A wild mushroom delicacy is heading to the farm if three professors at Michigan State University (MSU) have their way. As Spring comes to the Midwest, enthusiastic mushroom foragers head into the woods in search of wild morels. Morels are considered a lucky find, for those who are fortunate enough! Consumers who can find morels in stores pay eye-popping prices. That could change under a new research project researching ways to cultivate morels.
MSU professors Gregory Bonito, Trey Malone, and Scott Swinton are leading a new research project on “Cultivating a Morel Mushroom Industry in the North Central United States.” Funded by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the project is embarking on its first growing season in 2020.
“Agricultural producers throughout the Midwest have been seeking alternative revenue streams for their agricultural businesses,” said Malone. “Scott, Greg, and I are absolutely thrilled to be exploring morels as a possibility.”
By working on such a novel product, the team hopes to break new ground as they explore the viability of morels for growers throughout the region. “Michigan has a long and rich history of morel research and culture. It is a living history, and we are excited to be working together on this next chapter! Now that we can reliably fruit morels indoors and outdoors, our goal is to make morel cultivation an economically viable and sustainable enterprise.” said Bonito.
Morels (Morchella spp.) are iconic spring mushrooms in the North-Central Region of the United States and a high-value commodity in food markets. Recent discoveries on morel mating systems and strategies for feeding the morel mycelial colony have led to breakthroughs in morel cultivation. This has resulted in thousands of hectares of morel cultivation in China, where discoveries were recently made. Introducing these techniques to the United States has the potential to dramatically expand the domestic markets and improve rural economies.
Thousands of pounds of morels are picked and sold fresh across the North-Central Region every year. In Spring, when morel mushrooms naturally appear, they can command a price of more than $30 per pound. Out-of-season, morels may exceed $60 per pound. These high prices have heightened interest in finding ways to enable commercial morel production.
In this USDA-funded Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education project biologists, economists and farmers are working together to advance outdoor cultivation techniques and economics for black morel production in the North Central Region. We are trying to engage the public to build a profitable industry, and will explore how best to manage production costs and find markets.
The researchers will gauge market potential and identify marketing strategies through focus groups and surveys. Says Malone, “once we understand how current mushroom foragers and vendors reach markets, we will explore the wider word of mushroom consumer surveys and offer taste tests.”
“Growing something new and different can be risky,” observed Swinton. “To help cope with production risk for this new crop, we will calculate the yields they’ll need in order to break even.”
High value morel crops may offer a new way to make small farms more profitable, improving their economic sustainability while improving soil health and crop diversity. Bonito, Malone, and Swinton are looking to make this a new reality.