In the area surrounding Venlo, Northern Limburg, there’s nothing to be seen. At least, nothing to do with mushrooms. There are a few farmers’ villages carrying strange names like America, California, Sand Arabia and Little Egypt. Some horses dotted around in the fields, some sheds. But take a look inside these sheds (ask permission first!) and you’ll soon understand why Venlo is the epicentre of the Dutch mushroom culture. In a twenty kilometre (twelve mile) radius, thirty growers can be found, with the processing factories around them. The same concentrated industry is seen in horticulture; just think about the fruit trees in the Betuwe and the tomato greenhouses in the Westland. 

Venlo is not the only epicentre of mushroom culture in the world. China produces forty per cent of the world’s mushrooms. It’s a fairly primitive business over there. In autumn, when the conditions are favourable, small farms grow mushrooms. A small part ends up being sold fresh on local markets, the rest is preserved in salt or processed in preserving factories. The disadvantage of dealing with thousands of small mushroom farms is that it’s difficult to determine whether they all follow the rules and refrain from using, for instance, pesticides.

The United States is the second largest mushroom producer in the world, after China. US mushroom cultivation is a concentrated industry, just like it is in the Netherlands; sixty per cent of the total harvest, about 250 million kilos (275 thousand tons), is being produced in Pennsylvania alone. California and Florida are two other states where many mushrooms are grown. But Americans eat more mushrooms than they can grow: on pizza, in soup and with a nice juicy steak. Furthermore, convenience food is a much more developed product group in the US compared to Europe. Many of these convenience products contain mushrooms. Because of the high demand, the US flies in a lot of mushrooms from the Netherlands. A part of these will be exported again, for instance in Campbell’s soup. America’s northern neighbour, Canada, also grows a lot of mushrooms. Canadian mushroom growers often use Dutch knowledge; quite a few Dutch agricultural immigrants live here.

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Cultivated mushrooms can also be found on other parts of the American continent. Arounds 1970, a new species was discovered that was given the scientific name Agaricus Blazei Murill. (Agaricus is the genus of all mushrooms; abbreviated to A.) It quickly got given medicinal qualities. In 2005, it was discovered during genetical analysis that A. Blazei Murill wasn’t a new species after all. First described in 1883 based on a mushroom in Mexico, it was commercially cultivated at the end of nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries in the southern United States. (Apparently they have a lovely almond flavour.) The species had already been named Agaricus Subrufescens. However, A. Blazei Murill is the name that is used most often, and most salesmen still call it that. 

“The hills directly surrounding the volcano on East Java in Indonesia are used for growing millions of mushrooms every year.”

Every year, millions of tourists climb the slopes of Mount Bromo, a vulcano on East Java in Indonesia. What they don’t know is that the hills directly surrounding the vulcano are used for growing millions of mushrooms every year. The climate is perfect; cool and damp, fooling the mushrooms into thinking it’s autumn all year round. The company, Etichamp, has lots of local knowledge, resulting in optimal mushroom growth. Many ‘specials’ are grown here, such as tiny mushrooms that have to be picked by hand, or quartered ones, that need to be hand-cut. Those baby mushrooms you see in jars in the supermarket? Chances are they were grown near Mount Bromo. 

Australia is far away from the rest of the world; its nature has had free reign. This has led to mammals laying eggs, for example. The flora is extraordinary too; many varieties cannot be found anywhere else in the world. One of the most important jobs of the Australian customs department is to protect their extraordinary nature. Agricultural products can only be imported if they comply with strict quality requirements. They won’t take any risks when it comes to bacterial infections or insect plagues. Australian importers like to choose Dutch mushrooms because they are grown under strict rules, making them a safe and high quality option.

Australia’s remoteness has led to another limitation. It’s very expensive to import fresh mushrooms; their shelf life is limited and they would have to be transported by plane. This would cost a fortune. A solution is to transport the mushrooms frozen by ship. Once they’re processed they taste exactly the same as fresh ones. Another advantage of transporting frozen mushrooms is that they are packaged in plastic bags or large boxes containing 400 kilos (880 pounds). The weight of the packaging is therefore very low, less than one per cent of the total weight. For mushrooms packaged in jars or cans this is closer to 35 per cent. Cans and jars are less efficient when stowed too. From Australia, the mushrooms continue their world trip: Japan gets its Dutch mushrooms through Australian distributors.

“The climate is perfect; cool and damp, fooling the mushrooms into thinking its autumn all year around.”

Back to Europe. In France, mushrooms were grown in caves until very recently. The mushroom industry was centred in the Loire valley, where natural caves provided the perfect surroundings for mushrooms. But the growing process was very cost and work intensive: the compost had to be brought down into the caves (thousands of kilos at a time), and the mushrooms back up (also thousands of kilos at a time). International competition put the prices under pressure and the French had to bring the industry above ground. It is a tricky process; not all French growers are good at adapting to the new circumstances. A number of them have asked the Dutch for support.

In Europe, Poland has become a large producer of mushrooms; it his now the third largest producer in the world. The Polish mushroom culture is no longer depending on the seasons. Poland’s explosive growth is partly due – who knew? – to Dutch growers starting farms there. With their knowledge about controlling growth, they lifted the quality and reliability of distribution up a level. 

“A recent development is that production of mushrooms is moving towards the areas with the largest demand.”

A recent development is that production of mushrooms is moving towards the areas with the largest demand. Again, Dutch growers have settled in these areas. They use Dutch knowledge and Dutch mushroom varieties. Dutch mushrooms are of unconquered quality, but this doesn’t mean you have to grow them in the Netherlands. 

Transporting fresh mushrooms is not an easy task; once the temperature is too high, they perish quickly. The trucks are kept at a temperature of 2 degrees Celsius. But that is not all: even the warehouses for transshipment are cooled, to protect mushrooms from exposure to changes in temperature. From Venlo, distribution takes place to the two largest importers of fresh Dutch mushrooms, Germany and Great Britain. Venlo has a convenient location, close to the Ruhr (a metropolitan area with more inhabitants than the whole of the Netherlands) and the ports of Zeebrugge and Calais.

Very occasionally, Dutch mushrooms get flown around the world. For instance, when there’s a sudden shortage in a factory where mushrooms are one of the ingredients used. In such cases it would be more expensive to stop the whole production process than it would be to fly the mushrooms over from the Netherlands. The airfare doubles the price, but companies are willing to pay it because of the constant quality and bespoke service.

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