When Shanker Meena was pursuing his MBA in Finance in 2013, he continued to dream of setting up his own business. Coming from a farming family, he was familiar with the vagaries of nature and how they played havoc with crops. With agriculture, income was always uncertain.
“I wanted to do something that could ensure the stability of income – a business for the long term that did not depend much on nature. Though I took admission for pursuing an MBA, I lost interest as I was always thinking about business ideas,” says Shanker, who has done his graduation in commerce.
After meeting a lot of people and doing research, he zeroed in on mushroom farming due to its rising popularity. The increasing health awareness and demand for nutritious, cholesterol-free food products are the main factors propelling the mushroom market in India.
Spawning of an idea
“I did not restrict myself to mushroom cultivation training at a single institute. Since it is a scientific process, it is important to understand all its aspects well,” says Shanker, who took training at the ICAR-Directorate of Mushroom Research in Solan in early 2016. ICAR-DMR researches the collection, conservation, utilization and production of edible and medicinal mushrooms.
Shanker followed this by training at the Haryana Agro Industries Corporation (HAIC) and then in Bengaluru. “My wife Kanchan has been very supportive of my entrepreneurial efforts,” he says.
“In January 2017, we began cultivation on a trial basis in our house in Jaipur. We procured spawns (seeds) from Delhi and put up around 40 bags of oyster mushroom,” Shanker recollects.
The results were good, and they used the first crop at home and shared it with friends. “But for the next crop, we realised that mushroom spawns were unavailable in Rajasthan. So preparing the seeds was a better commercial opportunity instead of mushroom cultivation,” he says.
Mushroom spawn or seed is the mushroom fungus grown on a grain-based medium like wheat or bajra (pearl millet). Preparing mushroom spawns requires a laboratory with optimum temperature and moisture control.
“Our first attempt, when we made 30 bags of seeds, failed as there was contamination due to hygiene issues. I then went back to DMR Solan for training in spawn production,” Shanker says.
A new beginning
In August 2017, he set up a mushroom spawn in the garage of his house in Jaipur. A spawn lab requires equipment like a laminar airflow cabinet to provide a sterile working environment, vertical autoclaves (sterilizers), a seed germination chamber, incubators and other equipment.
Shanker took a loan of Rs 9 lakh under the Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana (PMMY), which provides loans up to 10 lakh to micro businesses.
“I put up the machines in my garage and started to make the seeds under the Jeevan Mushroom brand.”
By then, the word had spread about the couple’s work through friends and social media and people were willing to buy their mushroom spawns. While Shanker began to focus on marketing and sales, his wife Kanchan looked after production.
“We started selling the spawns at Rs80 to Rs90 per kg. Since the results of our seeds were good, the demand began to rise rapidly,” he says.
Today, Jeevan Mushroom supplies seeds of Button, Oyster, Lion’s mane, Paddy Straw, Shiitake, Ganoderma, Portobello and other mushroom varieties across India. It also exports to Nepal, Bhutan, the UAE and other countries.
The preparation of mushroom spawns or seeds costs Rs 70 per kg and they sell at Rs90 to Rs100 per kg. “In FY23, we had revenues of Rs75 lakh. Now, we have set up a new facility with an investment of Rs1 crore and hope to close this fiscal with over Rs1.4 crore in revenues,” he says.
The monthly capacity of spawn production at the new unit is around 80 tonnes per month. “Currently, our monthly revenue is around Rs 13 lakh and we estimate it to increase at least five times with the new facility,” he says.
The process of mushroom spawns production
With its extensive lab facilities, Jeevan Mushroom is also an important mushroom spawn training centre in Rajasthan. It offers training and internships to agriculture students and others interested in mushroom entrepreneurship. Shankder and Kanchan have trained thousands of people to become mushroom entrepreneurs. Shanker says learning from mistakes and not giving up is the key to success in entrepreneurship, especially in mushroom or its spawn cultivation, which requires precision and hygiene at every step.
A grain like wheat, bajra, jowar or maize forms the basis of spawn cultivation.
“We use wheat. It is first boiled to increase the moisture content. We just have to soften it to grow fungal culture. Then it is dried to remove the outer moisture,” he says.
To absorb any excess moisture, calcium sulfate (gypsum) and calcium carbonate are added to the boiled and dried grains.
It is then packed in polybags of 200 microns (made of Polypropylene) and a batch number is added to monitor the final results at the buyer’s unit. A polypropylene ring is used to give the polybag a bottle-like mouth and it is sealed with a cotton plug so that it can provide aeration which is required for fungal culture to grow.
“We then put them in an autoclave, which sterilises the grains and other materials. It is left at a temperature of 125 degrees for 2 hours and then cooled down in a separate room. The bags are brought back to room temperature (24 to 25 degrees Celsius) before inoculation,” he says.
Room temperature is ideal for the growth of microbes. “We leave them for one day and then add mother culture to the packets,” he says. Mother culture is grown in test tubes. The test tubes are incubated at room temperature for 10 days for full white growth of fungal culture. This is used for the preparation of spawns.
“For Button mushroom, we import the mother culture from the Netherlands as commercial failure is the highest in this variety. For other varieties like Oyster, Shiitake and Portobello, we prepare the mother culture at our unit,” Shanker says.
The mother culture is multiplied and then transferred to sterilised packets with grains. About 20-25 gm of culture is added to 1 kg wheat and the packets are put in an incubation room for 10-12 days. “After inoculation, it has to be left at 24 degrees temperature, a humidity level of 50 to 60 and carbon dioxide levels of under 5,000 ppm. We monitor these parameters continuously,” he adds.
After 10 to 12 days, the wheat turns white due to the growth of mushroom fungus. “It is then ready to go to any mushroom farm and is good for use for up to two months,” Shanker points out.
For sale within 200-300 km, the spawns are sold in simple polythene bags. Jeevan Mushroom uses a thermocol box with ice to store the cold spawn. It stays cool for 48 to 60 hours, making it safe for transportation to overseas destinations.
“With an increase in capacity by almost ten times at our new facility, we hope to expand in both domestic and international markets,” Shanker says.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)