Penn State Mushroom Short Course marks milestone in aiding industry

October 25, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Pennsylvania has a more than century-long history as the nation's leading mushroom-producing state, thanks in part to research and extension programs in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Recently, one of those programs — the Penn State Mushroom Short Course — marked its 60th year of providing mushroom growers with researched-based information and expertise aimed at advancing the industry.

"The Mushroom Short Course has ensured that growers have the opportunity to incorporate up-to-the-minute findings from Penn State and beyond into their production practices," said Carolee Bull, head of the college's Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, which houses Penn State's research and educational programs related to mushroom production.

"It serves as a virtuous circle, informing growers who then provide insights and new ideas for research that are reported in subsequent years."

The two-day course was the brainchild of Leon Kneebone, professor of botany and plant pathology, who believed growers would benefit from coming together and hearing from Penn State faculty about advancements in disease prevention and production practices. Participants in the inaugural course — and in others to follow — voiced their unwavering support.

Over the years, as Penn State's mushroom research program grew, so has the variety and depth of the course material aimed at increasing productivity, profitability and sustainability within the industry, according to current course organizers and Penn State mushroom science faculty members David Beyer and John Pecchia.

Course curriculum focuses on the latest research and best practices related to mushroom quality, food safety, dietary health, regulatory concerns, disease and pest management, cultivation practices, compost quality, spawn technology, energy usage, spent compost use and disposal, and other topics.

Beyer and Pecchia determine course content after meeting with industry representatives early in the year to gather ideas. They also keep their fingers on the pulse of the mushroom industry to learn what's happening — and monitor agriculture in general — to further refine educational goals.

"Penn State mushroom research is at the forefront of mushroom science, so growers nationally and internationally look to us to develop the best practices in mushroom production and help solve problems," Beyer said. "We believe it's important to include them in the planning process and develop education that meets their needs."

In recent years, some of the sessions that have complemented the traditional education have focused on business and marketing techniques, development of mobile apps for the industry, phorid fly control, labor strategies, and requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

This year's conference, held in early October at Penn State's University Park campus, was attended by more than 150 producers from the United States, Canada and Europe. Most attendees hail from Pennsylvania's mushroom industry, which leads the country in mushroom production, with an output in 2017 of more than 573 million pounds, valued at more than $550.6 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That represents more than 60 percent of the Agaricus (white button) mushrooms grown in the United States.

One of the longtime players in the industry is Leone "Sonny" Pizzini, of Pizzini and Sons Inc., a family-owned mushroom and produce company in Landenberg, Pennsylvania. Pizzini most likely holds the record for the number of short courses attended — he's been to 58. He currently serves as chairman of the hospitality committee for the event.

"The Mushroom Short Course has had an enormous impact on the industry," he said. "Thanks to the research and education provided by Penn State, we've learned new techniques and technology that have boosted our operations and allowed us to improve mushroom quality and expand varieties."

Another bonus for Pizzini is the lifelong friends he's made at the conference, including Peter Gray, grower-manager at Phillips Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square, one of the largest growers of specialty mushrooms in the United States. Gray, too, appreciates the camaraderie among conference participants.

"I've had the privilege of meeting people from all over the country and the world, and through those relationships I have gained new insights and ideas," Gray said. "It is one of the aspects that makes the conference even better."

While the Penn State Mushroom Short Course is a signature event, Penn State mushroom scientists help companies throughout the year by hosting workshops on topics such as composting, disease management and pest control, and by conducting on-site visits to observe practices and troubleshoot challenges. Beyer and Pecchia added that they are working toward online education offerings, too.

While these programs help to ensure the prosperity of the mushroom industry, the true beneficiaries of these efforts are consumers.

"People are more aware of the health benefits of mushrooms, and that has led to a marked increase in demand," said Pecchia. "Aiding producers in providing their consumers with safe, delicious and nutritious mushrooms is the foundation of our program."

More information about Penn State's mushroom program — including fact sheets, publications and educational offerings — is available online at https://plantpath.psu.edu/facilities/mushroom/about.

  • Leon Kneebone

    Leon Kneebone, professor of botany and plant pathology, is shown instructing an early Penn State Mushroom Short Course.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 29, 2018