The spores of success
Like many farmers Sumadi is a man of few words but many thoughts. More pensive than dour; a stranger to puffery and pessimism.
Just one complaint: Though a diligent Muslim he never seemed to get ahead. He also worked hard providing for his wife and six children in the village of Plumpungrejo near Blitar in East Java.
He runs a small earthenware business making garden pots and other domestic objects from clay mined nearby and fired in the yard behind his house.
He does this so well that he gets asked to stage workshops and lectures on his techniques. Even so a breakthrough remained elusive - until one night about four years ago.
When the light got too low to work he wandered inside and turned on the television, just to relax.
A program on growing mushrooms caught his imagination, mainly because the featured farmer said he’d earned enough money to go on the Hajj.
Making the pilgrimage to Mecca was an ambition Sumadi had long harbored - but one he’d never reach on the Rp 7 million (US$540) monthly earnings from his pottery. The program hadn’t been recorded, so next day he headed to Blitar and bought a book on fungiculture.
Two years later he was in Saudi Arabia circumambulating the Kaaba and throwing stones at the devil, all bills paid using mushroom money.
Surely a shining example of enterprise that must have attracted the government’s business promoters? “No, nothing,” he said. “No interest.”
When offered congratulations for thinking laterally and investing wisely he replied: “No, thank you. My success is the will of God.”
If so then the Deity chose the right vessel for His wisdom because Sumadi is a careful planner who has taught himself the tricky art of mushroom cultivation.
“There are so many factors involved,” he said. “It looks simple and easy; it’s not. The temperature, light, materials and humidity must be just right. I’ve had up to 90 per cent success, but so far not 100 per cent.”
The capital outlay has been two windowless sheds and bamboo racks which Sumadi built with his sons. The growing medium is a mix of sawdust and rice husks which he wraps in plastic to make a bottle-shape bag.
On one end the plastic is crimped with a rubber band round a collar. The other end is left open. All materials have been scavenged.
The containers are then stacked inside a big tank and steam sterilized for several hours.
This term suggests scientists wearing hazmat suits measuring microbes, but this is backblock Indonesia where conditions are raw.
Nonetheless Sumadi’s system works. The mycelium harvested from other mushrooms is stored in bottles and then poured into the bags. These are then stacked horizontally on the racks and within a few days – or weeks depending on the weather – the big white oyster mushrooms sprout.
And what a spectacle. Hundreds of plate-size fungi, clean as virgin snow, ready for harvest.
Now the downside. The mushrooms have a shelf life of only two days. Because East Java’s rural roads are too narrow and congested the fungiculturist is limited to selling in nearby towns.
Sumadi said he’d like to expand and market in cities like Malang and Surabaya. He has the space and the smarts. He also seems to have the capital. But fixing the flawed infrastructure that limits rural ventures is beyond his control
There must have been many trials and even more errors as our ancestors wandered nature’s supermarket.
Bad choice could be fatal. One fungus might be edible, another toxic. Some are hallucinogenic.
The oyster mushroom is found in much of the temperate and tropical world growing on decaying trees. It kills and digests roundworms and is one of the few known carnivorous fungi.
Canny woodsmen probably discovered it was safe by watching animals nibble and survive.
It wasn’t till the First World War that cultivation began in Germany during food shortages, with growing techniques brought to Indonesia in the 1980s.
Agus Heri Santoso, head of nutrition in the National Government’s Politeknik Kesehatan Kemenkes Malang (Malang Health Department Polytechnic) reckons mushrooms are magic.
“It’s a high protein low-calorie food full of vitamins and minerals,” he said. “Mushrooms reduce triglycerides (created by excess calories) and cholesterol. They help with the immune system so assist the anti-ageing process.”
A sentence of caution: While the scientific literature backs the nutritionist’s claims, it also warns that some people have a hypersensitive reaction to the food.
Santoso (right) is a trim 49 but looks younger. Because he eats mushrooms? Hard to tell, for his diet includes vegetables, fish, cereals and milk. As a role model for his 150 students he exercises and doesn’t smoke. So any one or all factors could be responsible.
With his colleagues he’s experimenting with mushroom nuggets which include chicken.
“Balanced foods have to compete with processed products containing preservatives and promoted on TV – which is where many people get their information,” he said.
“Mushrooms have a low image. They are seen as meals of the poor, yet paradoxically widely used in high class cuisine overseas
“As youngsters we ate foods straight from the field. That’s now rare. I want Indonesians to eat their own produce wherever possible and not rely on factory fare.
“Many new home industries can be developed, like growing mushrooms. As scientists we must share our knowledge and work together with farmers.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 August 2016)