In October this year, the juvenile correctional facility in Laheriasarai, Darbhanga, had a unique training session. The 40 children there attended a two-day training in mushroom cultivation by Pushpa Jha, Bihar’s mushroom farmer-entrepreneur who has been sharing her knowledge with thousands of others since 2010.
The children took a keen interest in mushroom farming and are eagerly looking forward to the first harvest of oyster mushrooms in a couple of days from now.
While currently, they are growing mushrooms in a corner of the correctional facility, they want to scale it up and build a mushroom house for larger scale cultivation.
“I was surprised at the interest shown by children," says 43-year-old Pushpa, whose own journey into mushroom cultivation is quite interesting.
In 2010, Ramesh Jha, her husband, a convent school teacher in Darbhanga, heard about a mushroom farming training session to be held at Pusa, Samastipur. A batch of 10 students was to undergo the training on mushroom cultivation and the seats were full but Ramesh requested the management to somehow accommodate his wife.
Pushpa Jha (in black) providing training to women Darbhanga. Pic: Courtesy Pushpa Jha
“The management was reluctant to take us as the training was only for students but they agreed on my husband’s repeated requests and allowed me to join,” recalls Pushpa.
Today, that eleventh participant, who was struggling to find a seat in the training session, has trained around 20,000 people, including 250 prisoners in Darbhanga Jail, landless labourers and women in mushroom farming across Bihar.
This has led to a chain reaction as many mushroom farmers trained by Pushpa are now training others, providing nutritional security to their families and also coming out of poverty.
From training to implementation
After receiving the 10-day training, Pushpa started cultivating mushrooms in a vacant piece of land a few kilometres away from her house in Balbhadrapur Village in Bahadurpur block of Darbhanga. She set up a mushroom room using bamboo and other local materials, which promote the humid conditions required for cultivation.
“Mushroom farming is feasible within the house too but as we are residing in a city and the houses are compact, we allocated a comparatively bigger area to start cultivation,” says the mushroom farmer, who was felicitated by the Asian Society for Entrepreneurship Education Development with the Agri-Entrepreneur award in 2016. .
In the early days, her income was low and costs were high. Over time, she replaced the compost with her homemade vermicompost to which mushroom seeds are added for cultivation. In another training session in 2011, Pushpa learned to create her own seeds, which cut down costs substantially.
Oyster mushrooms growing at Pushpa Jha's facility in Darbhanga. Pic: courtesy Pushpa Jha
“Mushroom farming can be done throughout the year depending on the variety of mushroom,” says Pushpa who has been growing oyster, button and milky white varieties for the last ten years.
However, it was not easy to spread awareness about the consumption and cultivation of mushrooms as people thought it was a wild poisonous weed.
Though mushrooms have been around since the 16th century and their cultivation began in Europe in the 17th century, they found a market in India only about 50 years back. And that too was limited to urban centres.
“We had a tough time spreading awareness about the benefits of mushrooms. Earlier, people refused to consume them fearing it will bring death. Mushrooms were not bought and there was no market for them,” recalls Pushpa.
But the situation has changed drastically in the last few years. Not only the demand has increased manifold, but people now also want to learn about the cultivation process, she adds.
Pushpa Jha has received many awards for her work in promoting mushroom farming. Pic: courtesy Pushpa Jha
Yet, most of them are rooting only for button mushrooms because they are the most sought after by customers. Oyster mushroom remains an alien concept in the surrounding areas, says Pushpa.
Pushpa has trained people from the surrounding areas of Sitamarhi, Madhubani, Darbhanga, Samastipur among others. She has carried out sessions for governments, agriculture departments and non-profit organisations besides training people individually.
Mushrooming of mushroom entrepreneurs
“Earlier I used to train people free of cost but over time I noticed that they started taking the sessions lightly; they’d just come for the training but do nothing later. So I started charging a minimal sum of Rs 500,” she says.
Dashrath Kumar, who took training from Pushpa earlier this year, says he has started cultivation on a small scale. “I am able to make 50 percent profit,” he says. Like him, thousands of people trained by Pushpa now have a stable source of income, have access to more nutritious food and are educating their children.
Mushroom cultivation is less labour intensive and requires lower capital compared to traditional farming of cereals and vegetables where high costs of irrigation and fertilisers are involved.
In the case of oyster mushrooms, a kilogram of seeds, along with other inputs, costs Rs250 though it is cheaper to buy from agricultural universities where the costs can go down to just Rs 150. It yields about 12kg of mushrooms which sell for Rs2500 to Rs2700.
Since mushroom cultivation does not require manual labour involved in tilling, sowing or harvesting traditional crops, even single women can opt for it. Pushpa earned Rs200 per month in the early days and now makes about Rs20,000 monthly from retail and wholesale sales of the three varieties.
While oyster mushrooms sell at between Rs100 and Rs150 per kg, button mushrooms fetch Rs150 to 250 per kg and milky white are priced at between Rs200 and Rs250 per kg.
“I sell in packets of 200gm,” she says.
She also sells mushroom pickle, dried oyster mushrooms and their powder. Most of the sales are done through exhibitions and word of mouth. Dried oyster mushrooms retail for Rs600 per kg but the price can go up to Rs1000 per kg for branded dried mushrooms.
“The number of people interested in mushroom farming has been growing rapidly, along with the revenues,” she says.
The process of mushroom cultivation
One of the biggest challenges faced during mushroom farming, however, is the prevention of rotting. Growers have to ensure that the floor and walls of the mushroom growing area are free of micro-organisms. This is mostly done by spraying formalin and bavistin.
Pushpa Jha also grows Milky White (left) and Button Mushroom (right) varieties. Pic: 30 Stades
While oyster mushrooms are fresh only for a couple of days, button mushrooms remain fresh for around 4-5 days. Once planted, button and milky white varieties continue to give mushrooms for two months.
The production of button mushroom, which is the most popular, was earlier limited to just winter months but can be done throughout the year now. Mostly, the production process begins around October-November and mushroom starts to grow after 10-12 days. The crop can be harvested in 50-60 days, typically by January-February.
Cultivation of oyster mushrooms begins during April and lasts till September.
The first flush of oyster mushrooms is ready for plucking in about 35 days. The second harvest is ready again after a gap of 35 to 40 days followed by the third harvest.
In monsoons, a fourth plucking is also possible even though the production goes down with every successive harvest.
There are both organic and inorganic ways to cultivate mushrooms. Pushpa uses balls of wheat husks and rotten hay to grow them organically while inorganic production involves soaking the seeds in chemicals like formalin.
For oyster mushrooms, paddy straw is first chopped into 2-inch pieces. Then the straw is soaked in warm water for a few hours and later air-dried while retaining about 70 percent moisture. The spawn is then mixed and the mixture is filled in polythene bags on which perforations are made.
Pushpa Jha displaying her products at an exhibition. Pic: Pusha Jha
Pushpa arranges the bags in rows under the thatched roof, which nourishes the oyster mushroom shoots in humid conditions. The temperature is between 24 and 30 degrees Celsius. In about 20 days, the straw is covered with hyphae and small growth appears in a few days. The first flush of mushrooms is harvested in about 35 days.
Mushroom has high nutritional value with the protein content being three to seven percent when fresh and 25 to 40 percent when dry.
It also has various medicinal properties as consumption of mushrooms slows down the spread and effect of cancer, heart disease and even HIV/AIDS by boosting the immune system.
Pushpa has received several accolades from both Central and State governments for her work. Apart from the Agri-Entrepreneur award in 2016, she has also received the Abhinav Kisan award from the vice-chancellor of Dr Rajendra Prasad Central Agriculture University, Pusa. Her aim remains to train as many people as possible to make them self-reliant.
(Riya Singh is a Ranchi-based journalist who writes on environment & sustainability)