Minister Rodgers and Maria Prunty at the Prunty Peat stand in Monaghan
Aoife O'Brien said, and she should know, being an international high flier, that the Biannual Mushroom Conference at the Hillgrove Hotel is the best 24-hour mushroom conference in the world!
She also gave a highly polished paper, graphically illustrating European competition for market share. Despite her upbeat tone and classing the island of Ireland as being in the consolidation phase, as opposed to the UK, now in retreat, I found her message a bit chilling.
The Dutch and Belgians taken together have much larger farms, higher yields per ton, lead the world in all types of mushroom innovation and produce 30% of Europe’s mushrooms. Apparently, they are getting their second wind as regards UK market penetration.
Of course we have heard this before, but what about the Poles? They are now in the expansion stage, have thousands of small growers, pay wages of £1 Irish per hour and are only a 21-hour drive from London. It is a pity that later in this third session another presentation could be summed up in one self congratulatory sentence, the Irish mushroom industry is only where it is today because we have been relentlessly pressing for quality. This was repeated for about 20 minutes. Surely all growers now know the importance of quality?
Some tips on how to achieve it would have been most welcome.
Another presentation had ‘wonderful’ computer generated text graphics projected onto the screen. Words rained down from the ‘sky’ and through the text above to form new sentences, while the presenter, trying to expand each theme, said something slightly different. This was a visually fascinating spectacle but not surprisingly I can't remember any messages apart from quality and one aside. Apparently, no matter how careful you the growers are, some supermarkets will treat your mushrooms like golf balls and bounce them round the store!
This entire session of papers was poorly attended by growers. They could be heard ‘whooping it up’ in the trade show behind the partition. No doubt refuelled with freebies, that included what looked like nice wine, tasty bites, or if you preferred it, classy pens and folders. It was not surprising this was the conference's most popular venue.
Exhibitors wooed growers to use their compost, their spawn, their casing, or their equipment. Exhibits ranged from hand-gel dispensers, to software dedicated to traceability i.e. from grower to customer, by virtue of barcodes printed on trays.
Although the salesman practised his spiel on me, he admitted he had only six potential customers — The Big Fish!
I was newly coming to the conference as an outsider, so I spent as much time as possible puzzling over the posters. I would have liked to have rapidly walked round gathering a pearl of wisdom from each one. Instead, more often than not I was stationary for ages and somewhat confused. Many posters fell into the trap of trying to give too much highly technical information in too little space. Some 'posters' looked more like a book page that had been enlarged. Some had sentences that just did not make sense. Others used acronyms with gay abandon (not everyone has a PhD in biochemistry). Relevant units of measurement on graphs were sometimes missing. Generally, if posters were aimed at growers they missed! If meant to impress they failed. If meant to stimulate a question to the author, the only question was, what is this about? I would have preferred a visual sound-bite, like a book cover, plus a single, short, concise column to the right hand side, also giving reference to the free conference booklet, where hopefully a clear message in layman terms could be found. I shall investigate!
I have been somewhat critical, nevertheless, as Aoife said, it was an excellent conference with something for everyone. Being an ex pathologist I was most interested in Richard Gaze's presentation on virus X, in session two. I shall try and summarise, adding some details, most gathered in a heart to heart outside the trade show.
Most viruses are contained in shell-like cases. Albeit extremely small they are visible under the electron microscope at magnifications of tens of thousands. Virus X appears to be a naked virus, a slug among snails. It may indeed be these, i.e. several viruses acting together. Two of the visible viruses are usually found together. X being naked and thus invisible makes it intriguing, spooky if you are not a pathologist. It produces many symptoms, those of other ‘complaints’ are apparently magnified if virus X is present in appreciable quantities.
Helen Grogan in particular and Richard Gaze have developed a novel method of detection of virus X. This depends on finding traces of viral ribose-nucleic-acid (RNA) inside mushroom tissue by 'overloading' tissue extract onto one edge of a ‘sheet’ of gel. The RNA molecules are then separated according to size using a low voltage DC electric current, over a period of time. They later show up as visible bands after staining. Experience has indicated the most severe symptoms are associated with the largest number of bands, around twenty or so. It is not yet clear why symptom severity and band number are associated.
Several viruses may be acting together, or most likely Virus X has a lot of faint bands, that only show when X is plentiful. The amount of X appears critical, small quantities appear commonplace. X can increase stepwise, crop after crop without symptom. However, once it reaches a certain threshold, yields fall drastically, bare patches may appear, or be tardy in fruiting. Mushrooms may be variously distorted, open early, be stained internally, have brown caps, or no caps at all.
A hint was given that overlay may be caused by X. In my experience simple growing faults, such as trying to over speed production, or using too much CACing, are more often than not major factors because as soon as corrected a ’cure’ results.
'Across the water' almost any unusual symptom is being blamed on X where it appears to be much more common than in Ireland. Why? Possibly differences in growing methods, as X is mainly transmitted by mushroom spores, but also by carry-over of mycelium crop to crop, possibly on wood trays, or in phase III tunnels. Mushroom spores are produced in millions once the veil breaks, so compost produced or spawned where there is likely to be airborne contamination is most at risk. Growers of Breakfast Flats please take note. Other growers should try and limit the number of flats that grow between bags etc. However, generally the traditional phase II satellite system, using bags, has proved strongly virus proof.
This last statement must have a bearing on which of the many competing ‘new’ systems a grower chooses in efforts to maintain income in a sea of rising costs.
The first conference session was devoted to discussion of such systems. I found this particularly interesting and clearly presented so I will try to summarise in next months issue, space permitting.