Fungus Among Us – The History of Mushrooms in Taiwan

Taiwan has a long history of growing a wide variety of mushrooms, and was once a major exporter.

BY STEVEN CROOK AND KATY HUI-WEN HUNG

We eat too much of what is bad for us, experts say, and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables. But one positive trend is visible in some parts of the world: People are eating more mushrooms than they did a generation or two ago.

That is good news from a nutrition perspective because many types of mushroom contain vitamins (especially B1, B2, B3, and B6) as well as iron, selenium, and other minerals. They are rich in antioxidants that can survive cooking, and there is some evidence mushrooms have cancer-fighting properties.

Global mushroom cultivation grew tenfold between 1981 and 2002. Since the mid-1960s, annual per capita mushroom consumption in the United States has risen from 0.7 lbs to 3.7 lbs. In recent years, fresh mushrooms account for three quarters of this total.

Precise data on mushroom consumption in Taiwan is hard to find, but anecdotal evidence points to a steady increase. Edible fungi find their way into hot pots, stir fries, and soups, as well as the “mock meats” eaten in vegetarian restaurants.

In Taiwan, the systematic cultivation of fungi dates back over a hundred years, with many of the original techniques introduced by the Japanese during the 1895-1945 colonial period. However, the industry did not properly take off until the late 1950s, after domestic shortages prompted the U.S.-ROC Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR) to expand local mushroom production.

Early trials were conducted in mountainous areas such as Xibao (915 meters above sea level, and now within Taroko National Park), but very soon farmers in the west-central region came to dominate production.

According to a report prepared for the Federal Reserve’s Division of International Finance, the American economic aid program (USAID) provided US$82,574 to help develop sanitary harvesting and canning practices, as well as for the construction of processing facilities. The return on this investment was fantastic. “Taiwan first began to export canned and bottled mushrooms on a regular commercial basis in 1960,” states the report. “By 1963, Taiwan had become the world’s foremost exporter of mushrooms…supplying one-third of the total amount of mushrooms imported by all countries.”

About 80% of the canned mushrooms sold in the United States in 1963-64 were from Taiwan. Annual exports of canned mushrooms peaked in 1978 at US$120 million, before Chinese and South Korean growers ate into Taiwan’s share of the global market.

In 2013, the Council of Agriculture’s Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) estimated that the industry’s annual sales had reached US$295 million. In recent years, fungus farmers have been shipping around 140,000 metric tons of produce annually to domestic and overseas buyers. Relatively few farms now concentrate on the species that kick-started the boom – the humble Agaricus bisporus, also known variously as the common white mushroom, button mushroom, or champignon mushroom.

Frank Tai and his cousin Chu Rui-Jong are second-generation mushroom farmers in Taichung City’s Wufeng District. Both men grew up helping their parents cultivate button mushrooms, which Taiwanese often call “Western mushrooms” (yang gu, 洋菇).

“Wufeng has the right conditions for successful mushroom farming,” says Chu. “Northern Taiwan is too humid and the south is too warm, but the Taichung area is ideal.” Local weather patterns no longer matter much, however, as both men’s operations are now more like food factories than traditional farms. Growing the mushrooms indoors enables them to fully control temperature and other factors.

Their families, and hundreds of others, have benefited from the presence in Wufeng of TARI’s Edible and Medicinal Mushroom Laboratory. Among the laboratory’s many contributions are introducing the king oyster mushroom (xing bao gu, 杏鲍菇) – currently one of Chu’s principal crops – to Taiwan from France and devising ways in which this unusually sensitive fungus can be protected from micro-organisms.

Tai, who was born in 1970, graduated from Soochow University’s Department of Microbiology, choosing this major knowing he would eventually manage the Tai Mushroom Farm, currently Taiwan’s number-one producer of enoki mushrooms (jin zhen gu, 金针菇). He also grows shiitake (xiang gu, 香菇) and shimeji (liu song gu, 柳松菇) mushrooms. Until it was overtaken by growers in China, the Tai Mushroom Farm was regarded as Asia’s largest in terms of output.

Fresh Taiwan-grown mushrooms make a delicious and nutritious addition to soups and other dishes. (Photo: Steven Crook)
Fresh Taiwan-grown mushrooms make a delicious and nutritious addition to soups and other dishes. (Photo: Steven Crook)

Apart from regular albeit small shipments to Singapore, almost all of Tai’s output goes to domestic customers. Most is sold fresh but some is dried, including his entire Agaricus blazei crop. This brown mushroom is eaten for its taste as well as its supposed anti-cancer properties. “Dried mushrooms offer quite different flavors and textures compared to fresh ones,” he says.

Tai employs 150 workers, a third of whom are devoted to harvesting around 25 metric tons of mushrooms each day during the summer and up to 35 tons daily in the winter. Because so many enoki mushrooms get eaten in hot pots, winter prices are typically double those in summer, he says.

Tai is constantly experimenting with different species in the hope of finding new ones he can grow and sell. Potential certainly exists, as of the 2,000-odd fungus species around the world that are regarded as truly edible, a mere 30 or so have been commercially cultivated, and just 10 are exploited on a major scale.

The growing process

Large-scale fungus cultivation is as capital-intensive as it is labor-intensive. Like many in the industry, Chu grows mushrooms in plastic bags known locally as taikong bao (太空包, “space bags”). Five of his 13 employees are assigned to preparing the company’s 8,000 bags. Two other workers concentrate on inoculation, which means adding spawn of the species to be grown, while the remaining six nurture and harvest the mushrooms.

On Tai’s farm, enoki production is a six-stage process. The first step, filling 1-liter polypropylene (PP) bottles with substrate, is mechanized. He has more than six million bottles, each costing NT$10, but because the bottles are never exposed to sunlight, he expects them to last for over 20 years. Tai keeps his growing sheds at 5 degrees Celsius, so he is especially sensitive to increases in the price of electricity.

For conventional crops, the substrate is common soil. While some fungi thrive in ordinary dirt, Tai’s enoki mushrooms do best in a 3:1 mix of sawdust and rice bran. The sawdust is from broadleaf-tree timber, as this replicates the rotting stumps on which the mushrooms grow in the wild, and is obtained from lumber washed out of Taiwan’s mountains by typhoons. According to Tai, many Chinese enoki farmers use substrate derived from corn cobs, which he avoids because they could be genetically modified.

To avoid contamination, the bottles are then sterilized by heating to 121 degrees Celsius. Other items of equipment are sanitized with UV light, and Tai’s workers always wear gloves. “Mold or bacteria will grow” if sterilization is incomplete, Tai says. “Mold grows faster than mycelium [the vegetative part of a fungus], absorbs nutrients, and thereby inhibits mushroom growth.”

Following inoculation, a month is spent nurturing mycelium, which can be likened to the roots of a plant. For another month, the mushrooms (which are actually the visible fruiting bodies of the mycelium in the substrate) are carefully monitored. Humidity and temperature are adjusted when necessary.

Finally, just before they reach peak maturity, they are harvested. According to Chu, a good fungus farmer must be acutely observant. “Over-mature mushrooms don’t taste or look as good. Also, each part of a mushroom has different requirements,” he says, explaining that the caps are influenced by lighting, whereas the stems require the correct level of carbon dioxide.

The growing process for wood-ear (mu er, 木耳), formerly one of his family’s major crops, is considerably shorter, Tai explains, while that for shiitake mushrooms is usually three months.

After a spell in Taipei working as a car mechanic in Taipei, Chu returned to the family farm a quarter of a century ago. There, besides button mushrooms, his father cultivated straw mushrooms (cao gu, 草菇), shiitake and wood-ear.

“I use less land to grow mushrooms than my father did, but produce 10 times what he did,” says Chu, who now focuses on abalone mushrooms (bao yu gu, 鲍魚菇) and king oyster mushrooms – both belonging to the widely eaten Pleurotus genus – as well as wood-ear. He also grows rice and muskmelons.

Both Tai and Chu are optimistic about the future of mushroom farming in Taiwan. “The focus now is investing in high-tech equipment to take us through the next 10 to 20 years, and researching how to make the growing environment more productive,” says Chu.

He explains that staff training is also important. “The average age of mushroom workers in this area is 50, but many young mothers cherish the flexible working hours. For certain tasks, youth is a distinct advantage in terms of good eyesight, quick learning, and sharper execution.”

Tai says labor issues are his biggest challenge. “Twenty- and thirty-somethings don’t like this kind of work,” he says. Like some other employers in the agricultural sector, he laments that he is not allowed to hire foreign laborers.

Tai and Chu’s indoor operations protect against unfavorable weather. Nantou County’s shiitake farmers, few of whom have temperature-controlled growing sheds, have reported falling crop yields, apparently because of climate change. However, science may yet make air-conditioning unnecessary. On its website, New Taipei City-based MycoMagic Biotechnology Co., Ltd. touts a patented enoki variant that thrives at temperatures of 16 to 25 degrees Celsius. They also claim it grows 30% faster, “increasing warehouse turnover rates and total production rates.”

Energy consumption aside, commercial fungus cultivation does little harm to the environment. Being a closed system, not much water is required, even though relative humidity is maintained at 90%. The only chemical Tai uses is slaked lime – calcium hydroxide, Ca(OH)2) – to adjust the natural pH value of sawdust from 5.5 to between 9 and 9.5.

Each year in Taiwan, an estimated 29.6 million bags and 7.5 million bottles are emptied of substrate. The spent substrate from Tai’s enoki production line is composted, mixed with animal manure, and then used for growing other types of mushrooms.

Among Taiwan’s mushroom growers are hobbyists like You Jin-zhi, a 75-year-old Atayal resident of Zhongzhi Village in New Taipei City’s Wulai District. You, a retired government worker, started growing shiitake mushrooms on log sections around 20 years ago. He harvests them in November, and what he and his relatives do not consume he gives away to friends and neighbors.

You says people have been cultivating mushrooms this way in Wulai for at least 30 years, but the number of growers is declining. Obtaining suitable logs has become more difficult because of forestry-conservation laws. Also, packaged mushrooms are affordable and available year-round. Proving his point, most of the dried mushrooms sold along Wulai Old Street are actually from Puli in Nantou County.

At least 32 poisonous mushroom species grow in Taiwan’s forests and bamboo groves, but that does not stop enthusiasts from gathering wild fungi. One wild species often eaten is Macrolepiota albuminosa. In rural parts of Tainan where it grows especially well, it is better known by its Holo name, ke-bah si ko (雞肉絲菇, “shredded chicken-meat mushroom,” on account of its color and texture. So far, no one has successfully farmed Macrolepiota albuminosa because it grows only in obligate symbiosis with a particular termite species.

Between June and August, if there is a succession of rainy days with temperatures above 26 degrees Celsius, those who know where to look are able to gather several kilograms of ke-bah si ko each day. One Chinese-language blogger says the mushrooms taste best when boiled with a little salt, gushing: “No artificially cultivated mushroom can match the flavor, which is refreshingly crisp.”

The Other Wufeng

Wufeng (霧峰區) in Taichung means “misty mountain peak.” Taoshan Village (桃山村) of Wufeng Township (五峰鄉, “five peaks”) in Hsinchu County also has a mushroom-growing tradition, although many of those who visit the area’s most famous sight – the house where the “Young Marshal” Zhang Xueliang spent several years under house arrest – know nothing about it.

Like Wulai, Taoshan is a predominantly Atayal community. Several families here cultivate shiitake mushrooms outdoors on hardwood logs and sell them fresh, dried, or grilled.

At least one Taoshan farmer believes his family has been growing mushrooms this way for around a century. When asked why, despite this long history, the village’s mushrooms are so little known outside the area, he offers a remarkable explanation. Fearing the authorities would nationalize the trade, Taoshan’s shiitake farms went underground soon after Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat to Taiwan. Only after the lifting of martial law did local fungus growers dare place growing logs in public view and offer their produce to strangers.

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