Growth is mushrooming: Delhi farmers harvest success at temp-controlled farms
In the last two years of the pandemic, over a hundred mushroom farms have come up in Delhi-NCR, especially in outer Delhi’s Najafgarh, Bawana, and Bakhtawar areas
It’s a June afternoon with a sweltering 42°C heat outside, but inside the ‘growing room’ of the Rameshwar Mushroom Farm, it is dark and the temperature is at a comfortable 15°C. The room with its rows and rows of iron beds looks like a massive dormitory. One can see pinheads of white button mushrooms sprouting through the casing soil on the beds.
“We produce about 200 tonnes of white button and portobello mushrooms throughout the year, ” says Amit Bhatnagar, managing partner of Rameshwar Mushroom Farm, one of Delhi’s biggest environment-controlled mushroom farms in Tatesar village on the outskirts of north-west Delhi, about 40 km from Connaught Place.
In the last two years of the pandemic, over a hundred mushroom farms have come up in Delhi-NCR, especially in outer Delhi’s Najafgarh, Bawana, and Bakhtawar areas. While most of these farms are seasonal and grow mushrooms inside rooms made of bamboo and thatch between September and March, there are over two dozen others like Bhatnagar’s that cultivate the fungus, which is a popular food now, throughout the year.
Interestingly, many of the owners of these farms are not just local farmers, but young entrepreneurs from various parts of Delhi. And, it is not just farming, mushroom cultivation training classes offered by both individuals and agriculture institutes across Delhi and NCR are a big draw.
“ Post Covid - 19, there has been a huge demand for mushrooms in the market and a lot of people feel it’s a lucrative business,” says Rakesh Kumar, a partner at Rameshwar Mushroom Farm, who quit his job as a network engineer at a multinational to get into farming.
“Mushroom growing is a complex process, especially during the summer, and involves a lot of hard work. One has to maintain the right temperature, airflow, CO2 level, and humidity throughout the day, ” he adds, giving a tour of his integrated farm spread across the 1.5 acres. The integrated farm, built last year at a cost ₹2.5 crore, has its own composting, spawning, casing and growing yards.
The massive yard made of puff panels has six air-conditioned mushroom growing rooms with a digital device outside each of them displaying the temperature inside. A paper logbook pasted on the doors of each room has date-wise details of the various stage of mushroom cultivation such as spawning, surfacing, casing, ruffling, cooling, CO2 levels, and pinning. “It takes about 37 days to harvest the first crop of button mushroom inside the growing rooms after the spawn is laid on the beds. The first flush lasts about a week and we have two more flushes in the next two weeks and then fresh compost is laid on the beds,” says Kumar.
“ Ninety seven per cent of our produce is button mushroom and the rest is portobello mushrooms. We sell about 80% of our produce to vegetable and fruit aggregators and the rest at the Azadpur Sabzi Mandi”, says Bhatnagar.
Over 95% of the mushroom cultivated in Delhi is button mushroom, and the rest are portobello, milky, and oyster mushrooms. Most mushroom in Delhi is seasonal. While button mushrooms and portobello are grown during winters, milky mushrooms and oyster mushrooms are grown during the summer.
About 30km away from Rameshwar Mushroom Farm, in Kangenheri village in Najafgarh, Manish Yadav, 28, who completed his MBA in 2020, says that he turned to mushroom farming because it was hard to find a job during the pandemic. He has not regretted his decision and has no desire to look for a job ever again. Currently, he is busy adding another room to his mushroom farm in his village, which he runs along with his wife, elder brother and parents.
“ When I realised finding a job during the pandemic was almost impossible, I decided to do an online course in mushroom farming, which I was told is a lucrative business. I started the farm with one environment-controlled room; today, I have three and produce over 30 tonnes of button mushrooms every year,” says Yadav, sitting in the office of his farm.
There are about seven farms in his neighbouring villages, all of which have come up in the past few years. “ In fact, many others have shut shop recently. A lot of people do not realize that running a mushroom farm is 24 X7 work,” says Yadav. Unlike Rameshwar Mushroom Farm, which grows mushrooms on flatbeds and makes its own compost, Yadav uses polythene bags to grow them and buys the readymade compost. “ The law does not allow to make compost just anywhere.”
Rising demand for training
In Dhansa village in Najafgarh, Narendra Dagar, a seasonal mushroom farmer, has been busy training city slickers in mushroom farming for the past two years. His trainees, he says, come to his village from Gurugram, Delhi, Noida and other parts of the country.
He says he has trained about 200 people at his farm, Victory Mushroom farm and Training Centre. and they include farmers who wish to switch from traditional farming to mushroom farming, those who lost their jobs during the pandemic and are looking for an alternative source of income, and young entrepreneurs from all over Delhi. “These days the demand for training is so high that I am focusing more on training than growing mushrooms,” says Dagar, who charges ₹2000 for a day’s basic training in mushroom cultivation.
Pramod Kumar Gupta, director, National Horticultural Research and Development Foundation, a non-profit that does research on mushroom cultivation and offers a one-week training programme-- Mushroom production and post-harvest technology--- says that the number of people joining the programme has tripled compared to pre-pandemic days. “We have even trained retired IAS officers, air hostesses, and pilots who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Mushroom is a cash crop, and many people are seeing it as a lucrative business. About 40% of those who have got training from us are successfully running their farms,” says Gupta.
A boon for small farmers
Pappan Singh Gehlot of Tigipur village in north-west Delhi, perhaps the capital’s oldest mushroom farmer, believes that seasonal mushroom farming can be a boon for farmers with small land holdings. He produces about 60 tonnes of button mushrooms inside 20 huts made of bamboo and thatch on 2 acres of land between September and March every year, and employs about 55 people during the period. Unlike an environment-controlled puf panel mushroom growing room, which costs anything between ₹15 to ₹25 lakh to build depending on the size, a bamboo hut costs about ₹30, 000 to make.
“During the season, the average cost of producing one kilo of white button mushroom is ₹50, and can be sold for up to Rs130 a kg, depending on the quality of the mushrooms and prevailing rates in the mandi. In the worst-case scenario, one can easily make ₹30 per kg of mushrooms on an average,” says Gehlot, who shot to fame in May 2020 when he sent 10 of his workers to Bihar by flight during the lockdown.
“In one acre of wheat, your profit is not likely to be more than Rs40,000, while growing mushroom on one acre can provide returns to the tune of ₹10 lakh to ₹12 lakh easily. Besides, mushroom farming is much more labour-intensive and provides employment to more people than traditional farming,” he says.
Talking of the growing demand for mushrooms, Gehlot says, “When I started growing mushrooms in 1994, it took me two hours to sell 10 kg of mushrooms in the Azadpur Mandi, but today I sell 20 quintals of mushrooms in just two hours. Encouraged by him, over 22 mushroom farms have come up in the neighbouring Bawana, Palla and Bakhtawarpur in the past three years. “We have a WhatsApp group of 200 mushroom farmers from Delhi and Sonepat, where we share knowledge, the day’s selling price, among other things.”
But Rakesh Kumar of Rameshwar Mushroom Farm, says the economics of environment–controlled farms work differently as their production cost is much higher. “ It costs us about ₹95 to produce one kg of mushrooms, including the cost of electricity, transport, and packaging, which is different during summer. Last year, the going rate for button mushrooms in the summer was ₹160 a kg; this year it is hardly ₹110, because of over supplies. But we are hopeful the demand for mushrooms will also grow as more and more people understand their health benefits.”