The mushroom industry has been a feature of the Irish agri-food landscape for many years, just as the growing tunnels have. When the industry kicked off back in the 1990s – small mushroom farms seemed to pop up all over the countryside and many of us had our first part-time jobs picking mushrooms at the weekends and during school holidays.
Since those early days, things have changed immensely. The industry has grown from being dominated by small scale growers to being a large industrial process led by science and innovation. In fact, mushrooms are the no.1 exported food from Ireland!
If you haven’t stepped foot on a mushroom farm in a while, you’d be surprised by what you might see!
The early days
In the 1960s and 1970s mushrooms were grown in old wooden fish boxes.
This evolved to the bag system that expanded rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. Mushrooms were grown in bags of compost, pickers sat on small carts with a tray to set the punnets on, moving up and down the tunnel.
Over 60% of production went to England at this stage.
This bag and tunnel growing system is what many people who worked in the industry will recognise – a common sight across rural Ireland and a workplace for everyone from the family to neighbours. Managing the tunnels required a high level of skill and attention, and the high quality of produce made for high growth and exports.
Then came the Dutch tray system
Mushrooms are grown on tiered shelves filled with compost substrate and pickers sit on special lifts that move along each level.
A layer of casing soil (black peat mixed with lime) is applied over the substrate. The casing soil acts as a water reservoir and aids the growth of mushrooms. It usually takes six weeks from when the substrate is filled until the crop is finished.
During this period, the crop will produce three flushes (crops) of mushrooms.
The mushroom growing process is technical and requires huge amounts of adaptability
The growing environment is computer controlled to give constant temperatures of between 18°C and 25°C – the perfect condition for controlled growth. Humidity is controlled too.
The mushroom industry is the largest horticultural sector in Ireland. It has a farm gate value of €119million, of which approximately 85% is exported to the UK. It currently employs over 3,500 people and is set to keep growing!
The UK in 2020, according to DEFRA, produced nearly 100,000 tonnes of mushrooms accounting for between 24.9 and 37.4 % of home production marketed, by weight, of protected vegetables between 1985 and 2020. Mushrooms also accounted for 34.3 % and 54.4 % of value of protected vegetables produced in the UK, which in 2020 was £129.6 million.