Mushroom co-op idea could pay off

  • Mar. 1, 2006 6:00 a.m.

There’s a new technology which could help local mushroom pickers get higher and more stable prices for their product, and Lynda Dixon wants to bring it to the islands, Alex Rinfret writes.
The new technology is a process called vacuum microwave dehydration, and Ms Dixon says food dried this way turns out plump, delicious, easily reconstituted, and more nutritious than air dried food.
She came across the technology last year, while researching ways to get more local control over the chanterelle mushroom market.
Her family is one of many on the islands which makes some income every fall picking wild chanterelle mushrooms. Her interest in the market was piqued a couple of years ago when the amount paid to pickers dropped to just $1 per pound, for reasons beyond the control of anyone here.
After writing some letters proposing a feasibility study on a local market, she found an enthusiastic partner in Haida Gwaii Community Futures, which helped her get a grant from the federal government for the project.
The study, completed in June 2005, concluded that trying to buy and sell fresh mushrooms from Haida Gwaii would be just about impossible for several reasons – including transportation hurdles, the perishability of the delicate mushrooms and the already stiff competition between big buyers.
She then looked at the possibility of drying the chanterelles here and selling the dried product. But air dried mushrooms “are kind of chewy and not very delicious,” Ms Dixon said. “Chefs aren’t crazy about them but use them if necessary.”
She was just about to conclude that local processing isn’t feasible, when she heard about a new technology being researched by a Canadian company connected to UBC. EnWave Corporation uses a process called vacuum microwave dehydration to dry foods at lower temperatures and more quickly than air drying, and the company sent Ms Dixon’s team some of their dried mushrooms.
“It turns out it’s absolutely amazing,” Ms Dixon said. “They reconstitute perfectly… They’re the next best thing to fresh, maybe even better than fresh because they’re stable.”
Ms Dixon’s group – the Haida Gwaii Local Foods Processing Cooperative – has prepared a business plan and has found that buying wild chanterelles from local pickers, drying them with the new technology, and marketing the unique product would be very feasible.
She’s now looking for islanders to join the processing cooperative, as a way for locals to have more control over the mushroom industry.
The co-op could pay higher prices to pickers, and the mushroom processing and marketing will create more jobs here, she said. Eventually, she envisions it tying into other food processing besides mushrooms.
The processing co-op is looking for $450,000 to start up, Ms Dixon said, but it would become a completely self-sustaining business once it gets going. Main expenses are the vacuum drying unit at about $125,000. The co-op will also need to build a cooler, rent warehouse space, pay pickers for their mushrooms and market its new product.
They’ve already secured $100,000 from the Coast Sustainability Trust and $50,000 from a provincial grant, and Ms Dixon said other funding applications are looking positive.
If you’re interested in joining the co-op or finding out more about the project, Ms Dixon will be holding information sessions in communities later this month. Potential members include not just mushroom pickers, but also islanders interested in sustainable use issues and people who are involved in the food industry.
“We are definitely looking for members,” she said. “We’re hoping that there’s going to be people out there who join as a supportive measure for progressive economic development on the islands.”

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