Cultivating a morel mushroom industry in the North Central United States

Progress report for LNC19-416

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $199,993.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Gregory Bonito
Michigan State University
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

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 exogenous nutrition have led to breakthroughs in morel cultivation in China, resulting in thousands of hectares of morel cultivation in China. These new techniques have not yet been introduced to the United States, but they have the potential to dramatically expand the US domestic market. Thousands of pounds of morels are picked and sold fresh across the North-Central Region every year. In springtime, when morel mushrooms naturally appear, they can command a price of more than $30 per pound. Prices for morels out-of-season in the North Central Region may reach upwards of $60 per pound. These high prices have led to a heightened interest in developing supply chains that might allow for commercial morel production. This study will advance outdoor cultivation techniques for black morels in the North Central Region. In parallel, it will gauge market potential and identify marketing strategies through focus groups of established networks of mushroom foragers and vendors, as well as through broader consumer surveys and taste tests. To help lessen risks for growers, we will also assess likely costs of production and identify minimum yield levels that growers would need to reach in order to break even economically. High value morel crops can help make small farms more profitable, improving their economic sustainability while improving soil health and crop diversity.

Our biological research aims to capitalize upon a recent understanding of sexual mating types and nutritional demands of black morels to establish productive morel isolates and agricultural systems in high-tunnel, low-tunnel and forest settings in the North Central Region. Opportunities for co-cropping and rotating morel mushrooms alongside other crops, and through vertical and temporal stratification, will also be investigated. A reliable and consistent system for large-scale production of morels, together with informed marketing strategies, could provide great economic benefit to farmers across the region, thereby improving farm sustainability by integrating this high-value crop into agricultural systems. Our research will also inform strategies on how best to market these mushrooms, given consumer preferences and attitudes. We will transfer knowledge obtained through this research to interested farmers in the region through hands-on morel cultivation workshops planned in Year 3 of this project, and through publications, blogs and podcasts.

Project Objectives:

This project aims to develop morel cultivation in forest, low- and high-tunnel systems, and will compare yield and market considerations among these systems. Project results from consumer surveys and panel focus groups will help in estimating market demand along with demographics and preferences pertaining to different morel production methods and species. Our results will identify viable production practices, profitable yield thresholds, and promising marketing strategies for the morel industry. Results from outdoor morel cultivation research will establish a new knowledge base for a novel, agronomically and economically sustainable crop and co-cropping systems for the North-Central Region.

Introduction:

In the 1st year of this research we have formed collaboration with Gourmet Mushrooms Inc. and 8 individuals that are attempting to replicate methods that have been successful for cultivating morels. At the same time, we are conducting research on factors that may be important in increasing morel yields. During this first year we also conducted an economic survey of morel foragers, to establish understanding on the current morel industry in the North Central Region of the USA.

In the second year of this research we built off our established network of growers and collaborators. While all but one of the 8 participants were successful in growing morels during the first fruiting season, the yields were generally low. We attributed this to a number of factors that include the dry spring, a large number of nutrition bags getting moldy, and strain deterioration. None-the-less, the quality of cultivated morels was very high. We have addressed these issues this year, particularly through generating new vigorous strains from spores, which we then phenotyped for traits suitable for cultivation. We also split the delivery of morel spawn and nutrition bags to limit the time that sterile nutrition bags sat before being applied to the fields.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info

Research

Hypothesis:

We hypothesize that morel production will be possible across sites and states following project guidelines, but that productivity will vary between sites based on soil and environmental conditions.

Second, we hypothesize that profitability of morel cultivation will be dependent on reliable high productivity systems.

Materials and methods:

Figures_SARE

Morel Isolate Library: Our research will focus on the cultivation of black morels, since they have been successfully cultivated in China on a large scale. PI Bonito’s lab has a diverse culture library of 100s of morel strains. Using a DNA-based approach, we have characterized the mating types of several strains of the black morel species Morchella importuna and M. sextelata. Through this NCR-SARE research we aim to expand this collection of morel isolates, both by improving current strains and by adding additional strains and species that are already adapted to the North Central Region environment. During the spring months we will collect, isolate, and take spore drops of morel mushrooms to add to our isolate library. These biological resources will be used in breeding and strain improvement studies that rely upon the pairing and successful mating of compatible haploid (unmated) individuals (Volk and Leonard, 1989). We plan to collaborate with morel foragers through the MAMI organization in order to expand the genetic diversity of our collection of native morels from the region. Isolates will be maintained on malt-extract agar, and cultures will be preserved in sterile water and through cryopreservation protocols (Homolka, 2013). Morel spores will be collected on aluminum foil from spore drops and stored at -20°C. To confidently identify morel collections we will sequence multiple locations of the genome (loci), including the ITS rDNA and RPB2, which are standard molecular markers for species identification of morels (Taskin et al., 2012). New strains will be developed from spores of fruiting bodies of interest by crossing single spore isolates and through poly-spore crosses. All isolates will be screened with DNA-based techniques to determine strains carrying both mating-type alleles, a priority for establishing viable and sustainable morel cultivation systems.

Planting Morels: With the use of molecular tools we have already identified a number of productive, self-fertile strains. In Year 1 of this project we focused on a single isolate for the proposed research, since they are self-fertile and have been shown to be amenable to cultivation with high productivity. We partnered with Gourmet Mushrooms Inc (GMI). to produce vegetative tissue (spawn) from these isolates on nutrient sawdust, buffered with CaCO3 to a pH of 7.0, which is optimal for morel growth. Colonized morel spawn was sent out to the growers from GMI. Soils were prepared by tilling, adjusting soil pH to 7.0 is soils were acidic. All participants sent in soils for testing nutrient and pH levels. We will plant rows of these isolates  from March to November to determine the optimal planting time for morels. Morel spawn will be planted in rows in high-tunnel, low-tunnel and forest settings at the rate of 0.5 kg / m2 at a depth of four inches. Drip irrigation tape will be installed after planting and rows will then be covered with black plastic to maintain proper soil moisture (50%). Exogenous nutritional bags will be applied to planted spawn during the conidiation (asexual sporulation) phase. We will compare yield differences due to the use of different cellulosic substrates in nutrient bags including, corn stover, wheat straw, and hardwood leaf mulch. We will compare yields across the different habitats and seasons. Data we collect will primarily focus on morel production and fresh yield differences between species, strains, treatments, locations and seasons. Produced morels will be available for panel tests on consumer preferences between morel strains, species and production methods.

Our primary research site will be in high-tunnels at the Michigan State University Horticulture Research Center (see support letter from Dr. Lang). At this location, which is has excellent research infrastructure and is easily accessible to us, we aim to prove and optimize production and techniques before presenting them to interested farmers. In Year 1, we aim to produce morels in a monoculture system in high-tunnels. We will also plant morels under gutter systems in the high-tunnels, which are used for strawberry production. This vertical stratification approach will make use of the soil beneath the gutter trays where the strawberries are produced, and will aid in shading the morel mycelium in the soil, which is critically important in the early stages of establishment and fruiting body development. In Year 2, upon success with monoculture morel production, we will attempt to integrate morel production with other crops grown at the MSU Horticulture Research Center, including raspberries, cherries and apples. We are aware that each crop has its own specific management regime for watering and addressing pests and diseases. This will be a potential challenge for establishing co-cropping systems. Similar to vertical stratification, temporal stratification may help alleviate some of the apparent incompatibility of crop management regimes. We will cooperate with Mike Levine from Nature and Nurture LLC. (see support letter) located in Washtenaw County MI, to establish low-tunnel morel cropping systems over the three years of this project. Mr. Levine’s farm grows mushrooms and a high diversity of organic produce. Low-tunnel systems have a lower start-up cost to establish than high-tunnels. Moreover, they can be more easily established in more locations than high-tunnels, since they have a smaller footprint. We will establish morel beds in forest systems at the Rennick family farm (see Mr. Bryan Rennick’s support letter) in Eaton County MI, over the three years of this project. Mr. Rennick has the necessary equipment for preparing the soil and irrigating more plots, and he is a trained mycologist with a keen eye and attention to detail. We are confident that Mr. Rennick will be diligent in maintaining and reporting results of trials on his property.

In Year 3 of this project, once methods for establishing outdoor morel cultivation have been demonstrated and adapted to the North Central Region, we plan to run workshops with interested farmers demonstrating how to establish morel cultivation systems. Interested individuals will be identified through MAMI and through the surveys conducted during the first two years of this project. In addition, workshops will advertised through the NCR-SARE network of researchers and educators so that the information is readily available in all NCR states. We plan to hold one workshop at the MSU Horticulture Research Center to demonstrate high-tunnel morel cultivation systems. We will hold another workshop in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation Center in Escanaba, MI (see support letter – Dr. Jesse Randall) in order to engage more rural communities, including the indigenous Keweenaw Nation, whom have reached out to PI Bonito about their interest in cultivating forest mushrooms. Methods, spawn, and exogenous nutrient bags will be provided to workshop participants, and a survey will be administered to evaluate knowledge gained through these activities.

Market research: Prior to any experimental work with consumers, we will identify a current baseline for the morel industry via questionnaires distributed to MAMI workshop participants. The questions will cover attitudes toward morel cultivation, while also eliciting pricing and sales information in order to benchmark where morel mushrooms are currently being sold and what prices sellers currently receive. By engaging with these stakeholders, we also seek to build our network of interested farmers. This survey will be completed by MAMI workshop registrants at workshops held during the term of the project. In addition, we will support and capitalize upon the mushroom tastings common to the MAMI workshops that are held at least four times a year. Specifically, we will conduct blind taste tests comparing the sensory attributes of farmed versus wild morels. Because mushroom tastings are already common at these events, no payment will be necessary to recruit participants. Sensory data will be collected via the ‘Poll Everywhere’ text message service.

To develop an understanding of consumer preferences for morels, we will utilize established preference survey methods. Such methods are commonly used in agricultural economics and marketing to assess consumer preferences (Malone and Lusk, 2017; 2018). Dr. Trey Malone, who has extensive experience with market research, will lead this research thrust and the associated outreach. We will conduct surveys in two rounds. In the first year, we will conduct a nationally representative survey of approximately 1,000 U.S. consumers who have purchased mushrooms in the last year. The first block of the survey will determine consumer awareness of morels compared to alternative mushroom varieties. The second part will identify potential consumers and what attributes they consider most important when making food choices. A final component will include demographic questions. Pretesting will be conducted with MAMI leadership in order to be certain the survey accurately represents potential future market conditions for morels. These results will help us generate a perspective of the expected prices morel growers might be able to expect if they were to enter the marketplace.

Based on the results of the first consumer demand survey, we will conduct another survey in year two where the goal will be to identify the most accurate methods for promoting and advertising morels. For example, we will evaluate the effectiveness in highlighting the taste or the localness of morel mushrooms to potential consumers (Malone and Lusk, 2019). In addition, we will implement a follow-up stated preference choice experiment where we will ask likely consumers to choose between potential substitutes for morels at varying price levels. Results from the second consumer survey will help us estimate demand for morel traits that are linked to farming methods and species.

Break-even yield analysis. The break-even yield analysis will be supervised by Dr. Swinton, who has over 30 years of experience with agricultural production economics. This form of profitability analysis enables a prospective grower to evaluate yield risk by identifying the minimum yield needed to make a profit. The break-even analysis will be developed in the final year of the project from three component parts: 1) fixed costs, 2) variable costs, and 3) expected prices. The fixed cost of setting up morel production could be a major barrier to taking on this novel crop. We will estimate the cost of establishing production in low tunnel, high tunnel, and forest settings, allocating those costs according to whether there are other crop products besides morels across which to share the costs (e.g., fruit or vegetable crops in tunnel settings). Based on the depreciable lifetimes of tunnels and any specialized equipment associated with morel production, we will estimate the annual fixed cost per acre. By interviewing indoor morel operations (Gourmet Mushrooms, Inc. of Scottville, MI) and by closely tracking the field research collaborators during Years 1 and 2 of the project, we will estimate the annual variable costs of growing morels. Summing those values will yield an annual total cost per unit of land. Linking that value with a range of potential cultivated morel prices from the consumer research, we will develop simple breakeven yield thresholds equal to total costs divided by a range of likely expected prices (Dillon, 1993). If morel production would displace land or tunnel space that would otherwise have produced other crops, we will factor in the opportunity cost to a grower of losing those alternative crop earnings by developing comparative breakeven yield values (Hilker, Black and Hesterman, 1987).

Pivoting research in a COVID era: Given the ongoing COVID pandemic, we've have had to make some adjustments to the project. Because the normal annual MAMI workshop did not occur in Year 1 (2020), we could not conduct the baseline survey of moral gathering and production practices as planned. Instead, we conducted an online survey of morel gatherers (described below). Also, we have used ZOOM as a platform to have meetings with participants to distribute materials and information. Meetings and information provided are video recorded and distributed to participating farmers. In the second year of this project we have added a Slack site to serve as a discussion forum for participants to ask questions and to share photos and other information, and to interact.  

References

Dillon, C.R. 1993. Advanced Breakeven Analysis of Agricultural Enterprise Budgets. Agricultural Economics 9(2):127-143.

Homolka, L., 2013. Methods of Cryopreservation in Fungi, in: Laboratory Protocols in Fungal Biology, Fungal Biology. Springer New York, pp. 9–16.

Hilker, J.H., J.R. Black, and O.B. Hesterman. 1987. Break-Even Analysis for Comparing Alternative Crops. Extension Bulletin E-2021. MSU Extension, Michigan State University.

Malone, T. and J.L. Lusk. 2017. “Taste Trumps Health and Safety: Incorporating Consumer Perceptions into a Discrete Choice Experiment for Meat.” Journal of Agricultural & Applied Economics. 49(1):139-157.

Malone, T. and J.L. Lusk. 2018. “If You Brew it, Who Will Come? Market Segments in the American Beer Market.” Agribusiness: An International Journal. 34(2): 204-221.

Malone, T. and J.L. Lusk. 2019. “Mitigating Choice Overload: An Experiment in the U.S. Beer Market.” Journal of Wine Economics. EarlyCite: 1-23.

Taskin, H., Büyükalaca, S., Hansen, K., O’Donnell, K., 2012. Multilocus phylogenetic analysis of true morels (Morchella) reveals high levels of endemics in Turkey relative to other regions of Europe. Mycologia 104, 446–461.

Volk, T.J., Leonard, T.J., 1989. Experimental Studies on the Morel. I. Heterokaryon Formation Between Monoascosporous Strains of Morchella. Mycologia 81, 523–531.

Research results and discussion:

Partnering with Gourmet Mushrooms Inc, and 7 farmer participants, we established roughly 4500 ft of rows of morels across 4 states in the North Central Region. We will not know if these sites were productive until May 2021, but we have reason to believe the most of the sites will have some success and have already started to see morels developing at one site. Research into morel planting depth, as well as nutrition type and density of planting/feeding is ongoing, but we expect to have some important results that will inform 2021 activities. All farmers that are currently engaged in this project want to stay involved in 2021-2022. We may also expand farmer participants to include 3-5 more farms this next year. 

In fact, all participants from 2020 wanted to stay involved in the project. In 2021 we also added another 4 farms to our group of participating farms, so that current 11 participants are distributed across Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana. In addition, we established a morel test plot at MSU's Montcalm research site to test whether morels could be a suitable winter/spring rotation for potato fields, and whether growing morels could help combat fungal root pathogens of potatoes including Fusarium and Rhizoctonia

All participants, but one, were successful growing morels in 2020, the first year of this project. However, yields were low ranging from a single morel to 10s of pounds. Still, these data support our hypothesis that morels can be cultivated across a large geographic range of the North Central region. In 2021-2022 we made a number of changes to improve success rates and potential yields we may expect. In order to ensure that our isolates were vigorous, we generated a new batch of M. sextelata isolates and included a second morel species (Morchella rufobrunnea) in the mix. Thus, in 2021 farmers received up to 10 different morel strains representing 2 different species, which was a change from the first year when all farmers received the same single strain. We also sent the morel spawn and nutrition bags to farmers as two separate shipments three weeks apart to reduce the chance that nutrition bags were get contaminated by other fungi before they are placed on planted morel rows. Finally, we limited the amount of morels that each farm was planting, to limit potential losses to farmers should yields be lower than expected. In 2021 we planted a total of 4800 feet of morels across 4 states in the North Central region. Visual images from farms indicate that the morel spawn was quick to colonize the soils and we expect to have a better season in terms of morel yields. Finally, we will trigger morel fruiting by watering plots once soil temperatures start to warm with no chance of freezing. We expect this will trigger a more uniform flush of morels, and may extend the season by allowing multiple flushes of morels to fruit before the soils get too warm.

On the economic side of this project we conducted a social-economic survey of certified morel foragers and morel enthusiasts across the region to determine foraging patterns and the value of morels in the region. We found that most foragers spend fewer than ten days each year foraging, and those who sell their morels are most likely to sell to local restaurants, pubs and bars, and informally to their friends.  We found that morels sell for an average price of $36 per pound for fresh black or yellow morels.  Results of this survey have been submitted to Economic Botany for peer-review. Cost of production and break-even analyses will be perform in 2022 based on data that growers are recording that includes labor time, expenses and yields.

 

Research conclusions:

N/A

Participation Summary
11 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

Education is implicit in this research because morel cultivation is a new practice in this region. In the first year of this project (2020-2021) we have successfully used ZOOM workshops, photos, videos, and discussion to educate our team on morel cultivation techniques, problems and solutions. This worked well despite the COVID restrictions.

In the second year (2021-2022) of this project we continued to use ZOOM as a platform for providing workshops and group discussions. All meetings were recorded, and recordings were distributed to participants in case they were unable to attend or wanted to review the meeting discussion. We also produced short videos and presentations to demonstrate the many steps in the process of cultivating morels.  In this second year (2021-2022) we also set up a Slack channel to serve as a discussion forum where participants could ask questions and share images, etc.. This has a been a great addition to the project, as it helped to develop a team mentality between the participants. We anticipate we will continue to use the Slack forum in year 3 of this project.

Project Activities

On site preparation for establishing an outdoor morel cultivation system
On planting and managing an outdoor morel cultivation system
On winterizing your established outdoor morel rows
On fruiting morels in Spring from established outdoor morel plots
Establish MSU Horticultural Farm Morel Plots
Establishing morel cultivation in a greenhouse
Social and Economic Assessment of morel (Morchella spp.) foraging in Michigan, USA
Fall organizing meeting on establishing an outdoor morel cultivation system
Plant morels in the North Central Region
Feeding you morel colony

Educational & Outreach Activities

6 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Journal articles
3 Online trainings
7 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

11 Farmers participated
3 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Our education and outreach has been focused mostly on educating the farmers that are cooperating in this research and education project. We maintain a Google Sheet log of all morel cultivation activities, and we have been having ZOOM meetings together for education and questions and answers.

PI Bonito has given a seminar to Penn State University Plant Pathology department on this project:

  1. Bonito G. 2021. March 1, 2021. ZOOM – Department Seminar. Cultivating a research program on morel mushrooms in Michigan

We also generated some broader attention of this research through a radio interview (Stateside MI, July 6, 2020) and through a short on-farm morel cultivation video.

1.Farming morels in the North Central Region (radio interview):

https://www.michiganradio.org/post/stateside-mi-s-medical-chief-reopening-risks-farming-morels-systemic-racism-health-care

2. On-Farm video of morel cultivation research and science in the Bonito lab:

https://vimeo.com/401096526/7f0fcc1cd9

We have a peer-review publication on social and economic factors in the foraging for morels in Michigan that has been revised and resubmitted to Economic Botany.

We also published an article on the health benefits of morels, which showed morels cultivated indoors, outdoors, and in the wild had similar beneficial functional food qualities: 

  1. Dissanayake AA, Mills GL, Bonito G, Rennick B, Nair MG. Chemical Composition and Anti-Inflammatory and Antioxidant Activities of Extracts from Cultivated Morel Mushrooms, Species of Genus Morchella (Ascomycota). International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms.1615/IntJMedMushrooms.2021039297

Learning Outcomes

11 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
4 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • how to cultivate morel mushrooms

Project Outcomes

11 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Key practices changed:
  • Actually, only 1 of the participants had cultivated morels in the past. All the others are learning and adapting to this different type of agricultural crop. Farmers are learning to measure soil pH and on monitoring soil temp, soil moisture and fungal growth on the soil and substrates. They are sharing their experiences of what works and what does not work, and adjusting previous practices and habits.

4 New working collaborations
Success stories:

We carried out a study on the functional food quality of morels, based on the morels we cultivate outdoors through this project. We used M. rufobrunnea, M. sextelata, and M. americana to investigate their medicinal qualities by using in vitro anti-inflammatory and antioxidant assays. This sampling represented conditions by which morels are produced (cultivated indoors, cultivated outdoors, and collected from natural habitats, respectively) for commercial markets. Both aqueous and methanolic extracts of all three morel species showed identical chromatographic and bioassay profiles, independent of their phylogenetic position or production method. These data demonstrates that the help benefits of wild and cultivated morels are similar.

Recommendations:

N/A

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.