Can we grow morel mushrooms for fun and profit?

SARE-funded project proves fruitful despite low yields

Recently, an interdisciplinary team of researchers, producers, and industry secured MSU SARE funding to organize producers, provide materials, manage progress, and analyze data to try to determine the break-even point for producing morel mushrooms, a Midwest delicacy. Results of their research just appeared in Plants People Planet in this article: “Breakeven yields for cultivated morel mushrooms (Morchella spp.) in the US North Central region.”

This paper summaries two years of farmer field data from this collaborative project. Dr. Gregory Bonito, PSM graduate students Bryan Rennick and Ashlynn Morin (PSM), Dr. Scott Swinton and PhD student Seo Woo Lee from Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE), Dr. Gary Mills of Gourmet Mushrooms Inc, and farmers at 15 sites across 5 midwestern states cooperated to figure out the feasibility of growing morels for profit.

The idea began with Greg’s relationship with Gary Mills who received his Ph.D. in mycology/microbiology from MSU and now operates a large organic mushroom producing business in Michigan that grows diverse gourmet mushrooms for the Michigan market and beyond. “I’ve always appreciated Gary’s knowledge and commitment to organic mushroom production and mycological depth”. After visiting black morel production operations in China, Greg wondered whether similar techniques could be adapted in the Midwest. “Gary has many patents on morel cultivation, specifically Morchella rufobrunnea, and we both were interested in whether we could cultivate black morels, indoors or in soil."

Fortunately, the SARE program reviewers shared Greg’s curiosity and the team was awarded the funding to pursue the project.

Part of the SARE program includes an economic focus. “Agricultural economist Scott Swinton and I are neighbors,” Greg says, “and we discussed the concept at the neighborhood picnic.”  

“I have enjoyed foraging and eating morels,” says Scott, “so the idea of working with Greg on commercial cultivation sounded fun and interesting.  Plus the project scope includes interesting economic research on morel forager behavior, consumer tastes, and the morel yields needed for profitable production.  My favorite multidisciplinary projects have interesting questions for each of the disciplines involved.”

AFRE graduate student Seo Woo Lee worked with the farmer participants to gather the cost and morel yield data to calculate the breakeven yield levels needed to fully cover costs under a variety of assumptions about morel prices and input costs.

The long-term, wide-scale field project presented many challenges, including COVID-19, which hindered outreach efforts. However, the COVID lockdown probably helped response rates to an online survey of morel foragers that Swinton and agricultural economist Trey Malone ran in 2020 (and published in Economic Botany in 2022).  Swinton notes that the survey, “provided valuable baseline information about morel prices that we used in the subsequent breakeven yield analysis.” As for working with on-farm collaborators, Bonito says “Although we missed in-person visits, participants were engaged in our ZOOM meetings and discussions. We also had a SLACK channel so that allowed farmer participants to share photos, stories, and ask questions.

“Overall we learned a lot about cultivating morels in the Midwest, including what works and what the main challenges in our region are” Greg said. “There continues to be a lot of interest in cultivating morels, and we have identified strategies for making morel cultivation a part of Michigan’s economy.”  


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