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Tidbits from the Clean Room—Mushroom Growers Go High-Tech

Seven Fang, CEO of Q-Yo Biotechnology Company, has been a pioneer in adopting clean-room specifications to cultivate mushrooms in Taiwan.

Seven Fang, CEO of Q-Yo Biotechnology Company, has been a pioneer in adopting clean-room specifications to cultivate mushrooms in Taiwan.
 

Have you ever seen silver ear mushrooms that look like a profusion of blossoming white peon­ies but give off a fragrance like jasmine flowers? Have you ever tasted oyster mushrooms whose stems have a mouthfeel like pork jowl but whose caps have the sweet, fresh flavor of clams? Or eaten hon-shimeji mushrooms, considered in the same class as Wagyu beef, in a Michelin-starred restaurant? These mushrooms, raised in clean-room conditions, not only demonstrate the capabilities of Taiwan’s mushroom farmers, they are also rising stars in the international market.

 

The mild breeze of a spring day feels especially warm amid the sounds of children playing. Teachers and students are on a field trip to the Magical Mushrooms Tribe farm in Puxin Township, Changhua County, to learn about the life cycle of mushrooms.

New destiny with smart production

“The life cycle of mushrooms is divided into the ­mycelial expansion phase, in which mycelium grows, the fruit body selection phase, in which the organism selects only the most promising ‘primordia’ to develop, and the mature fruit body stage.” The guide asks, “What do they eat?” and then explains: “The mushrooms live in grow bags and their food is inside the bags with them. It includes recycled rice bran, corn cobs, and beet pulp. This is an example of the circular economy in practice.”

The creator of the Magical Mushroom Tribe farm is Q-Yo Biotechnology Company, which is the only firm in Taiwan to cultivate “Black Beauty” oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) and “Perfume” silver ear mushrooms (Tremella fuciformis). Q-Yo CEO Seven Fang has been a pioneer in Taiwan in applying clean-room principles to mushroom cultivation. His idea originated in a desire to avoid the fate of farmers whose livelihoods are at the mercy of the weather.

Earning his first fortune

Fang’s father-in-law is a traditional mushroom farmer. Fang says, “When I began to work for my father-­in-law 20 years ago, during the days we had to move 14,000 grow bags while at night we had to inocu­late them with mushroom spawn. In the space of 40 days I lost eight or nine kilograms.” It was impossible to produce mushrooms in the Changhua area during warm winters, and there was also market competition from low-priced mushrooms smuggled in from mainland China, which made things even worse for mushroom farmers.

To address the issue of production being dependent on the weather, Fang, who has a background in electronic engineering, led the way in 2004 by building a mushroom farm according to the standards used for computer assembly plants. An air filtration system was installed for the mushroom cultivation area, to filter out miscellaneous bacteria and spores and enable Fang’s king oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus eryngii) to access large amounts of fresh air. This also eliminated concerns about “pesticide drift” from agri­cultural chemicals being sprayed on nearby vineyards and rice paddies. Later Fang added temperature controls, to secure his operation against the effects of climate change. And sure enough, the black wood ear mushrooms (Auricu­laria auricula­judae) and king oyster mushrooms he grew “didn’t merely conform to pesticide standards but actually tested 100% pesticide-free,” he emphasizes.

Taking his cue from methods used in Japan, Fang switched over from traditional 1.5 kilogram grow bags to smaller one-kilo bags, sterilized them by heating them to a temperature of 121°C, and adjusted the balance of nutrients in the bags. As a result, the time it takes to grow king oyster mushrooms was reduced from 110 days to only 45, even faster than the 65 days required in Japan. Fang’s production capacity increased by 35%, while the production cycle efficiency was ­doubled. Consequently, in 2006 Fang was given a Shennong Award as one of Taiwan’s top ten farmers.

New mushroom varieties in Taiwan

Fang dared to take on a debt of tens of millions of NT dollars thanks to the specialist knowledge he learned from a variety of sources. He visited ­Japan to learn about the cultivation of enoki mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes), and also went as far as France and the Netherlands. He saw how firms in the Netherlands used a temperature-controlled environment to produce mushrooms year round, even during snowy winter days. After achieving a sufficient scale of operations, they were floated on the stock market. One of the keys to their success was control of germplasm.

Because Japan dominates in the areas of germplasm and production of enoki mushrooms and brown beech mushrooms (a.k.a. buna-shimeji—Hypsizigus tessellatus), Fang decided that Taiwan would have to follow a different path and control new types of germplasm and their application. In 2010 Q-Yo cooperated with Lin Chien-yih, a professor at Asia University, to develop the “Perfume” variety of silver ear mushrooms by selective breeding from varieties such as “Ali­shan,” enabling consumers in Taiwan to eat fresh silver ears.

Q-Yo selectively bred from ten types of oyster mushrooms to solve the problem of some varieties having rough fibers that give them an unpleasantly tough texture. The new variety they developed, “Black Beauty,” has a delicate texture, and after two years of promotion it became the best-selling mushroom variety of 2020, outshining all competitors in the Taiwanese market.

The automated production system not only reduces labor to one-fifth that normally required, but the company’s smart production is founded on an optimal set of data they have accumulated related to breeding, growing medium formulations, and mushroom texture and flavor. Fang plans to apply for a patent for Q-Yo’s “live liquid culture” production process and to export complete mushroom growing facilities. He has already made plans to work with firms in the Netherlands, the US, and France to promote Asian mushrooms such as wood ears and shiitake (Lentinula edodes) as he moves toward inter­national­ization.
 

Cultivating silver ear mushrooms in clean rooms eliminates the need for pesticides.

Cultivating silver ear mushrooms in clean rooms eliminates the need for pesticides.
 

Hon-shimeji mushrooms

We next head southward to the Pingtung Agricultural Biotechnology Park in Pingtung County’s Changzhi Township, to visit a glass-walled high-tech production venue where the office area is spotless and staff in the “factory” wear clean-room suits. But they are not manufacturing computer chips here. Rather, this is the home of Jinlife Biotech—the only firm in Taiwan to produce hon-shimeji mushrooms (Lyophyllum shimeji) and hatake-shimeji mushrooms (a.k.a fried chicken mushrooms—Lyophyllum decastes).

Hon-shimeji mushrooms originally grew wild in ­Japan but have been domesticated and are now cultivated artificially. Yeh Koh-i, founder of the Inventec Group, acquired licensing and technology transfer rights from a Japanese company and in 2015 invested over NT$500 million to construct a production facility and establish Jinlife Biotech.

Jinlife Biotech deputy general manager Lee Cheng-chun, who has a background in the electronics industry, points out that the most valuable thing about their technology is that it permits the previously rare and expensive hon-shimeji mushrooms to be cultivated and sold at a price affordable to ordinary people.

Lee says that the best way to cook hon-shimeji mushrooms is to fry them up dry, without adding water or oil. They will give off a fragrance of butter and have a smooth, springy texture and a sweet, fresh flavor. With this unique taste, Jinlife’s hon-shimeji mushrooms have become a high-end ingredient used in Michelin-starred restaurants in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and a much-sought-after product in Chinese supermarkets in the US and Canada. Even though international transport costs have skyrocketed since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, overseas orders have continued to pour in.

A special treat for the dining table

When you visit the production facility you realize that the barriers to entry are very high, which is why at present such facilities exist only in Japan and Taiwan.

Plant director Liang Yung Chih points out the key factor in their production process: “The sawdust used for cultivating mushrooms in Taiwan usually comes from a mixture of broadleaf tree species, but we bring in entire containers of Japanese cedar logs by sea from Japan. These logs are 15‡30 centimeters in diameter and 20 meters long, and they are crushed up and allowed to ferment for six months before we can use them as a growing medium.” Jinlife tried using Taiwanese cedar instead, but was not able to grow hon-shimeji mushrooms with it.

Even though there was direct technology transfer from Japan, after beginning operations in May of 2017 Jinlife Biotech had to spend more than a year adjusting the raw materials and production process before achieving a stable production volume for hatake-shimeji mushrooms, and it took even longer to reach a stable volume for hon-shimeji mushrooms.

Hon-shimeji mushrooms require fastidious cleanliness, and much “pampering” in the production process.

The pampering is in the details. Standing in the mist-filled “thinning area,” Liang Yung Chih gives a case in point: “During the technology transfer, regarding humid­ity control the Japanese told us we should judge the humidity by how clearly a person could see their ­fingers with their arm outstretched. We wondered why they didn’t just give us a precise number for the humidity.” But when actually cultivating the mushrooms, workers discovered that even when the instrument-­measured humid­ity was exactly at the prescribed level, the surface of the mushrooms would split because the air was too dry. It turned out that it really is best to judge the humidity by sight, so that if the air is too dry one can quickly spray more water into the air. Meanwhile, too much ­water vapor will cause “water damage.” Only if the humidity is just right will the surface of the mushrooms grow to have a velvety appearance but be smooth to the touch.

Hon-shimeji mushrooms have proven to be a big hit with consumers. In 2019 Jinlife began selling them through PX Mart supermarkets across Taiwan. Its production volume now stands at 120,000 boxes per month, or about 14 metric tons, and demand still outstrips supply. Exports account for about 20% of sales. Jinlife has already received permission to use “organic” labeling in the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand under “­organic equivalency” agreements, and plans to strike out into the Australian and New Zealand markets, further spreading the renown of Taiwan mushrooms overseas.