Print Edition - 2014-07-26  |  On Saturday

SPROUTING SHIITAKES

  • A few young entrepreneurs have started growing shiitake in and around the Valley, but they'll have to wait a while for the shiitake market to mature
SPROUTING SHIITAKES

Jul 25, 2014-

Four hundred and sixty-two logs, each approximately 3 feet long, are under careful observation in an insulated hut at Kamalpokhari, Kathmandu.

Two recent MBA graduates, Regan Prasain and Rupendra Shumsher Thapa, have been patiently watching over the logs. In a few months, they’re expecting their very first batch of shiitake mushrooms to sprout. It would be a sweet fruit to months of hard work; a boost to their entrepreneurial endeavour.

Prasain and Thapa started the cultivation in January with help from a friend with extensive knowledge in biotechnology. “There are many such opportunities in Nepal and after much consideration and research, we decided to start with mushroom cultivation and see where it goes from here,” says Prasain.

These classmates-turned-business partners aren’t the only ones. “The number of people who come to us to learn about shiitake cultivation has tripled in the last two years,” says Gopal Prasad Parajuli, scientist at the Nepal Agricultural Resource Council. While he can’t put an exact number on shiitake farmers in Nepal, Parajuli says the farmers are spread across Pokhara, Kavre, Daman, Sangha, Godavari and Nawalparasi.

These enthusiasts are not conventional farmers. It’s mostly members of the younger generation who are keen on leading such ventures. With government and non-government initiatives facilitating commercial farming in recent years, fungiculture has emerged as a popular small-scale undertaking for many of them.

The shiitake mushroom is the second-most commonly cultivated edible mushroom in the world. Extracts from the mushroom, and sometimes the whole dried mushroom, are used for herbal remedies.They are often dried and sold as preserved food in packages and must be rehydrated by soaking in water before use.  They are extremely popular in Japan and China, and there is a growing demand for them in the West.

In a handbook titled Shiitake Mushroom Farming Technique,

Dr Keshar Laxmi Manandhar, a leading mushroom scientist who has worked in the field for decades

writes that these mushrooms were introduced in Nepal in the late seventies, when a group of Japanese scientists cultivated mushrooms in a walnut tree. But such ventures didn’t flourish at the time because skepticism abounded that mushroom cultivation techniques of that sort could lead to a possible destruction of the native trees.

However, in the early 2000s, Manandhar experimented with 22 different trees and found out that the ones in the hilly regions of the country were great mediums for growing these mushrooms.  She recommended five types. Manandhar writes that results of the experiment were

supposed to benefit community forest users through forest development programmes, since the logs are

readily available to them. But no programme was implemented at the level. Instead, interested

farmers individually came to receive training from her before getting into fungiculture.

Manandhar now leads the Centre for Agriculture Technology, which along with teaching farmers, also provides them with spawns (mushroom seeds) at a subsidised rate from the government.

Some experts expect shiitake to supersede button mushrooms in the near future because apart from being a delicacy, shiitake, also known as Black Forest Mushroom or Japanese Mushroom, has several health benefits. According to the American Cancer Society, the mushrooms fight the development and progression of cancer by boosting the body’s immune system. However, their efficacy depends on how they are prepared and consumed.  The recent scare brought about by the consumption of pesticide-infested vegetables highlights the growing concern for ‘healthy food’ in Kathmandu. “Healthy living and organic food has become a thing,” says Thapa. And shiitake growers are happy to provide organic alternatives.

Currently, shiitake buyers in Nepal are the major supermarkets and five-star hotels but with the growing preference for organic food, entrepreneurs could find a niche in more local markets.

But to start any business is not easy.  Prasain and Thapa spent around half a million rupees, which was more than they had initially planned; a big chunk of that

investment was spent on manual labour. “There is no mechanisation in Nepal so we have to rely on

a lot of people working on a daily basis,” says Thapa.

Another issue with shiitake farming is that the mushrooms come with a pricier tag than other mushrooms such as the button or oyster mushroom-hence making them more difficult to sell in the local market. Half a gram of dried shiitake could cost up to Rs 200; at that rate, a kilogram would end up with a price tag of Rs 1,000, which is much more expensive than the regular mushroom, which costs around a few hundred. It might thus take a few years for the duo to start reaping benefits from their log-culture business.

There are other methods for growing shiitake too. Nepal’s first shiitake cultivator Bikram Pun is the only grower who does not use the log method to cultivate the mushroom. Instead, he grows them on blocks of sawdust, which yield their harvests every three to four months.

After 4-5 years of trial and error, Pun, who is a chemical engineer by profession, says he has come up with his own formula.“The more the grower knows about the mushroom, the better he becomes.  So eventually through trial and error, one gets better,” says Pun adding that, “People should study what shiitake is. What are the particular variables

that affect it? An individual grower has to know the mushroom strain.

He should study as much as

possible and try and experiment and see what works for him and what doesn’t.”

Pun recently shifted from Kathmandu to the outskirts in Bhaisepati, where along with shiitake, he is growing organic produce in several acres of land. “You have to have a vision, a goal and then dedication and passion to accomplish your goal and bring your vision to life,” says Pun, whose interest in biology started at the age of 14.

While competition in the mushroom business is growing rapidly, all three-Pun, Prasain and Thapa-agree that with hard work and patience they will get returns. Until the market matures here, the overseas market is an option. Prasain says Nepal already has a competitive advantage.

“We are known for being a Himalayan nation. We are known for our exotic way of living and people prefer to consume organic food from such places,” he says.

The MBA graduates have plans aplenty, but they'll have to wait

until August for their harvest and then see if the market gets better from there on.

Published: 26-07-2014 09:20

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