When the world was grappling with COVID-19, Rishabh Gupta was working with the Mashreq Bank in Dubai after completing his engineering in Computer Science. When loneliness in a faraway land hit him, he came back home. His Delhi-based parents, Rashmi and Rakesh Arya, had also moved to their hometown in Shamsabad, Agra (Uttar Pradesh) during the lockdown.
“After coming home, I decided not to go back again. I wanted to pursue something here, and organic farming was one of the options since our family owns around 3 acres of land here in Shamsabad,” says 27-year-old Rishabh.
Around the same time, his younger brother Ayush Gupta completed his BBA from the University of London and returned to India. The two brothers took online training on vegetable farming at the Centre of Excellence for Vegetables, Gharaunda (Karnal). It is an Indo-Israel Project approved by the Ministry of Agriculture.
The pull towards farming
“After that, we set up a polyhouse in January 2021 and started organic farming of the English cucumber variety. From March 2021, we started harvesting the vegetable and sold it at Rs40 to Rs45 per kg,” recalls Rishabh. However, they wanted to build an agribusiness to generate consistent income throughout the year.
“We didn’t want to stick to regular farming. So we began to research about mushroom farming,” he says. Rishabh and Ayush did not take any formal training for it. They saw many videos of international experts and other farmers cultivating mushrooms.
Farmers grow many varieties of mushrooms, including Button, Oyster and Shiitake. Mushrooms can be cultivated in two ways – seasonally or throughout the year in cold chambers.
“In India, cold chambers for mushroom farming are not very popular yet. But this method gives yield around the year due to controlled environment parameters like temperature and humidity,” Rishabh says.
“We zeroed in on this option as there is a minuscule chance of contamination besides consistent daily income,” says Rishabh.
However, it wasn’t easy to convince their father. “We had to prove the concept to convince our dad. In September 2021, we bought 20 compost bags (the growing medium for mushrooms) and spawns (mushroom seeds) through a friend. The results were good, and our father gave us the nod for Button mushroom cultivation on a larger scale,” says Ayush, 24.
Income from cold chamber mushroom cultivation
In April 2022, the duo began setting up the infrastructure for mushroom farming. They used one acre of land for the cold chamber, compost preparation unit, packaging facility etc.
The brothers opted for PUF panels to make 12 chambers. PUF panels have three layers made of galvanized steel sheets. An essential component of the pre-fabricated construction industry, PUF panels are antioxidant and antimicrobial.
“Each chamber has a dimension of 70 feet x 18 feet. The rooms have vertically stacked racks, 62.5 feet in length and 5 feet in width. Each room is fitted with air conditioners to maintain the right temperature,” Rishabh explains.
The temperature in each chamber is lowered from 24 °C to 13 °C as the mushrooms grow. “Each room can accommodate 3500 beds, but we use 3000 beds at a time,” he says, adding that they invested their savings and took a bank loan to fund the project.
Today, Rishabh and Ayush harvest an average of 1600 kg of mushrooms daily, of which 1300 kg is ‘A’ grade mushrooms, which are mature, well-shaped and well-trimmed. The rest is ‘B’ grade mushrooms, which are not evenly shaped and sold to food processing companies for canning.
“While prices go up to Rs180 per kg in summer, they are down to even Rs90 in winter. The average annual price per kg is Rs134,” he says. So their daily income is Rs 2.144 lakh (Rs 134 X 1600 kg).
With electricity, composting and staff salaries, the per kg cost of production comes to Rs90, leaving a daily profit of Rs44 per kg or Rs70,400.
They have tie-ups with companies and wholesalers for direct procurement, which cuts the cost of transportation. “At a later stage, we want to set up our facility for canning of mushrooms to enter the export market,” the mushroom entrepreneur says.
The process of growing mushrooms
Compost, the base for the growth of mushrooms, is prepared at the unit using wheat straw, chicken manure and gypsum. Chicken manure is an easily available source of nitrogen and other nutrients, essential for good mushroom growth.
“Wheat straw is cut and soaked in water for some days. Then chicken manure is added to it along with gypsum and potassium to make mushroom compost. The next important step is pasteurization of compost,” Rishabh says.
Pasteurization of compost is necessary as it kills any insects, fungi, or other pests that may be present in the compost. It also removes the ammonia formed during composting.
“We then mix mushroom spawns with compost. About 35 tonnes of compost is mixed with 350 kg seed,” he says, adding that they procure spawns from growers and don’t grow them in-house right now.
Compost is filled in polythene bags with two or three holes for aeration.
“Each bag has at least 10 kg compost mix and they are stacked on racks in the cold chamber,” the agripreneur says.
In 12 days, mushroom fungus mycelium spreads in the bags. The chambers' temperature is maintained at 23 to 24 degrees Celsius till then. “The bags are then opened and casing is done using coco peat (natural fibre particles made from coconut husks which hold water), and gypsum etc,” he says. The casing is a top dressing applied to the spawn-run compost to regulate evaporation. The thickness of the casing is around 1.5 to 2 inches on which the mushrooms later grow.
At this stage, the temperature is brought down to 5 to 10 degrees. The mycelium then disappears and mushroom initials grow, which is called pinning. After pinning, the size of the mushroom doubles every 24 hours, Rishabh explains.
“Mushrooms are ready in 21 days after casing. They are then harvested and packed for sale,” he says.
For those who want to be mushroom entrepreneurs, Rishabh says it is important to figure out the market for selling the produce before starting production. "The most critical aspect of mushroom entrepreneurship is ready buyers because the product has an extremely low shelf life. You cannot begin looking for a market after production," he says.
While the canning of mushrooms is one of the plans on the anvil, the other is the in-house production of spawns or mushroom seeds. “We are looking at that option as well,” Rishabh says.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial, and socio-economic reporting)