A visit to Reilly Mushrooms exposes Brexit concerns and mushroom farming strategies

Did you know that mushrooms can double in size in 24 hours? Or that a mushroom is the closest plant to a human genetically? How about the fact that mycelium is the largest living organism in the world?

We learned all this from Gerry Reilly, owner of Reilly Mushrooms, a farm in Ireland’s County Westmeath just 15 minutes away from the town of Athlone. As a mushroom farmer, Reilly is concerned about Brexit because 90 percent of his crop is exported to the United Kingdom market, the main customer for Ireland’s mushroom industry.

Reilly takes pride in his organic mushrooms, which are grown without chemicals or preservatives and delivered fresh to the United Kingdom every day. His farming philosophy, however, is threatened by Brexit, especially if the United Kingdom leaves the single market and the customs union, agreements that exempt countries trading within in the European Union from paying tariffs and passing customs inspections.

The addition of customs inspections would increase the time it takes for Reilly’s fresh mushrooms to reach UK supermarkets as well as the cost of transportation, reducing the competitiveness of his prices in relation to other mushroom farms.

Growing mushrooms is a relatively short process, taking only six weeks to complete one cycle, but it requires strict control and high precision to produce a desirable crop. The stakes are high if a crop fails. It costs Reilly about 14,000 euros per tunnel to create the proper environment for mushroom growth.

Of the 16 insulated plastic tunnels used for growing mushrooms, two are harvested every week. Reilly has his growing strategy down to an art, with different tunnels in different stages of growth so he has a consistent crop of mushrooms year-round.

The process starts in a warm, humid and dark environment. Since Reilly is growing a fungus, his goal is to replicate the environment under which bathroom mold grows to get his organism, mycelium, to appear.

Once the mycelium has grown a substantial amount, the farmers shock the organism with cold air, making parts of the organism condense. This is the stage where small mushroom buds begin to appear.

As the process continues, the mushrooms are continually exposed to cold air to create conditions under which the mushroom thinks it will die. This makes them attempt to reproduce by opening up and releasing their spores, thus increasing the size of the mushroom tops.

Once the mushrooms have reached an appropriate size, they are harvested and sorted into bins by size. Every bin is labelled with the tunnel number and the grower’s number for tracking purposes in case the mushrooms unknowingly become contaminated.

After they are sorted, the mushrooms are moved to a refrigerated area where they wait for the refrigerated lorry to arrive and transport them to the U.K. The next part of their lives is spent in U.K. supermarkets, where they will soon be purchased by everyday citizens as a delicious addition to meals.