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Nagaland’s growing mushroom network

Mushroom cultivation is an age-old practice across the globe. China, Japan, US, UK, Italy, Poland and Germany are among the largest producers worldwide.

Mushrooms are a type of fungi that grow by way of an ever expanding network of white filaments – forming mycelia (the vegetative part of the fungi) – in moisture- and nutrition-rich environments. Known to be both nutritious and medicinal, they are traded extensively.

Though mushrooms of various shapes and sizes grow naturally in abundance, more intentional, scientific methods are implemented to boost quantity and quality of the produce by mushroom farmers worldwide. In a sterile ‘Lab-like’ environment, propagation of mycelia in containers containing grains is facilitated. Grains colonized by mycelia are called Spawns.

Spawns are to mushrooms what seeds are to plants.

Refrigerated spawns can have a shelf life of 2-3 months, creating a market for farmers who can’t produce spawns themselves.

As plants need soil, mushrooms also need a substrate for nutrition. Sawdust, manure and straw are common substrates, although selection of substrate depends on the mushrooms being grown. Substrates are sterilised before introducing spawns to the mix, to remove bacteria and microorganisms that may damage the spawns.

Technical expertise in spawn production results in better quality and quantity of mushroom produce, and capital requirement for spawn production is higher than any other part of the process.

Across India, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Tripura are some of the larger producer states.

Scientists and researchers associated with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research have made strides in improving and simplifying mushroom cultivation for farmers and entrepreneurs for some years now.
Dr Sosang Longkumer of Nagaland, after dedicating years to research and experimentation under CSIR and the ICAR Naga Lab, is one such individual.

Shiitake mushrooms (native to East Asia) are valued as medicine and nutrient and are heavily imported in India. The use of hardwood trees like oak as the substrate is known to enhance quality and flavour of the produce.

With ICAR, the Department of Horticulture and the Nagaland government promoting programs for mushroom farming, Dr Longkumer now plays a central role in the cultivation of shiitake, oyster mushrooms and others in Nagaland.

Some key insights from Dr Longkumer’s are:

  • Nagaland forests are dominated by hardwood trees such as Chestnut, Oak and Alder
  • Nagaland’s laws allow forest land to be used for income generation activities
  • Shiitake cultivation in India is best suited to Nagaland
  • Besides Spawn production, the other steps require low investment to give quick returns and can be taken on as a full time activity or as an alternative source of income.

Dr Longkumer supplies spawns from his personal spawn production laboratory located in Kashiram village, Dimapur, Nagaland. He also provides step-by-step instructions to people interested in growing shiitake and other mushrooms, actively communicating with farmers via Whatsapp groups, sharing information, feedback and reviews to support them.

In an interview with Morung Express he advises mushroom cultivators of Nagaland to care for the environment while using the hardwood forests. This is to be done by cutting branches from healthy trees rather than cutting entire trees.

With Nagaland picking up cultivation of Shiitake, maybe one day it will not just meet India’s domestic demand but also lead in exports.

Also see: Mushroom Farming for Beginners

Cultivation amidst Urbanization in Seoul

At a time when urban areas are plagued by high pollution, extreme natural disasters, a bustling metropolis in South Korea is making amends. The capital city of Seoul is challenging the popular opinion of urban spaces being unhealthy.

It all started in 2012 when the city government launched their first scheme on urban farming with the aim to make the city’s residents and environment healthy. Since then, the city has come a long way with the government leaving no stone unturned to encourage the citizens to take up urban farming actively by:

  • Helping secure patches of urban land for farming
  • Providing relevant training
  • Organizing exchange programs with rural areas
  • Setting up farm support centers for the citizens

With 10 million residents Seoul is a highly dense city, but that has not hindered the growing popularity of urban gardens, as not just horizontal but vertical gardens on walls and rooftops of buildings have become an accepted farming practice.

With social and ecological benefits, urban farming has also proved to be empowering both economically and health-wise. Encouraging local production and distribution, the practice has helped create employment opportunities and led to a healthy population. A strong sense of community has been created with people collectively engaging in farming activities. Speaking about the urban farming project, Lee Byung-hun, a city official in charge of the project said, “We refer to these participating groups as urban farming communities. The main focus of these projects is not supplying food; it’s about the social experience the urban farms can bring to residents. We’re also providing hands-on gardening experience and environmental education to children at urban farms set up next to kindergartens.”

Ecologically speaking, the gardens are helping increase green cover in the city, bringing down carbon emissions and air pollution. With much scope for innovation, communities are looking to introduce rainwater harvesting and solar power in their farming initiatives.

Since 2012, the urban farms in Seoul have seen a good deal of progress. In October 2020, the city government announced a scheme to further increase land under urban farms by adding another 40 acres to its existing 202 acres of urban farms by making an investment of close to US$216 million until the year 2024.

Also read: Seoul unveils plan to create 1 million urban farmers

Of the community, by the community, for the community

Harlem Grown is an organisation based out of Harlem, New York that works towards youth development and food justice through mentorships, hands-on education and urban farming (for nutrition and sustainability).

Tony Hillery, the man behind Harlem Grown started this work in 2011, with a desire to encourage members of the Harlem community to live healthier, greater lives.

Food justice, as explained, is more than simply distributing food. They seek to positively impact the entire community and create sustainable change.

The urban farming movement that is Harlem Grown, was influenced by multiple factors. Other than Hillery’s interest in children’s well-being and growth, came the awareness of the growing crisis of food insecurity; the apparent lack of quality of schooling in underprivileged/deprived communities and institutional disparities among social and racial communities.

When the initiative was started the children in the community didn’t recognize, much less eat many vegetables. At present, the community’s local garden itself, is home to melons, eggplants, tomatoes, leafy vegetables and much more. What’s more, the children are now quite likely to pick the veggies off of the vines to eat.

“It’s a simple formula here that if a child plants it, they will eat it. Eighty percent of the time that they eat it, they’ll like it,” said Hillery in an interview with Good Morning America.

The onset of the COVID19 pandemic heightened their sense of purpose, bringing about a revelation for the organization. Apart from Food Justice, the community has gained a more driven intent than before. There is now a need to empower the communities, with understanding through deeper racial and social justice lens.

Accomplishments for Harlem Grown stakeholders include:

  • Community members (especially children) learning about nutrition and nature
  • Learning to be responsible in caring for themselves and the environment
  • Actively and positively engaging people of all ages within communities
  • Repurposing vacant/ abandoned plots for urban farming
  • Understanding the importance of taking ownership
  • Diverting food waste from landfill to composting
  • Creating relations with schools in other areas
  • Eating healthier

(Also read: Harlem Grown: Sowing the Seeds of Hope in Young Children)

In Montenegro urban agriculture projects are blossoming during the pandemic

Whether due to job losses or as a way to escape the dull reality of quarantine measures, or both, many citizens of Montenegro have started cultivating gardens, parks and any other available land during the COVID pandemic.

Since this spring, new urban farmers in Bar and other towns have either launched or joined existing civic initiatives that promote urban gardening and cultivating healthy organic food.

Some of these associations, such as the Plantadjun and Experimental Garden projects, already produced their first harvests at the end of this summer. They gave away some of their produce as donations to charities and religious organizations that feed people in need.

The small and mainly mountainous country of only a little above 600,000 citizens has limited agricultural capacities. Only 13.7 per cent of the country’s territory was suitable for arable production, the industrialization across Yugoslavia at the end of World War II led to depopulation of the villages and increased tourism over the past decade has contributed to the decline of agriculture. Imports of fruits and vegetables has grown from 37.7 million euros in 2009 to to 76.3 million euros in 2019, while exports dropped from 6.9 million euros to 6.4 million euros during this time.

Among the pioneers of the urban gardening revival in Montenegro was the Ekologika garden, established in 2014 in a neighborhood of Mareza, six kilometers from the centre of the capital, Podgorica. The founder Aleksandar Novovic, a political scientist, invited residents of nearby urban areas to use his family’s land for free, without any help from public funds, with the sole aim of promoting eco-friendly urban gardening.

This idea was further developed by several civic society initiatives and projects, such as Plantadjun, which promotes urban gardening as a way to support socialization and the cultivation of healthy food. Its pilot project, which started in January this year in the municipality of Bar, received much publicity in local and national media as a success story, especially after the outbreak of COVID 19.

The project used private land, without paying any rent for it. Each of the participants, or Plantadjuns, was supposed to cultivate a 25-square-meter plot; in this first year, the produce was either used for private consumption or was shared with friends and neighbours to promote the project.

Next year, all Plantadjuns will be obliged to give 10 per cent of their produce to the owner of the land, and another 10 per cent for the sustainability of the project; this will be sold on local markets and the funds reinvested to buy seeds for the next planting season.

Project coordinators will monitor the entire process and supervise the measuring, collecting and distribution of the produce.

Project teams will also organise the preparation of the soil for sowing, including ploughing and fertilization, as well as obtain necessary materials such as seeds, water, tools and a tool shed.

The project was supported this year by the Ministry of Science of Montenegro and Bar city administration. By the end of the season, Plantadjuns had collected over 1,000 kilos of vegetables, mostly zucchini, potatoes and tomatoes.

After providing numerous food donations for people in need during the summer season, Plantadjun and Ekologika partnered up in November with Paradigma, an NGO that fosters sustainable, eco-friendly practices and movements.

“When it comes to sustainable agriculture, most people only look at it through its environmental and economic aspects; they neglect the social aspect, which is also very important,” Bar city administrator Cazim Alkovic says, “Especially in these times of the further impoverishment of the population.”

Source: Urban Farming Takes Root in COVID-Hit Montenegro

Daycares in Finland changed children’s immune systems with forest floor play-yards

Are we more prone to illness because modern environments have become more sterile and divorced from nature? Recent research from Finland suggests that children’s immune system can be boosted by letting them play in soil more often.

A team of Finnish researches studied ten daycare centers in two cities in Finland (Lahti and Tampere, both with populations above 100,000). Each of standard urban daycare centers contained yards of approximately 500 sq. m. with little or no green space.

In four of these daycare yards – “intervention daycares” – part of the gravel was covered with forest floor (100 sq. m.) and with sod (200 sq. m.). Intervention daycares received segments of forest floor, sod, planters for growing annuals, and peat blocks for climbing and digging. Three non-modified yards (“standard daycares”) were the control group, while three were nature-oriented daycare centers served as a positive control.

Vegetation in the transferred natural forest floor in the intervention daycares consisted mainly of dwarf heather, blueberries, crowberry and mosses. The sod consisted of fescues and meadow grasses.

Nurses of the daycare centers guided children to be in contact with the green materials brought into the yard. Guided activities included planting plants in planting boxes, crafting natural materials, and playing games. In addition, green materials were available to children during free outdoor activities. Children played in the yards between half an hour and 2 hours, twice a day. The intervention lasted for 28 days.

The research found that bringing nature into daycare playgrounds made the children’s microbiome (the collection of microorganisms that naturally coexist within and on our bodies) more diverse. Simultaneously they found better immune function in the preschoolers in the intervention daycares, with a less inflammatory state. The children’s blood samples showed a better ratio of an anti-inflammatory immune system protein called IL-10, in relation to a pro-inflammatory protein called IL-17A.

In recent years more people have become aware around the world about the importance of maintaining a healthy gut microbiome and are using more probiotic foods to improve their gut flora.

However, environmental ecologist Aki Sinkkonen from the University of Helsinki points out that probiotics usually contain only one or two types of bacteria, whereas exposure to soil brings a much more diverse microbial environment.

While the researchers and other scientists say this is a preliminary study with a small sample, and the exact mechanism is not fully explained, it does show that microbe diversity in the top layer of soil seemed to be critical, and the children digging around, planting vegetation actively was important.

So if you’re a parent, the solution to healthier kids might be more dirt and bugs, not less.

(Read more details about the research.

Motown to Growtown: Detroit’s Urban Farmers (First screened in 2012, and a 2019 update)

Residents of the US city of Detroit are now producing organic food locally, reducing the environmental footprint of their food by cutting down on carbon emissions from transport and on chemical inputs. They are also helping revive communities as new green spaces and farmer’s markets crop up, providing neighbourhoods with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Plots of land range from backyards, to seven-acre (2.8 hectares) community farms, to plans for large-scale commercial farms.

70-year-old Edith Floyd, an urban farming veteran, has expanded her farm from 9 lots to 32 and has added a large hoop house, where she can grow fruits and vegetables year-round. “We have broccoli, collards, green peppers and celery,” she explains.

A few miles away, Mark Covington and his mother have also grown their farm. “I want to say we only had eight lots and now we have 24 that we either keep cut or we grow something on,” Covington says.

He now keeps bees, which he says has tripled food production, and he has a host of new farm animals.

Both farmers have their communities in mind; Floyd contributes to a food bank, and people who have court-ordered volunteer hours can fulfil them on her farm instead of paying a fine or going to prison.

Covington has purchased a nearby house for a community education centre, and also provides fresh food to the area. “This is an asset to the city. Not just the neighbourhood but the city,” he says.

One individual’s roadside beautification project turned into a farm (Kerala, India)

The COVID pandemic has hit people hard around the world, not only in terms of health risks but also their most basic economic security and well-being.

Some are using this as an opportunity to become self-sufficient by growing food for their own families or as community projects, showing the way for others. 

Perinjanam is a coastal village in Thrissur district in Kerala, and one of the smallest villages in the state, just half a kilometer wide. The name of the village is believed to be originated from the Tamil expression for “people with good knowledge”. Anilkumar Kattil, a tourist bus driver who lost his job during the lockdown, and his neighbours certainly fit that description. 

About four years ago 55-year old Anilkumar decided to improve the sides of a road passing through his village, as he noticed people dumping waste by the road. He cleaned up the waste, cleared the weeds and started growing plants in grow bags. He found encouragement from the panchayat (local government) and fellow residents.

He began with flowering plants before moving on to planting vegetables. At various times, he has planted Chinese potato, okra, brinjal, turmeric, ginger, chillies, capsicum, spinach, bitter gourd, snake gourd and pumpkin.

After losing his job due to the lockdown, he found more time to tend to the organic farm.

As of now, one side of the road has lush paddy growing and the other side has vegetables and flowering plants.

While Anilkumar has spent money in buying the seeds and saplings, now he also receives support from his neighbours, many of who also benefit from the crop.

He is occasionally offered money, which he refuses, saying that this garden is on public land and not his private property. “I know what I’m doing is small, but I hope my efforts send a valuable message across,” he says.

We hope so, too!

Photo credit: Mathrubhumi

Indian Schools Asked to Set up School Nutrition Gardens


All schools in India have been asked to set up “school nutrition gardens” by the central government. The gardens will have to be managed by the students, with the help of staff and teachers.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD), which governs the education sector, issued guidelines for developing and maintaining kitchen gardens in schools in both urban and rural areas. The Government’s aim is to improve nutrition in schools, and also to connect children with the sources of food in an era of rapid urbanization and mounting environmental issues.

However, some schools have already embarked upon this journey well before the official guidelines came into place.  One such is the Smt. Sulochanadevi Singhania School, Thane (Mumbai, India).

Students have been introduced to not just growing food within the school themselves, but grow it organically, without synthetic chemical inputs.  The aim of the project has been to grow chemical-free, nutrient-rich vegetables and to provide an opportunity to learn by doing. The project is to teach the students how organic farming discourages environmental exposure to pesticides and chemicals, helps to build healthy soil, fight the effects of global warming and encourages biodiversity.

Smt Sulochana Singhania School Thane - organic farming

The students have sowed a wide variety of vegetables including cucumbers, chillies, lady’s fingers (okra), tomatoes, brinjals, spinach, bottle gourd, bitter gourd, ridge gourd, and capsicum, to name a few. The students have also planted paddy, to get hands-on experience of rice farming.

(Photos courtesy Smt Sulochana Singhania School, Thane, Mumbai. Check out more pictures on the school’s Facebook album.)

Malaysia: Deputy Agriculture Minister on Urban Farms

Malaysian deputy agriculture minister Sim Tze Tzin has taken up urban farming in his constituency of Bayan Baru.

The small garden outside the double-storey unit that serves as Sim’s service centre now boasts eggplants, cucumbers and other herbs.

Sim said the country is facing a fundamental problem of food prices being driven up by insufficient supply. Most of the 8 million hectares allocated for agriculture in the country are being used up by commodities such as palm oil and rubber. The deputy minister believes that Malaysians need to change their way of thinking, with so much emphasis already being placed on commodities.

Sim stressed that the land given out in the 1970s for the production of commodities as a poverty eradication measure was the right move, as prices were high.

We have to slowly convert some land for agro-food like the existing Felda schemes, it is time now to diversify to include growing food, like padi, vegetables and fruits,” he added.

Source: Deputy agriculture minister gets hands dirty with urban farming

These Indian farmers are taking a firmer hold on their future with organic farming

Women farmers in the Balaghat region of Madhya Pradesh state in India are moving actively to organic farming with indigenous seeds, so as to earn better and to produce healthier crops. They are actively supported by civic society organisation Pradan as well as farmer groups and government officials.