Mycelia is the leading European research and innovation centre for mycelia, founded by the mycologist Magda Verfaillie and located in Belgium. It grows mycelia or source materials for mushrooms. The current manager of the company Kasper Moreaux talks about the cooperation with Estonians and the development of the field of mushrooms into one of the largest global industries with potential.
In 1985, Kasper’s mother Magda founded a small laboratory intended for the study and reproduction of mushrooms in her kitchen. The research centre of that time, however, gradually grew and currently has become one of the leading laboratories for mycelia or mushroom spawns in Europe.
From growing field mushrooms to becoming a millionaire
“The mushroom industry is a very complex and it has been underrated for a very long time”, says Kasper Moreaux. A large number of people started dealing more seriously with the field in the 60s, as profit for growing mushrooms as a food product was very large.
“A person who started to grow mushrooms earlier, in the 1950s certainly became a millionaire. There was a great deal of euphoria in those initial years, as it was possible to become rich fast,” introduces Kasper the history of growing mushrooms.
Those mushrooms ironically were not well grown or of good quality, compared to how we are used to consuming them today. “The mushroom growers of those times could be quite embarrassed, considering the current quality of mushrooms”, laughs Kasper. “The quality of mushroom production has increased immensely, and the entire industry has reached a high level”, he adds.
The profit margin was higher for food and food products at that time than today. People massively started growing mushrooms. It is, thus, how also Kasper’s mother found the way to mushrooms. The field had a positive reputation, and the opinion was widespread that one can earn well with mushrooms.
Magda, however, soon understood that it was not as easy as people talked of it. “We can talk about the field of conscious mushroom growing starting from the 1950s. The 1950s-1970s was the golden age of mushrooms when everything was possible. There were already some successful companies in the field at the time when my mother started in 1985. Their knowledge of mushrooms and the field was very difficult to compete with. The golden age had passed,” recalls Kasper about the moment his mother took a revolutionary step into an unknown field.
The enterprising woman understood that there is, indeed, interest in mushrooms in Western Europe, but it is impossible to compete with large companies in volume and quality. She therefore decided to focus on lesser- known fungi: “She was at that time the only one in Europe who focused on other fungi than mushrooms.”
Magda focused on the oyster mushroom and Shiitake, which at that time had a very small share. “Oyster mushrooms, for example, were not grown at all in Europe, at that time and the Shiitake that was well known and valued in Japan, was completely unknown here. My mother was the first who started importing them to Europe and creating a market,” tells Kasper about how her mother started popularising mushrooms.
Very difficult as a woman
It was very difficult to survive financially at that time. One of the bottlenecks was that there was no market yet for mushrooms, but the even greater obstacle was that she was a woman. “The majority of those who dealt with mushrooms were men and women were not recognised. She was the only woman, when she went to a conference. She was not only fighting for mushrooms, but also for women’s rights. This by today of course has changed,” tells Kasper about the journey of her mother that has changed the life of the entire family.
Magda continued along her way, despite the complicated background system and did not give up. Her decision to focus on complex and lesser -known fungi was difficult, but correct.
“Opening new markets is always a risk. You must create a need, explain why it is right, but that is always a very big task. Especially if you start with a grain mycelium, as you are creating a market that does not exist yet”, explains the manager of the company that deals with the production of source material for growing mushrooms.
At its location in Belgium, Mycelia deals with 250 different mushrooms, 98% of which has a very small market share, and which practically does not exist yet. Currently the aim is that the mushrooms reach the market and that the interest in growing and consuming them increases.
Kasper’s evaluation is that the European market for mushrooms has been developing faster than that of the US: “The innovation playing field in the US is still largely under development. One reason is certainly that there was a long period (1990’s to 2010’s) during which very little innovation took place. Our success lies in that we work with small producers and such cooperation enables to exchange experience with each other.”
This is precisely the way how Mycelia reached the Estonian company Chaga OÜ that produces food supplements and elixirs from the medical mushroom chaga or the sterile conk rot of birch. Cooperation with the Belgium laboratory was started in order to cope with the growing demand for raw materials. The Belgium laboratory uses the chaga grown in Estonia to produce dowels that can be “planted” again onto birch trees in Estonia and thereby create natural chaga plantations.
Successful cooperation with Chaga
“The cooperation with Chaga has been brief, yet we can see that everything works. The dowels planted in Estonia have successfully started to grow on the birch trees. This is certainly one of the most important and valuable achievements of my working life,” says the mushroom expert.
It is known that in Finland the percentage of chaga dowels that have started growing is approx. 70%, in Estonia it is almost 100%. This is an enormous difference according to Kasper. “This is not only a nice number, but encompasses many stages starting from the work, planning and communication with forest owners. Such a growth rate is extremely high. Everything that is more than 90 is already very good”, claims the man.
The second thing that Kasper is proud about in the field, is that finally the mycelia of mushrooms are getting attention. The attention is not only in the context of health, where the known use of mushrooms is widespread, but also in terms of the environment and innovation. “We are experiencing a major change and shift in awareness. We are ready to acknowledge that things can be done with the mycelia that we previously had not even thought of, as previously it was too difficult to produce mycelia. The given field has now developed, and mycelia have become intriguing organisms.”
Mycelia are used, for example, in the design industry and construction. A field however with the most potential is that of biocontrol and biostimulants that Kasper is very keen about.
“Biocontrol is a term that references that a certain organism fights with viruses and diseases, for example on plants not in a chemical way, but in a biological way. Grapes, for example, are often covered with small fruit flies, but certain types of mushrooms assist in fighting against them. People until now have used chemicals for killing insects, but for the last 20 years natural enemies have been discovered that can be bred. An important number of these enemies are mushrooms,” explains Kasper the huge possibilities in the world of mushrooms.
It happens in any field that when something new comes up, there are many cowboys who want to deal with it. They are lucky if everything goes well. The newcomers however mostly fail. “We have currently reached the point in the world of mushrooms, from which onward surviving means being very strong and very well prepared. Cowboys come, but the good products remain. One such example is chaga as a mushroom. China has demonstrated that there is an immense market and interest in mushrooms. The growth potential on the given market is enormous. China has the largest per capita consumption of mushrooms that in the next 10 years will even further grow. The Chinese market is certainly worth going to. They are additionally very interested and open to medicinal mushrooms”, believes the manager of Mycelia, in the ability of fungi to become one of the most important branches of industry of the next decade.
Our cooperation partner in Chaga farming is one of the top mycelium laboratories in the world in Belgium. Mycelia was founded in 1985 by mycologist Magda Verfaillie. Mycelia’s core activities aremycelium production, technology transfer and R&D.
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