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2016 Strategic Planning Meeting Report

Summary report of the first annual mushroom industry/Penn State strategic planning event held Nov. 4, 2016.

Introduction

The Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology (PPEM) at Penn State University (PSU), organized the First Annual Mushroom Industry/Penn State Strategic Planning Event to outline issues facing the mushroom industry in Pennsylvania that would benefit from Penn State research, to evaluate Penn State expertise and resources available, and to document gaps and develop strategies to fill them. The time frame considered was about ten years into the future.

Dr. Mark Wach of Sylvan America, Inc., worked with Drs. Bull, Beyer, and Pecchia of PPEM to determine who should be invited to the event. The list (see Appendix A) was further refined with the help of the American Mushroom Institute (AMI). Industry visionaries and those knowledgeable about industry trends were invited. People at the meeting represented farms that account for approximately 60 percent of all mushrooms grown in the United States. From Penn State, faculty involved with the mushroom industry and faculty from disciplines that could be useful to mushroom research were invited.

The meeting began with brief introductions and a discussion of goals for the day (see Appendix B). Nine researchers from Penn State each presented short summaries outlining what they are doing and have done recently for the mushroom industry, the next steps in their current projects, the skills they have not yet leveraged for the industry, and what they see themselves doing for the industry in ten years.

Next, the industry participants listed current and future industry issues in three categories: industry trends (see Appendix C), researchable questions, and problems they need help with. After discussion, the group prioritized six top issues and further fleshed out the relevant trends, research needs, and other help needed. Issues for future consideration and other needs are described in Appendix E.

Significant Outcomes

  1. The Penn State faculty in collaboration with the industry agreed to write a proposal to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Ag Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) to advance organic mushroom production. The deadline is January 19, 2017. Pecchia will organize the first meeting about this proposal, and a lead for the project will be determined. An alternative funder might be IR-4. Bull will try to encourage faculty from the College of Communications to get involved. They would likely be co-PIs on the OREI grant. A discussion of issues important to the industry and researchers is described below and list of topics is given in Appendix D.
  2. Group members will encourage the new mechatronics faculty hire in Ag Engineering to come to this meeting next year and to the Mushroom Short Course. Industry members may make small grant(s)/gift(s) to engage the person with the industry early on.
  3. American Mushroom Institute (AMI) will conduct a workshop to address labor issues industry-wide and will include relevant Penn State partners.
  4. The group agreed that meeting yearly would be advantageous, separate from the Mushroom Short Course, perhaps in September prior to grant opportunities. Representatives from Hispanic-owned farms, Penn State communication experts, and the new mechatronics faculty hire from Ag Engineering should be invited to future meetings.
  5. A recommendation was made to consider setting up a center for mushroom research at Penn State.
  6. A recommendation was made to consider having Penn State Ag Education develop a 4-H curriculum or other teacher materials on mushroom cultivation (biology, chemistry, recycling, value of industry to state, etc.) aligned with education standards.

Major Themes

Labor

Labor is the number one issue in the mushroom industry today. Labor shortages are probably limiting mushroom production now, and are likely to worsen in the future. Although many ideas were presented, a separate meeting is needed to develop a specific plan for the industry. AMI will plan and host a strategic planning session specifically related to labor issues. Bull and others will seek Penn State faculty who would be interested in studying labor issues to work with AMI.

A number of different ideas were discussed in relation to attracting new workers (see Appendix D). One issue discussed at length was how to make the work more attractive to mothers of young children. Setting work hours to correspond with times when children are in school and implementing ergonomic improvements could allow for this. Europeans have expanded their labor markets in this way. Additionally, the group discussed how to glamorize the job. Are there key community benefits that would appeal to mothers (getting a workout in at work?) and other non-traditional workers? Are there ways to add value for Latino workers, perhaps by providing education benefits to their children? Perhaps helping with issues of assimilation into the community and issues between workers from different cultures would be beneficial and help attract and retain workers.

In addition to attracting new workers, ideas were presented that might help with labor retention. It might be useful to study examples of farms using effective worker retention strategies. A significant issue is affordable housing in mushroom-growing regions. Other services and options should be studied for their effect on retention.

A third strategy discussed for solving the labor shortage was optimization and increased effectiveness of the current labor force. Industry members stated that the best workers tend to be promoted, but that they frequently do not have necessary management and leadership skills. The group thought that these skills could be taught, perhaps through industry-wide workshops at AMI. There’s a need to develop unique management strategies for a workforce with very little education.

The last major idea discussed in relation to labor was mechanization. The new mechatronics hire in Ag Engineering might be enticed to help, but mechanization would likely require massive physical renovations and new strains that allow for automated harvest of fresh mushrooms.

The group discussed how Penn State could work on outreach to Latino growers and developing pipelines of highly-qualified workers for the industry. Penn State needs to develop additional educational materials (publications, including an updated Mushroom Grower’s Handbook, as well as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and pesticide trainings) in Spanish. This is likely to occur because we now have a bilingual educator, and several faculty are working to translate publications into Spanish. Penn State faculty and extension educators could write a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant for outreach to Latino growers and to study factors increasing recruitment and retention of Latino workers. Representatives from Hispanic-owned farms must be part of the conversation.

Technology

The industry needs to develop and integrate evolving technologies to meet the demands of a changing marketplace. There’s a need for mobile apps for data collection, statistical analysis, and maintenance of controls by workers in growing houses. The grant application Pecchia and Beyer recently submitted addresses some of this need. After an initial evaluation of labor tasks that are performed on mushrooms farms, these tasks would be analyzed to determine if it would be feasible and economical to develop robotics to reduce the labor needs. Because of the different farm designs, the cost associated with each task would be different and involve a different number of employees and equipment. Workers are the companies’ eyes. Rapid and accurate data and information exchange between workers and management is essential. Mechanizing processes could help cut costs and labor requirements. This would result in fewer eyes watching the crop develop. Additionally, mechanization would probably require accompanying physical plant renovations and new mushroom strains that allow for automated harvesting of fresh mushrooms.

New mushroom strains to meet the needs of blended products were discussed several times. It is clear that this will be needed in the future but when specifically asked, this did not rise to the level of a priority for action at this time.

Innovations in packaging are also needed, especially for specialty and organic mushrooms.

Flies

There is a need for much more detailed knowledge about the biology, chemistry, origins, and control of the phorid fly pest of mushrooms, the mushroom phorid, Megaselia halterata. Best practices for management will emerge from this knowledge and can be standardized across the industry. A problem for one facility can be a problem for all, so educating new growers on management is important. Improved means of community outreach and communication are needed, especially with regard to crisis management. Penn State faculty from the College of Communications have been contacted, and the mushroom team will be asked to join in grants as we move forward.

The mushroom phorid fly will be an important part of the USDA OREI grant. There is a very limited arsenal of OMRI-approved (organic) pesticides (see Significant Outcomes, p. 1) for fly control. Nina Jenkins discussed the potential use of insecticides from eaves tubes (developed for malaria control in Africa) to control the mushroom phorid in mushroom houses. It’s unclear whether such a strategy would work or if it would be usable in organic settings but that can be investigated. The OREI grant may benefit from including research on issues related to communicating with the public about mushroom phorid flies. We will invite Dr. Lee Ahern from the College of Communications to a planning meeting for the USDA OREI grant.

The Baker lab at Penn State has results on the biology of mushroom phorid flies relevant to the Chester County fly outbreak public relations issue. The mushroom phorid, Megaselia halterata, is an obligate mushroom feeder and poses no human health threat. The lab has trapped M. halterata mainly over lawns (not near spent compost or woodlots) near dusk. The Baker lab has collected thousands of swarming and mating mushroom phorid flies from Chester County and has commenced work on detecting and identifying its sex pheromone for potential use as an attractant. Assuming a usable pheromone can be found, information about air flow from, and within mushroom houses would also be needed to determine where to place traps. The Baker lab has completed and placed online a fact sheet about the mushroom phorid fly and contrasted its biology with other non-pest phorid fly species. Baker has decades of experience with obtaining OMRI approval for insect sex pheromones and using them in IPM systems against other insect pest species. Baker is confident that the use of sex pheromone traps against the mushroom phorid will be approved for use in organic mushroom production.

Additionally, Baker’s lab has identified the sex pheromone of a sciarid fly (Lycoriella ingenua), but attempts to synthesize it have so far been unsuccessful, given its complicated chemistry and the fact that it is a compound previously unknown to science. Although the market for pheromones can be small, the worldwide distribution of this pest and its impact on mushroom cultivation should make the synthesis and development of this pheromone into a commercial product a desirable goal for many pheromone-producing companies. Pheromones and their use at natural concentrations in traps are exempt from needing an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration; pheromones have also routinely received OMRI approval for use in organic production.

Improved control products and IPM methods are needed, as are resistance management strategies. Data are needed to support IR-4 pesticide certifications. Important to this work is the maintenance of the fly colony developed with previous funding from the USDA. Half-time funding in Nina Jenkins’s lab for fly colony maintenance, which is essential for chemical efficacy testing, currently ends in July 2017. Consistency in this staff person is key for optimal productivity. In a follow-up discussion at the end of the meeting, Joe Caldwell met with Nina Jenkins and David Beyer regarding expediting efficacy testing on flies for previously OMRI-approved solutions for other crops. As a result, Joe Caldwell is now soliciting partial funding for this staff position from industry sources.

Food safety

There’s a need for training in Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requirements across the board, but especially for new growers, including on water requirements. Dr. Luke LaBorde and his group have done some of this training. There is now greater capacity for training in this area because of the hire of Maria Gorgo-Gourovitch to work on these issues.

Sliced mushrooms are the fastest growing segment of the mushroom market. They present additional challenges because they have more area on which pathogens can grow and the slicing equipment needs to be sanitized. For sliced and whole product there’s a need for improved methods of detecting contamination and for control (biological, chemical, and temperature).

LaBorde has studied the predominance and persistence of an L. monocytogenes clone in a fresh mushroom processing environment, as well as thermal treatments for eliminating L. monocytogenes from industrial mushroom disk slicers. He is concerned about “legacy equipment” with poor sanitation issues. He suggests establishing a fund for research into the “next big unknown or problem,” such as microbiome analysis of sugar beet lime. LaBorde currently sees Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella spp. in sphagnum peat-based casing solids as the most likely place for problems to emerge.

Like the fly issue, communication about food safety needs to be strategic. LaBorde notes the need to communicate that coliforms on mushrooms are harmless and come from soil. This could be an issue as blendable mushrooms become more common and concerns over testing rise. Improved communications and management during a food safety crisis are also needed. Furthermore, food safety issues arising from new producers or wild mushroom collectors can be a problem for the industry as a whole. Penn State and the industry should work together to provide the training these groups need to ensure the safety of mushroom consumption.

Chemical control raises additional concerns because the industry needs to know more about degradation of persistent herbicides used on crops that become compost ingredients. Some chemicals may persist through the composting process and be taken up by the mushroom or may persist through the cropping process and be a potential contaminate in the mushroom compost left after cropping.

Organic mushrooms

The rapid growth in demand for organic mushrooms indicates that methods used for organic production will be used by the majority of the industry relatively soon. Some producers expect that the industry will be 100 percent organic within about ten years. However, there has been little research in organic mushroom production systems. A comprehensive transdisciplinary research program would help ensure the growth and sustainability of organic mushroom production. Some of the research needed is single-component research. For example, OMRI-approved materials for control of insect pests and diseases are important to the economic survival of the industry. However, OREI funding emphasizes more holistic approaches to system management.

The industry needs improved products and processes for control of insects and diseases and human and mushroom pathogens. Studies of alternative substrates for growing mushrooms organically would be welcome. Sanitation is an issue in organic mushroom production. The industry would also benefit from more detailed business analytics for organic mushroom production.

Mushroom compost

Mushroom compost (formerly called spent mushroom substrate [SMS]) disposal has always been a problem unless a growing facility is the only one in an area. It costs more to get rid of than can be earned from it because it contains so much water and transportation becomes costly. The industry needs to communicate the potential benefits and possible drawbacks of using spent mushroom compost. Some people mistakenly think that the salts in compost (left behind after water uptake) are toxic to growing plants. This perception restricts compost use. There may be a similar issue or perceived issue with herbicides in compost. Mushroom compost is typically blended with another material for potting because compost shrinks down by about 25 percent as it dries. Data from Fidanza and Beyer (2011) suggest that these issues are overstated.

Even with data-based communication, the spent mushroom compost market may be saturated. Research is needed on how to get more mushrooms from less material or less cropping time, whether an alternative substrate might be more efficient, and how substrate can be optimized to control materials and freight costs. This would reduce the amount of spent compost for disposal.

Farms that do not complete a post-crop pasteurization of mushroom compost can be an issue for neighboring communities. Flies are not killed and the unpasteurized mushroom compost could be a source of flies infesting neighboring residential homes. In addition, the mycelium that is not killed can be carried over in the wooden bed boards and can be a source of infection for virus and bacterial pathogens of the mushrooms. The older farms in Pennsylvania must keep pasteurization temperatures below 140ºF to maintain the integrity of growing house insulation. Newer farms (e.g., Maryland) can pasteurize to 170ºF, so they get a more efficient kill between crops.

Bull's To-Do List

  1. Network with new mechatronics faculty hire in Ag Engineering to interest in mushroom industry.
  2. Network with Penn State and/or other communications/sociology faculty to entice engagement with mushroom industry issues and effective messaging (Philly suburb branch campus?). We have already been in contact with these researchers.
  3. Determine who would know about developing systems for statistics, controls, and industry-wide data collection, e.g., standardization and simplification of counting flies.

A specialty crop block grant will look at ways to reduce labor and include the new mechatronics faculty (assuming the USDA announces another round of funding for 2017). The block grant is unlikely to look at industry data collection and statistics. The NE IPM grant that Pecchia, Beyer, and Gorgo-Gourovitch just submitted does cover data collection, including fly counts, if funded.

  1. Ensure representation of Hispanic voices at next meeting.
  2. Contact ag economist about sustainability of Canadian peat.

Rahn's To-Do List

  1. Organize meeting to discuss strategies for labor.

Appendix A

ATTENDEES

Chris Alonzo, Pietro Industries
Jim Angelucci, Phillips Mushroom Farms, Inc.
Tom Baker, Penn State
David Beyer, Penn State
Carolee Bull, Penn State
Joe Caldwell, Monterey Mushrooms, Inc.
Tom Chapman, Hy-Tech Mushroom Compost, Inc.
Joy Drohan, Eco-Write, LLC
Sjoerd Willem Duiker, Penn State
Maria Gorgo-Gourovitch, Penn State
Paul Heinemann, Penn State
Nina Jenkins, Penn State
Luke LaBorde, Penn State
Chad LaFazia, Kaolin Mushroom Farms, Inc.
John Pecchia, Penn State
Geoff Price, Giorgi Mushroom Co.
Daniel Rahn, AMI
Christine Smith, L.F. Lambert Spawn Co.
Mark Wach, Sylvan America, Inc.
Yinong Yang, Penn State

The following individual was invited but was unable to attend:
Bart Minor, Mushroom Council

Appendix B

AGENDA

Mushroom Strategic Meeting | Thursday, November 3, 2016 | Penn State University

Goal: Determine the future needs of the industry and the capabilities of Penn State faculty and strategize how to meet them.

Introduction

Current and Pending Research

Current Issues | What problems do we see?

What needs to be done? | What do we need to get things done?

Appendix C

INDUSTRY TRENDS

  • The industry is experiencing volume growth of about 4 percent per year.
  • Organic mushroom sales are growing by 25–50 percent per year.
  • Sales of specialty mushrooms are growing by 15–18 percent per year.
  • The organic sector is cannibalizing the nonorganic sector; it’s not new growth.
  • More people are eating mushrooms for potential health benefits, but the industry doesn’t currently produce enough volume to support continued growth at these rates.
  • There’s an increasing call for mushrooms with higher dry weight for slicing.
  • The mushroom industry includes many small holdings, often in close proximity to suburban areas.
  • Issues with neighbors are increasing.
  • Food safety, testing, and regulations are increasing concerns and costs.
  • Sliced mushrooms are the fastest growing segment of the market. Slicing gives more area on which pathogens can grow.
  • Trichoderma is becoming more of a problem.
  • Immigration rates are down. The Mexican economy is better. More industries are hiring from the same worker pool.
  • Mushroom industry work is increasingly unattractive. Workers don’t tend to stay long.
  • The mushroom industry currently has a labor gap for harvesters. In five to ten years there will also be a managerial labor gap.
  • By 2050, one in three people in the United States will be Latino.
  • About one mushroom farm in Pennsylvania has a plan for future stewardship. Can future owners without ag or business backgrounds sustain businesses when margins are tight?
  • Most new farms are Hispanic-owned. The industry needs to ensure that they are welcomed into industry groups. New and small growers may present a potential risk in that they may not know best management practices for food safety. Everyone needs training in the latest techniques.
  • Sales of specialty mushrooms by small growers at farmers’ markets are increasing.
  • More people are harvesting and selling wild mushrooms. Any illness tied to mushrooms, even wild mushrooms, will affect the whole industry.
  • There is increasing use of real-time data and use of technology to gather data.

Appendix D

MAJOR CONCERNS OF INDUSTRY

Issue 1: Labor

  • Labor retention
  • Ergonomic improvements could allow expansion of labor pool. Worker comfort is much greater in Europe.
  • Can industry retool to suit employment of mothers of young children who want to work only during school hours? This pool of labor is used more commonly in Europe.
  • How to glamorize the job? Emphasize that people could get their workout at work, and participation in local economy and food cycle? These points might appeal to some moms.
  • How to add value for workers? Education benefits to workers and their families? Study examples of farms using effective worker retention strategies. Affordable housing is an issue.
  • How to manage workforce with very little education.
  • Industry tends to promote best workers, but they may not have necessary management and leadership skills, although these can be taught, perhaps industry-wide through AMI?
  • Need more publications and presentations in Spanish, including IPM and pesticide training.
  • Update Mushroom Growers’ Handbook and translate into Spanish.
  • Involve Hispanic-owned farms in this yearly conversation.
  • Potential SARE grant for outreach to Latino growers.
  • Some issues with assimilating into the community and issues between workers from different cultures.
  • Mechanization would probably require accompanying massive physical plant renovations and new strains that allow for automated harvest of fresh mushrooms.
  • Improve pipeline of workers from Penn State.

Issue 2: Technology

  • Evolving technology for a changing marketplace. Apps for data collection, statistical analysis, and maintenance of controls by workers in growing houses. They are the company’s eyes. Rapid and accurate data and information exchange between them and management is essential.
  • Mechanization of processes? Require accompanying physical plant renovation?
  • Genetic-Can we create new strains that allow for automated harvest of fresh mushrooms?
  • Innovations in packaging

Issue 3: Phorid Flies

  • Biology, chemistry, origins, and control of phorids.
  • Best practices.
  • Community outreach and communication.
  • Potential use of insecticide from eaves tubes (developed for malaria control in Africa); usable in organic setting?
  • Resistance management strategies.
  • IPM, new products, and control methods.
  • Data generation for IR-4 pesticide certification.
  • Currently very limited arsenal of OMRI-approved (organic) pesticides.
  • Half-time funding in Nina Jenkins’s lab for fly colony maintenance (essential for chemical testing) ends July 2017. Consistency in staff person is key for optimal productivity.
  • Baker lab has identified sex pheromone of sciarid fly, but attempts to manufacture it have been unsuccessful given its chemistry.
  • Baker lab has results on biology of phorid flies relevant to Chester County fly outbreak public relations issue (obligate mushroom feeders, not health threat, found mainly over lawns at dusk).
  • Baker lab is looking for sex pheromone of M. halterata phorid in Chester County outbreak.
  • Assuming a usable pheromone can be found, would also need info about air flow within and from mushroom houses to determine where to place traps.

Issue 4: Organics

Research needs include:

  • Products and processes for control of insects and diseases
  • Alternative substrates
  • Sanitation
  • Human and mushroom pathogen control
  • Business analytics

Issue 5: Food Safety

  • Need for FSMA training for all, but especially new growers (including on water requirements)—LaBorde and his group have done some.
  • Sliced mushrooms are fastest growing segment of market; have more area on which pathogens can grow.
  • Contamination detection.
  • Predominance and persistence of an L. monocytogenes clone in a fresh mushroom processing environment.
  • Thermal treatments for eliminating L. monocytogenes from industrial mushroom disk slicers.
  • “Legacy equipment” with poor sanitation issues.
  • Research into the “next big unknown or problem," e.g., microbiome analysis of sugar beet lime.
  • Fate of Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella spp. in sphagnum peat-based casing solids-LaBorde sees this as most likely place for problem.
  • Biocontrol.
  • Degradation of xenobiotics, e.g., mepiquat.
  • Crisis management.
  • Need to communicate that coliforms on mushrooms are harmless and come from soil. This could be an issue as blendable mushrooms become more common and concerns over testing rise.

Issue 6: Mushroom Compost

  • How to get more mushrooms from less materials or less cropping time.
  • Optimization of substrates to control materials and freight costs.
  • Alternative substrates.
  • Need more and more effective communication about potential benefits of and possible drawbacks of using compost.
    • Some people mistakenly think that the salts in compost (left behind after water uptake) are toxic to growing plants. This perception restricts compost use.
    • There may be a similar issue or perceived issue with herbicides in compost.

Appendix E

ISSUES FOR FUTURE CONSIDERATION

  • Blendable mushrooms—opens possibility of importing mushroom tissue to fill need.
    • How best to grow mushrooms for blendability (optimize substrate, alternative substrates, etc? Appearance of mushrooms doesn’t matter).
    • Food safety of products using blendable mushrooms—cooking temperature.
  • Bacterial blotch is prevalent, but causes are unknown and multiple. Do we see stable patterns of organisms throughout the year, and the same organisms across the region? Can we define phages or a cocktail to destroy disease-causing organisms?
  • Research into human pathogens on specialty and organic mushrooms.
  • Anonymous central data collection to see pest/pathogen trends?
  • Using Pseudomonas and other bacteria to grow bigger mushrooms.
  • Gene-edited mushrooms must be ready and waiting if customers come to accept them.
  • New mushroom varieties with longer stems for mechanical harvesting?
  • USDA decided in April 2016 that CRISPR-edited mushrooms are not subject to regulation, but FDA is still reviewing decision.
  • Industry collaboration to bring about regulatory changes.
  • Do better job of telling industry’s sustainability story (e.g., byproducts the industry uses).
  • Potential issue if peat moss is declared to be unsustainable (source is important).
  • Farm legacy planning.
  • Develop short course and/or certification for selling wild mushrooms?
  • Water use: amounts.
  • Wastewater disposal (Heather Gall in Ag Engineering focusing on emerging contaminants).
  • Move to faster growing cycles, as they are doing in Europe.
  • Shelf-life extension.
  • Better retail packaging options for specialty and organic mushrooms.
  • Odor control.

OTHER NEEDS

  • Better outlet for peer-reviewed publications on mushroom research.
  • Pool of funds to address “surprise” challenges and to investigate novel alternatives (e.g., biochar as casing).
  • Funding for research outside of plant pathology (e.g., food safety).
  • More communication from point of view of audience, rather than industry, and proper positioning/framing of messages.

WORDS OF WISDOM

  • Industry funding for research is so important in the beginning for gathering preliminary data with which to apply for federal funding.
  • Always need to keep in mind the “so what” value of research.
  • A problem for one company in the industry is a problem for all. The industry is only as strong as its weakest link. Food safety is not competitive.
  • Penn State faculty need to engage in research worthy of a graduate degree. Sometimes the industry needs technician-level work.
  • How do we entice people beyond just established “mushroom people” to work in the industry? Engage them when they start with the university and give small research grants or gifts up front.

Photographs of information captured on the board and flip chart

Contact Information

Carolee T. Bull, Ph.D.
  • Department Head
Email:
Phone: 814-865-7448