Mushroom cultivation may not have caught on in a big way, but booming demand for the edible fungi has sparked attention among farmers.

The daily demand for mushroom is around 75 to 100 tonnes in Tamil Nadu alone, whereas the State's production of the button, oyster and milky mushroom is only about 10 to 15 tonnes, says Dr Prakasam, Professor, Plant Pathology at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

To meet the supply shortfall, traders source the (button) mushroom from markets in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab.

The Directorate of Mushroom Research at the ICAR has set up a centre at the farm varsity here, which according to Dr Prakasam is one of the oldest centres among the 14 established in the country.

The farm varsity has been popularising and promoting mushroom cultivation as a commercial venture for the past 25 years, conducting day-long training programme on the fifth of every month.

“We have imparted training to over 20,000 farmers till date. Though a majority of them were from Tamil Nadu, we have had participants from Kerala and Andhra as well,” the professor said.

He conceded that there were apprehensions initially about marketing the produce, though not any more. “In recent years, a good number of those who have attended our training programmes have undertaken this venture on a commercial scale. There are 600 mushroom growers in the State of whom 550 are engaged in oyster mushroom cultivation, 40 have taken up button mushroom and less than 10, the milky mushroom. The investment for starting a small oyster mushroom farm would work out to around Rs 30,000,” he added.

Seeds can be bought from the private farms, numbering about 30 in Tamil Nadu apart from the TNAU research stations, Dr Prakasam said, before adding “the main problem however is in getting the seeds on time.”

To address this issue, the centre has also started imparting training for seed production, setting up of spawn labs.

Meanwhile, the Directorate of Mushroom Research identified two farmers – Mr A.R. Subramanian from Kovaipudur in Coimbatore and Mr S.S. T Rajenthran of Thuraiyur in Trichy, and conferred them with the “Progressive Mushroom Grower Award” during the National Mushroom Mela held at Solan in Himachal Pradesh last month.

Both these farmers are into mushroom cultivation and for close to two decades now.

Mr Subramanian is engaged in production of oyster mushroom, while Mr Rajenthran concentrates on milky mushroom.

The daily production volume in Mr Subramanian's farm is estimated at 250 to 300 kg, while at the latter's it is around 100 kg. Mr Rajenthran is in the process of expanding his business.

To a query on price fixation, the TNAU professor said that the University gives an indicative rate every morning to the concerned farmers and it varied from market to market.

“The oyster mushroom was quoting Rs 85 a kg at the Uzhavar Santhai (Farmers Market) here, while it touched Rs 120a kg in Salem and Rs 200 a kg in Chennai. Coimbatore district accounts for maximum consumption of mushroom; while there is demand in other parts of the State, the produce is not available,” added Dr Prakasam.

The University has released 8 oyster mushrooms (5 varieties and 3 species), one each of milky and button mushroom species this far. Newer species are in the pipeline, the professor said.