Oyster Magic

Mawlai man shows the way to sustainable cultivation of oyster mushrooms, plans spawn laboratory

By S Maxwell Lyngdoh

The cultivation of mushroom, which is an excellent source of protein and Vitamin D, is seen as environmentally sustainable. Mushrooms can be used as a backyard activity and require a small plot but fetches high prices.

Off late, the importance of mushroom as a dietary option is being picked up by the aged who are restricted from consuming meat at regular intervals. One such common edible mushroom that is highly consumed is Pleurotus ostreatus, the oyster mushroom or oyster fungus. It was first cultivated in Germany as a subsistence measure during World War I and is now grown commercially around the world. It is related to the similarly cultivated king oyster mushroom.

Oyster mushrooms can also be used industrially for mycoremediation purposes. It is one of the more commonly sought wild mushrooms, though it can also be cultivated on straw and other media. It has the bittersweet aroma of benzaldehyde (which is also characteristic of bitter almonds). The mushroom has a broad, fan or oyster-shaped cap spanning 5–25 cm; natural specimens range from white to grey or tan to dark-brown; the margin is in-rolled when young and smooth and somewhat lobed or wavy. The flesh is white, firm and varies in thickness due to stipe arrangement. The gills of the mushroom are white to cream and descend on the stalk if present. The stipe is off-centre with a lateral attachment to wood. The spore print of the mushroom is white to lilac-grey, and best viewed on dark background. The mushroom’s stipe is often absent.

The oyster mushroom is one of the few species of carnivorous mushrooms, having been known to eat bacteria and tiny worms called nematodes. It is frequently used in Japanese, Korean and Chinese dishes as a delicacy. It is frequently served on its own, in soups, stuffed, or in stir-fry recipes with soya sauce.

Oyster mushrooms are sometimes made into a sauce, used in Asian cooking, which is similar to oyster sauce. It is best when picked young. The mushrooms are widely cultivated and used in Kerala where a wide variety of dishes are prepared from them.
In Shillong, this initiative has slowly taken shape with our people making efforts to cultivate the oyster mushroom here in the city. In 2018, Kyntiewlang Kharbuli, a resident of Mawlai, received oyster spawn from his sister, who is working in Central Agriculture University (CAU), Meghalaya.

As an experiment, he and his family members cultivated oyster spawn in a water bottle and plastic containers, and surprisingly, the result was positive. It grew well and the family realised that the environment is suitable for the mushroom. However, that was just a one-time experiment and they have almost forgotten about it. In due course of time, Kyntiewlang went on to take a step further and got himself trained in mushroom cultivation, a three-month intensive training at CAU. Since then, he has been practising the cultivation even after losses. His mother supported him by renting a room for the purpose.

With the lockdown in 2020, other family members were able to assist him in this initiative. The family further expanded the initiative by constructing another shed on top of the terrace at their residence. It turned out to be a blessing as the mushroom shed was more suitable for cultivation. Joining this venture were Kyntiewlang’s two brothers — Lovingstar Kharbuli, who completed a Bachelor of Law degree from North Eastern Hills University, and Wankmenlang Kharbuli, who completed Master of Philosophy in Social Work from Mizoram University.

Kyntiewlang’s family was able to harvest around 150 kg in their first harvest. They sold it at Rs 250 per kg. This year, they have expanded steadfastly and is expecting to harvest double than it was in the first harvest. They find that the work is not labour intensive and yet rewarding. The spawn cannot be left for many days from the time they received them, which is why they have to sacrifice all their holidays. In the long run, the cultivation work has become fun for them. The most rewarding moment for them is when they “see the mushroom grow healthy, and their harvest bear fruits”. The brothers have carried out training for farmers organised by Aide et Action in different areas of Umsning, Nongpoh, Mawtawar, Nongkohlew and Umsaw Khwan.
When it came to their own locality, the family introduced the concept of collective cultivation. Primarily, the idea was to encourage farmers in their locality to cultivate oyster mushroom. Specific instructions were given to the farmers before cultivation. Kyntiewlang and his brothers would visit from time to time to ensure that the farmers followed the processes correctly. During spawning, they would mobilise all those who are interested in such cultivation to voluntary as it would facilitate faster learning for them.

The ultimate goal of the brothers is to cultivate oyster mushroom at a large scale and supply it to Shillong city. They are also interested in pursuing value addition training and marketing to process oyster mushroom in the form of pickle, snacks, powdered mushroom and others. Based on the challenges that they encounter on a day-to-day basis when it comes to availing spawn for themselves and other farmers, this family intends to start a spawn laboratory of their own to fill in this gap.

What is even more commendable about these brothers is the example that dignity of labour should never be a barrier for those who are willing to work hard irrespective of the qualifications one has. The education that they have attained has not distanced them from the work they have chosen. In the words of Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist and political activist who was born into slavery, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

(The writer can be reached at maxwell.lyngdoh@gmail.com)

Photos sourced