Big Changes in 2024 for the Mushroom Industry
After a long 2023, we finally rung in the New Year here in Japan. The story in the mushroom industry is that growers are in a challenging situation around the world and signals are mixed. On one hand, demand for small-scale, locally grown gourmet mushroom varieties, as is the focus of our publication, the Japanese Exotic Mushroom Journal, has been strong. In much of Europe and North America, I generally hear that consumers are very into exotic mushroom varieties, both as meat alternatives and for health benefits. Lion’s mane in particular is booming because of its perceived cognitive benefits, and more growers are showing an interest in maitake as well.
Exotics however, are a small sector of the industry, accounting for about 5% or less of sales varying by region. Looking at the mushroom industry as a whole, things are a lot less rosy because mushroom consumption in the United States, Australia and even Europe is dropping compared to pre-pandemic levels. Agaricus growers account for the lion’s share of the mushroom farming sector, and they have been suffering from a couple of miserable years in a row and the strain is starting to take its toll on the industry.
The unavailability/soaring prices of peat for casing, unreasonable organic certifying challenges (which often require farms to certify that all straw used in compost is from organic crops, information that supply networks aren’t even equipped to provide), as well as rising labor and soaring energy costs have hit farms hard. At the same time persistent infectious pressures have increased crop losses, and in Western Europe and Australia, consumer goods have been hit hard by inflation and people are increasingly cutting back on their purchases or downgrading to simpler and more inexpensive staples.
Even exotic mushrooms have taken a hit, especially in markets without easy access to sawdust or where sawdust is prohibitively expensive. A lack of infrastructure in place, including over-reliance on low-quality imported fruiting logs and the lack of local or regional suppliers for most goods, has created a persistent cycle wherein exotic mushroom farmers struggle to expand beyond small scale local farms.
Automation, especially, could save many exotic mushroom farms a lot of operational stress finding works in addition to the big reductions in labor cost, yet to be able to afford largescale automation and efficient, mid-sized or larger farms requires a baseline level of consumption and funds that in many cases simply doesn’t exist. Western countries too have been achingly slow to get on board with subsidies and grants. Simply put, neither Japan or China would have a fraction of the inexpensive and large-scale mushroom farming operations that they have had the government not promoted the industry as a rural development and agricultural byproduct recycling system.
In both Japan and China, the government underwrote 0% interest long-term loans, and even gave grants to help farms expand or modernize. A lot of farms in North America and Western Europe could expand and build more efficient facilities, giving consumers cheaper domestic options of many mushroom varieties, with only a small fraction of the subsidies and grants afforded to other big agricultural sectors such as grain, corn, dairy, and soy.
The fact remains that even in the exotic mushroom sector, money is tight and farmers are struggling between the high cost of inputs and the limited willingness of both retailers and consumers to increase their prices. While the JEMJ launched as a paid subscription service with additional benefits (as detailed on this site) in March 2023, the price and the relative newness of our publication as well as how niche the market is, made expanding our subscriber base a slow and gradual process.
As Chief Editor I still feel satisfied with what we accomplished as a new publication with a very niche reader base and feedback from readers and subscribers alike has been overwhelmingly positive. However, our reach is not as broad as we would like it to be or want it to be. Too many readers have expressed interest, but hesitate due to the price tag and also the existence of multiple other industry publications, some paid, some free.
Ultimately, our goal is to promote Japanese farming techniques for exotic mushroom farming and how to apply and localize these systems in a variety of contexts. Not only that, but we want to promote exotic mushrooms more generally, and push for greater consumption of mushrooms and healthy local food networks. To more seamlessly integrate all the elements of our business and enable more users to connect with our bounty of information, we’ve decided to revamp the Japanese Exotic Mushroom Journal into a free open access resource.
While we are still looking to relaunch a premium subscription service with additional features in the future, our short-term goal is now to connect to more farmers. We are exploring a variety of possible set-ups, and hope to launch our new version in time for the North American Mushroom Conference at the end of February. That way all that is needed is a registered account and farmers can read translated academic work on mushroom farming, accounts of Japanese mushroom farms of all scales, discussions of recipes, health marketing, mushroom-based processed foods, and more.
Even with our focus on Japanese systems, I feel our work is of vital importance to the exotic mushroom sector. Japan represents a mature industry, one with well-established and scientifically sound best-practices (due to extensive public-private partnerships with government and university research organizations working together with farmers). Too often I look at Western sources for exotic mushroom farming only to find people researching stuff Japanese farms figured out a decade ago (like which wavelength of LED light is most effective to use in incubation and when).
Even worse, there’s a lot of information out there that is both perfectly free and completely wrong or decades out of date. What we do is bring a strict editorial process, and provide balanced coverage on the multiple different aspects of the industry, from both practical and academic perspectives. The fact is, if you want to grow high quality shiitake, oyster mushrooms, eryngii (king oyster), maitake, nameko, enoki, shimeji or any of a number of non-Agaricus mushroom varieties, Japan is probably the best example to study in the world. Japan, as a developed country, has labor costs that, while lower are still comparable to the labor situation in Western markets. In addition land is generally limited because of the mountainous topography and population density, which has encouraged compact farms.
Japanese systems are designed for narrow profit margins, high energy costs, limited labor availability, and compact spaces, on top of long-term durability (as is emblematic of other blue chip Japanese manufacturers like Honda or Toyota). This makes for a natural fit, I feel, with the market conditions faced by farmers in the EU and North American markets, and similarly in Australia and New Zealand.
But regardless of whether readers are actively using Japanese equipment and materials, we offer and plan to continue offering expansive and generally applicable, well-vetted information about mushroom farming. We will continue translating and hosting articles on new sources of substrate, calcium supplementation, pH management, and general incubation advice. I hope our work covering Japanese farms also offers insights into practical management of farms, and that growers can take inspiration from mushroom-based food products in Japan.
Out of necessity, most farms are learning as they go, and using a hybrid system made of what’s available and what works. As long as the fundamental biology of the organism is constant, our work will hold great value to farmers using a wide variety of systems. The result is that our publication is a reliable go-to source of general information on exotic mushroom farming. I still believe that by learning together, and networking together, the exotic mushroom sector and the mushroom industry at large can shake off the few difficult years and come out on the other side larger, stronger, and more sustainable. And for that reason, I will continue working just as hard as ever as an editor as we become free-access. I hope for everyone’s continued support and understanding.
Let’s work towards a better 2024,
Japanese Exotic Mushroom Journal, Chief Editor