to strengthen the mushroom industry’s position in the marketplace, maintain and expand existing markets and uses for mushrooms, and develop new markets and uses for mushrooms. In 1993, the Mushroom Council was established to carry out the direction of this act.
The Council started out with a meager budget and a lot of inspiration about promoting mushrooms. They began doing research to closely define the mushroom user which became the foundation for all of their communication efforts. Once the ground work was laid, a successful promotions program began to shape.
Immediate targets for consumer communication were food editors of newspapers and magazines, TV and radio personalities, chefs and cookbook writers. Mushroom recipes went out to hundreds of venues each year — thus increasing consumer awareness and demands for literature on mushrooms. In 1996 the Mushroom Council made the pages of more than ten national women’s magazines including Family Circle, Women’s Day and Good Housekeeping.
Today, the Mushroom Council plays a very important role in the national promotion of fresh mushrooms through consumer public relations, foodservice communications and retail communications. Many different venues are used in promoting fresh mushrooms to consumers such as working with professional chefs in developing and promoting new recipes, working with produce department managers to maintain the highest quality mushroom product for customers and sending out thousands of brochures each year to consumers hungry for new mushroom ideas. Thanks to the Mushroom Council, mushrooms have their own month to be honored and eaten. September is National Mushroom Month.
Today mushrooms are commercially produced in virtually every state. Pennsylvania, however, still accounts for 61% of total U.S. production, which in 2006/07 reached 827 million pounds. From the caves of Paris to the dinner tables of millions of Americans, fresh mushrooms have come out of the dark and into a spotlight that’s intensity is ever increasing.
- Del Sordo, Stephen G. First Fifty Years: A Chronological History of the Mushroom Industry.
- “History of the AMI”, Laura Phelps, Mushroom News, December, 1995
- Fruit & Vegetable Facts & Pointers, Claire Sackett, United Fruit & Vegetable Association, June, 1975
- United States. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Mushrooms. Washington: n.p., 2007.
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