Modern cultivation methods have sparked a mushroom revolution in Cambodia
By Natalie Phillips
Mushrooms can be secretive little things. Unlike plants, these members of the fungi kingdom do not need sunlight to live. Mushrooms are at home in the dark, where they appear like spirits, rising from the remains of dead crops and trees.
The Cambodia Mushroom Farm is similarly evasive, a ring of one-room structures hidden behind an unmarked gate on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Separate indoor environments make it possible for owner Saorithy Kim to control each stage of his mushrooms’ development. It is a practice that contrasts with traditional growing methods in the Kingdom and could revolutionise the industry.
“In Cambodia, the rice field is the traditional mushroom growing vessel. The mushroom grower likes to grow them not in the house but in the rice field so that they can do it during the dry season,” Saorithy Kim said. “But in the rainy season, they cannot do it… the yield, the output, is not sustainable.”
Like the fruit of a tree, mushrooms are the fruit of mycelium. Healthy mycelium can grow to be incredibly large and long-lived: In the US state of Oregon, a mycelial mat grew to be 2,200 years old and 970 hectares in area before logging roads divided it. However, keeping the mycelium free from contamination is a major challenge of mushroom growing.
“Air can bring in bacteria and cause contamination,” Saorithy Kim said. “Some farmers don’t know this, and they don’t have experience in how to make pure mushroom strains. I used to collect from the forest for good strains.”
To grow mushrooms in rice fields, farmers spread mushroom spawn over straw, then water it and wait. Saorithy Kim, however, quarantines these precious organisms in glass jars plugged with cotton in a temperature-controlled building. With mist drifting down onto them from an overhead spray system, oyster mushrooms gradually creep out of a sterilised bag of organic matter until they are large enough to harvest. Employees collect the fungi at 1am to have them ready for market buyers at about 3am.
Steady business has allowed Saorithy Kim to further modernise his farm. A new bench – an enclosed cabinet-like workspace – recently purchased from Thailand, provides a more sterile environment when the mycelium is introduced to the grain.
“We used to mix substrate by hand. It takes a lot of time, a lot of labour. Now we use a machine,” Saorithy Kim’s assistant Lida Siek said, gesturing towards another new purchase from Thailand.
Success, however, wasn’t spawned overnight. “When we started our mushroom production in the first stage, we failed,” Lida Siek said. “There were so many obstacles. We went to the wrong place trying to get trained… it was all theory but not practical.”
Through friends in Thailand, Lida Siek and Saorithy Kim met mushroom experts Dr Chai from Thailand and Dr Ha from Korea. “Dr Ha supported us with techniques to grow mushrooms through modern production. I trained two times in Korea,” Saorithy Kim said.
Others are beginning to see the economic possibilities of more tightly controlled, modern growing methods. The Trailblazer Foundation is an NGO based in Siem Reap that aims to develop self-sustaining programmes for rural villagers. Every year, representatives of the Trailblazer Foundation meet with local commune chiefs in Siem Reap province, who request projects based on the needs of the district chief.
“One of their projects was an agricultural programme that would take up the least amount of land space,” programme director Scott Coats said. “Oyster mushrooms seem to be [ideally] suited.”
Since 2011, Coats estimates they have trained 60 farmers and at least 15 NGO workers through their mushroom programme. The project emphasises the nutritional benefits of mushrooms and provides farmers with instructions on how to build a grow house out of bamboo and palm leaves. Farmers are also given hands-on experience in preparing the substrate and sterilising the environment.
Unlike other crops, mushrooms do not require pollinators. When grown indoors, they are not season-dependent and can provide farmers with year-round income.
“The farmers are very happy. They tell us mushrooms are easy to take care of. They have more time to work on the rice field,” said Trailblazer’s director Sor Ratanak, adding that farmers can make about 7,000 riel ($1.75) a day selling mushrooms at the market.
Most edible mushroom species are saphotrophs, which are responsible for decomposing dead organic matter. Without decomposer fungi, the world would be completely smothered in debris, meaning that a further benefit of mushroom culture is that it naturally encourages recycling – a plus in Southeast Asia, where 60-70% of waste is organic matter.
“Farmers can get more money from mushroom growing,” Saorithy Kim said. “They can recycle, they can gain from the waste of agriculture. That’s why I decided to grow mushrooms.”
Materials ranging from lotus husks to leftover cotton waste from the Thai garment industry, which Lida Siek claims produces the “best flavour and yield”, are used on the Cambodia Mushroom Farm. Abnormally shaped mushrooms, which customers are wary of, are composted and used as fertiliser.
In the wider world, mushrooms are continuing to attract attention as awareness of their unique versatility increases. Global mushroom production has been “trending steadily upward since 2003”, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, while Penn State University notes that total mushroom production worldwide increased more than 18 times between 1965 and 1997 (the last year data were available).
“In five years time, we want to be the mushroom leaders here in Cambodia and export our product to countries such as Laos and Myanmar,” Saorithy Kim said. “If someone wants to grow mushrooms, they can come here and I will explain it to them. We plan to open a training centre. We want to create a mushroom farm community.”
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