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US (PA): Penn State assists Cameroonian refugees with specialty mushroom ventures

Specialty mushrooms such as oyster are relatively easy to grow on a small scale, making them attractive to those looking to diversify a farm, engage in a hobby or launch a small business. Research-based information from Penn State about producing specialty mushrooms also may benefit people from a war-torn region of Africa.

A recent Penn State Extension webinar, “Specialty Mushrooms Cultivation 101,” covered different mushroom varieties and the supplies and equipment needed to grow at home. The webinar was a hit, with 116 people from nine U.S. states in attendance.

Also among the audience were 14 Southern Cameroonian refugees who tuned in from the Ogoja refugee camp in Nigeria. Interested in growing specialty mushrooms to start making a living in Nigeria, the refugees attended the webinar at no cost.

Penn State Extension held the webinar in collaboration with Virginia Cooperative Extension, as Beth Sastre, a commercial horticulturist in Loudoun County, Virginia, helped facilitate the session.

Maria Gorgo-Gourovitch, horticulture extension educator and an affiliate faculty instructor for Penn State’s Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, helped lead the webinar. She discussed current international production data, economic impact, and nutrition of specialty mushrooms.

Mushrooms have seen increased consumer demand. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the value of sales for commercially grown specialty mushrooms in 2021-22 totaled $87.3 million, up 32% from the 2020-21 season.

Gorgo-Gourovitch explained that the reports show increases in brown, specialty, and organic mushrooms — market growth that points to increasingly health-conscious consumers. Often called the superfood of the produce section, mushrooms contain powerful nutrients and are low-sodium, low-calorie, and cholesterol and fat-free. Mushrooms have more protein than most vegetables, are rich in vitamin D, and can benefit cognition and disease-fighting, according to recent studies.

John Pecchia, manager of the Mushroom Research Center in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, discussed specialty mushroom production and engaged in a question-and-answer session with the attendees.

He noted that beginning farmers typically start with oyster mushrooms, which can be grown reliably with low-tech methods.

“They can grow these mushrooms on any kind of agricultural, carbon-based waste,” said Pecchia, associate research professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology. “Instead of throwing away the plant material from corn, for example, you could chop up the corn stalk, inoculate it and grow mushrooms off the corn stalk.”

Pecchia gave an overview of commonly cultivated mushrooms and described the advantages and challenges associated with growing the different varieties.

Gorgo-Gourovitch connected with the refugees through Isaac Zama, who works with Amba Farmers Voice, a free agriculture educational program produced in collaboration with Southern Cameroons Broadcasting Corporation and broadcast via satellite across West Africa to assist Southern Cameroonian farmers and refugees who are victims of war. The organization aims to equip farmers with the skills and technology to improve food production. Zama contacted Gorgo-Gourovitch to inquire about the mushroom training.

Gorgo-Gourovitch said she learned that mushrooms are popular in Nigeria. “Mushrooms are used in the local cuisine,” she said. “The refugees were interested in learning something new that would be easy to sell in Nigeria.”

When asked after attending the webinar how much they learned about specialty mushrooms, 100% of participants said their knowledge increased.

“Extension’s mission is to bring research to the public, and we are in a global market now,” Gorgo-Gourovitch said. “Our mission doesn’t stop within the United States when we can provide crucial information for food sustainability to people around the world.”

Gorgo-Gourovitch also leads Penn State’s Latinx Agricultural Network, a group that seeks to enhance engagement and continue to provide support for Pennsylvania’s Latino agricultural community. She aims to develop educational materials and trainings for the Latino community in Pennsylvania as well as other parts of the United States and Latin America.

“The demographic of our audience is changing, and we need to open our portfolio to everybody who can find our information useful,” she said.

According to Gorgo-Gourovitch, Latinos make up 75% of the agricultural workforce in the U.S.; in the mushroom industry, it is as high as 90%.

“It’s very important to reach out to as many people as we can when we have the resources,” Gorgo-Gourovitch said. “It feels good to work for an organization that cares about what happens not only locally or in our state but nationally and in other parts of the world.”


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