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Poland is 1053 miles from Tibberton with a 17 and a quarter hour journey time plus the time it takes to roll on and roll off a cross channel ferry. Not that we at WyeDean Deli Confidential have ever driven from Tibberton to Poland or from anywhere else in the UK for that matter. But the mushrooms in your fridge probably have!
Why, because Poland achieved world domination in the supply of mushrooms. They wrested the accolade from Ireland who in turned had deprived the Netherlands of this prestigious first place. And so, you can see that the force of globalisation is strong in the world of wholesale fungus.
But why this cut throat worldwide scramble for a dominating market share in mushrooms? One of the reasons is that mushrooms have for a long time been the crop with the highest margin and return for growers. Added to that, relatively quick growth time to be mature for market for their first crop, they provide a second and often third flush from the same mycelium impregnated compost blocks in which they are grown. And, they can be grown all year around – perfect then in most every respect for big corporations.
For fungis like us, we recently had the privilege of spending a short time with Dennis Nutting, who together with his son Simon, are the last of Gloucestershire’s mushroom growers. In this industry, which has no middle ground, you operate either a small and niche business or you grow on an industrial scale into multi acre warehouses measured in football pitches. This is an industry for whom the cash driven relentless sector by sector globalisation is poignantly illustrated.
In the UK there where once 500 growers. There are now not enough to keep a trade association alive and that has folded too. For the UK at least, it’s an industry in decline and we are staring into the abyss of having no UK based mushroom growers at all.
Dennis and Simon’s farm in Tibberton illustrates this well with insulated mushroom tunnels lying empty. The two lifelong farmers are now very much in the niche fungus market for the time being at least. They specialise in Chestnut mushrooms which if left to mature become large open cap Portobellos. All of the mushrooms are grown on long trays at three or four different levels. The mushrooms don’t need light to mature so what lights there are serve only the pickers which again in this case is now just Simon.
But fungi breathe like us, the need oxygen and an atmosphere at specific humidity and temperature levels. So warmed fresh air has to be pumped into the tunnel in winter and sometimes cooled in summer. When it comes to picking for market, mushrooms have, so far, managed to outwit the industrial robots replacing proper jobs across the globe. When you pick them from the substrate you need to do so gently and with a slight twist rather than a pluck. Pickers also have to decide which ones to pick. Size is obvious but if, like Dennis and Simon, you also want to grow Portobellos then thinning out is needed and that takes a cognisant human.
In fact, one of the hardest things to source in the mushroom growing business, even for the industrially sized operations, is labour. In a bitter twist of irony, even Polish growers so long the net exporter of labour to the mushroom growing world is struggling and now employs a significant number of Bulgarian and Romanian pickers.
This is something Dennis and Simon have struggled with in the past and brings to life those political arguments about how we need immigrant labour for some industries and the impact Brexit may have on us.
So now knowing that the vast proportion of the mushrooms you buy in the shops and supermarkets come from Poland, spare a thought for Dennis and Simon who grow the most exquisite brown capped Chestnut and Portobello mushrooms anywhere in the world. They do it with love and passion and they do a day or so before market. They are the last bastion of one aspect of local food production in Gloucestershire whilst incidentally saving 1000 food miles per harvest.
Hook up with Simon himself at the fabulous Stroud Farmers market or buy their produce from the stalls at Gloucester and Bristol Farmer’s Markets. With a typical rash of farming conservatism, their produce doesn’t even carry a brand name. But if someone tells you these Chestnut and Portobello caps are locally grown – you can thank Dennis and Simon!
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