A mechanical engineer has started implementing an ambitious plan to address Kashmir’s pre-harvest and post-harvest concerns so that mushroom cultivation takes off as a sustainable livelihood option for the marginal and the women. Khalid Bashir Gura visited Masood Wafai’s Lar adventure to locate the crippling deficits in the mushrooms eco-system and the way forward
On a misty cloudy morning, traversing through yellow carpeted leaves, in Ganderbal’s Lar, Masood Wafai, 42, is busy in an unusual interaction with farmers. Attempting to address apprehensions, the widely travelled man is using his knowledge and experiences to infuse hope by highlighting the growing market of mushrooms across the globe.
A mechanical engineer by training and IT trader by profession, the salt and pepper bearded man is in hearts of hearts, a farmer. Passionate about integrated farming especially mushroom farming, he is attempting a new model to improve mushroom farming in Kashmir to get more people involved and prevent a capital flight. Masood’s travel to developed countries encouraged him to conceive the idea of integrated farming.
“Kashmir being a temperate zone is a very good place for agricultural activities, which can help in improving agriculture as a better contributor to SGDP,” Wafai said. “I have land. I can grow any conventional cash crop but mushrooms are cost-effective. It does not require much effort, time and resources, so it can change the lives of people faster.”
A piece of ancestral land the family owns is barren and abandoned for a long time. “I want to convert it into a mushroom unit and warehouse and address marketing problems which hinder our growth in the mushroom sector and discourage growers also.”
Using this land as the basis for his initiative, Masood has fixed an ambitious target for himself. He wants to make Ganderbal a mushroom hub. Right now, he has around 90 units in his network. In 52 units, the government has already put in its subsidy.
“They all operate individually. If all the produce reaches to the local market (mandi) in an organized manner, we may be addressing a deficit,” he said. Kashmir, his market research suggests, relies on 60 per cent of imports. Mushrooms have a national market of Rs 15 lakh crore and are expected to grow by ten per cent within the next five years given their medicinal and cuisine value. “In Kashmir, we consume 20-24 tonnes a day and only around eight tonnes is the local production.”
What makes mushrooms a different entity is that they are neither animals nor plants. They grow from spores, unlike seeds that get them out and away from stiff legislation that rules agriculture. The unorganised sector can trigger major socio-economic changes given the fact that India is yet to reach a million-ton production level and hugely depends on imports. It requires minimum space and the least resources and the outcome is fairly good.
Mushroom has a life span of less than a week after being harvested. The cultivation ecosystem has three phases.
“Firstly when the mushroom compost is acquired, the spawns (seeds) have to be refrigerated till the time they are mixed with the compost,” explains Wafai. “However, there are different kinds of spawning. One is mixed and the other one is layer-wise spawning.” The maintenance of temperature (21-24 degree Celsius) and humidity (80 per cent) is key to its growth.
Soon, fluffy white layers of patches appear. These are mycelium, thread-like collections of cells that eventually become the mushroom. “Soon we add coco peat and give it a temperature shock by plummeting temperature so that mushrooms can shoot up,” said Wafai. “Soon, mycelium starts producing hyphal knots, the first visible signs of structure that will eventually become mushrooms. Following this, a casing process starts.”
A casing is a top dressing applied to the spawn-run compost on which the mushrooms eventually form. The casing should be able to hold moisture as it is essential for the development of a firm mushroom, however, it also has to resist structural breakdown following repeated watering. After four weeks, mushroom pinholes get matured for cropping and are plucked.
This crop (flesh) can grow at any time of year. It takes around 30- 45 days in Kashmir for a crop to grow in each cycle and if a unit functions optimally, there is a potential for more than six cycles in a year.
This makes the crop distinct from all other cash crops. Kashmir usually is a single-crop area.
Farmers are well-versed in the cultivation process. In certain cases, a quick training session helps them. However, they have crippling issues in pre-harvest and post-harvest. The highly perishable crop has a limited shelf life and farmers produce mushrooms in smaller quantities making it difficult to locate the buyer and sustain the supply.
Mushrooms grow naturally. For commercial mushrooms, however, readymade nutrient-rich soil is required. It is called compost and is made through a huge mechanical process and comes in bags. Jammu and Kashmir get these compost bags from neighbouring states. These need to be replenished after some time. It makes sustaining the process challenging as families cannot afford to get it on their own.
These two issues have made mushrooms an unpopular crop. That is precisely where Wafai intends to intervene.
The plan is to create a unit first with 7000 bags. While the unit will produce a good quantity on its own, on daily basis, Wafai had linked up all the mushroom cultivators in the village so that he purchases their crop – regardless of the quantity – on a daily basis. This will make the supply chain sustainable.
Farmers are able to get into mushroom cultivation only if the government joins in. It is the government that offers a subsidy of Rs 15000 per 100-bag unit. The subsidy goes to the purchase of compost bags at Rs 150 per bag. A bag offers two kilograms of mushrooms in one cycle. The second cycle needs a new bag and that is where the crisis is.
The agriculture department in Kashmir runs a compost-making unit that has the capacity of 3000 bags in a month-long cycle. While it is in a position to give a farmer the bags for the first cycle, there is no possibility of supplying the same number in the second or the subsequent cycle. This results in a quick rise and fall of the mushroom cultivators.
“The compost is to be sourced from Punjab as we lack the capacity here,” Wafai said. “Another crisis is that a single farmer cannot afford to get a truckload because he may not require 3000 bags. So the network I am working at will have enough buyers and we will be able to import in bulk. That will help sustain the cultivator’s interest and income.”
In the first cycle, key investment comes from the government as a subsidy, which helps the farmer save almost the entire sale amount. However, from the second cycle, he has to fund all expenses that can reduce his margins up to two-thirds. “For an investment of Rs 15000 (purchase of 100 bags), he will have a turnover of Rs 30,000 and must be in a position to net a profit of Rs 10,000, if not less,” Wafai said. “We are working with former who are willing to use the same space (100-bag) to accommodate 400 bags (vertical farming) and that will increase the farmer’s margins fivefold and five cycles can make the net change.”
Compost bags cost Rs 100 for a 7 kg bag and Rs 150 for a 10 kg bag.
The academia, governance structure and trade are unanimous that mushroom cultivation cannot take off at a grand scale in Jammu and Kashmir unless the compost-making is given a top priority.
Dr Baby Summuna, is an Assistant Professor and a junior scientist at SKUAST’s plant pathology division. She believes that tons of agricultural waste that Kashmir produces can feed a huge compost-making sector. Tons of apple wood – produced through pruning and conversion of traditional orchards by high-density plants, almond and walnut shells, sawdust, wheat and paddy straw and other conventional ingredients, are the vital raw materials for compost. Besides, the researcher said chicken manure, urea, wheat bran, gypsum, mustard oil cake and many other things can be used and these are locally available. Summuna said raw material requires an adequate infrastructure to convert it into compost. Wafai said locally produced compost can reduce the per bag costs to even Rs 100, or even less.
Once the compost is ready, it is followed by the spawning process. “For 100 kg compost we need 500-740 grams of spawns”, she said.
The draft agriculture policy has also admitted the crisis. Insisting that the mushroom cultivation can grow from an existing Rs 21 crore crop to Rs 120 crore sector by upgrading the skill, creating 26 pasteurized compost-making units, 72 controlled condition cropping rooms, 10 spawn production labs, 1.5 lakh pasteurized compost bags, 300 mushroom sheds, four mushroom canning and pickling units, 60 solar drying units involving 300 women SHGs and up-skilling 6600 farmers.
The policy draft said that only 2570 mushroom growers produce 21 tons a year which leaves a considerable gap even for local requirements.
Of three main varieties of mushrooms – White Buttom, Milky and Dhingri – grown in India, Kashmir mostly grows and consumes the white button mushroom.
Hopeful and apprehensive at the same time, a specially-abled teenager, Shehnaza, has chosen to cultivate mushrooms for the first time. After getting mandatory training, she availed of the government subsidy scheme as she considers it cost-effective and does not hinder her daily routine.
“Initially we had to pay Rs 15000 to buy compost bags and also Rs 1400. There were other expenses on maintaining temperature and preventing the crop from diseases,” Shehnaza said about the 100-bag unit she established in the hall of her home.
With Wafai intervention, the young cultivator says part of her tensions is taken care of. “We expect him to sell our produce and ensure it becomes our viable source of livelihood,” she said. Wafai said the mushroom cultivation suits the females better because it is all within the premises they manage.
Even young men are joining. Kaiser Abdullah, 24, is a trained engineer. Now, he runs two mushroom units. He said he is aware of the demand but the marketing is a different chain. “He (Wafai) linked many farmers and ensured that our produce will not go waste,” Kiasar said. “It is a pain seeing farmers wandering to get their produce sold. Like mushrooms have an organized market chain.”
Even officials are happy. Irfan Gul, sub-divisional agricultural officer, Ganderbal, said that farmers have marketing problems despite generating good quantity crops. She said the department supports Farmer Integrated Groups (FIG’s) and Farmers’ Produce Groups (FPO’s).
The mushrooms are in demand and most of the supplies come from neighbouring states. However, to sustain an impressive mushroom sector, the stakeholders will have to highlight the nutritional worth of the crop.
“When mushrooms are incorporated into a healthy diet plan, they always help to improve our immune function,” said Dr Beenish Zohra, Dietician and Clinical Nutritionist. “High in antioxidants, mushrooms are also known to have cancer-fighting properties. Providing protein and fibre, mushrooms are also found to be good for weight loss,” Mushrooms are fat and cholesterol free, with low sodium, and quite a few calories. They are a good source of potassium – a nutrient known for reducing the tension in our blood vessels, potentially helping to lower blood pressure.
“Mushrooms are rich in the antioxidant called selenium, which helps the body from damaging free radicals that can cause heart diseases and cancers,” Zohra said as Oyster and shiitake mushrooms are believed to have the most effective beta-glucans which is a form of soluble dietary fibre that is strongly linked to improving cholesterol and boosting heart health. “It also helps in regulating blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes,” she said.