The Belgian territory is divided in 2 region: the northern Dutch or Flemish speaking part Flanders and the southern French speaking part, Wallonia. The cultivation of Agaricus or white button mushroom is almost exclusively a Flemish activity while the cultivation of Pleurotus is spread over the whole country.
The Agaricus production started at the end of the 19th century in the eastern part of Flanders, namely in the province Limburg. The limestone caves in that region were ideal places to host a mushroom business. It took the mushroom sector more than a half century to leave the caves and to start some acitivity in mushroom houses. Nowadays cave-cultivation has almost disappeared: only a handful of very small growers are still active underground. An important milestone in the Belgian mushroom ‘history’ was the foundation of a mushroom research centre at the end of the sixties. It may seem bizarre, but the research centre was founded on the other side of Flanders, namely in the most western province West-Flanders. This initiative aimed to look for an alternative income for farmers, mostly flax-growers, who found themselves in a severe crisis situation. The centre gave birth to a new production region in West-Flanders. This production centre has developed to become the most important centre in Belgium with 43% of the total production. The Limburg region accounts for 35% of the production.
Pleurotus production started some 20 years ago and is increasing steadily but far from an important business (850 tonnes per year). The cultivation is mostly a complementary activity and, in comparison with Agaricus growing, rather amateurish.
Production and farms
Belgium produced in 2000 about 42.5 million kg of Agaricus. This production was by 112 growers. Since 1997 the sector has noticed a decrease in production and in number of growers. In 1997 the production was still at a 45 million kg level. The decrease in grower numbers is mainly due to a lack of successors on the farms: the poor financial results of the mushroom farms during the last years and the increasing labour problems frighten investors.
The Belgian mushroom farms are mainly, some exceptions excluded, family farms. They are medium sized and run by the owner. The mushroom activity is seldom combined with other professional activities. The average cultivation surface is about 2000 m2. Nearly all farms, the cave-farms and a few tray farms excluded, work with the Dutch shelves system in good to very good air-conditioned rooms. Cooling machines make year-round production possible, although a lot of farms are obliged to cut down production during summer due to labour and marketing problems.
Raw Materials and growing cycles
There are 7 composters active in Belgium. None of them is of a cooperative structure. They are all involved in phase I, II and III. Phase I, carried out with horse manure, straw and chicken manure, must now be an indoor activity. Nearly all pasteurisation and incubation is done in tunnels. About 90% of the total growing area is filled with full grown compost. There is an important export of compost to the Netherlands and France, but there is also an important return of compost from the Netherlands. The Belgian mushrom sector used in 1999 an equivalent of about 200,000 tonnes of fresh compost.
The spawn market is dominated by American firms. A few years ago, mainly large hybrids (type UI) were cultivated. The weak quality of composts in the recent past has led the composters to the introduction of mid-range hybrids. Since that time, the mid-range hybrids dominate the market.
The use of incubated compost in the growing rooms has allowed growers to reduce the growing cycle to 6 weeks. This tendency to cycle-shortening has been strongly present during the last 5 years and has caused a production increase without investment. The last year we noticed a prolongation of the cycle to 7, 8 or more weeks. The lack of a competent picking workforce and the need to decrease production, is the main reason for prolonging the cycle.
Harvest and marketing
The Belgian growers have a tradition of hand-picked quality mushrooms. The introduction of mechanical harvesting for the industry has not so far occurred in Belgium as it did in the Netherlands. The main reasons for this evolution are the absence of a mushroom canning industry in Belgium and the hitherto prosperous market for fresh mushrooms. The mushrooms are sold through auctions (17%), directly to wholesalers (31%), through own marketing channels (44%) or directly to the Dutch industry (8%). The share of the auctions in the mushroom market has decreased during the recent years and the importance of wholesalers and own-marketing increased rapidly.
There is a net export of 10 million kg of mushrooms which brings the consumption of mushrooms in Belgium to about 3 kg per capita. The main partners in mushroom business are the Netherlands, France and the UK.
The Belgian mushroom industry faces nowadays serious threats and consequently important challenges. The threats appear on the labour side, the challenges on the marketing side.
A lot of farms can hardly find competent and motivated picking personnel. This might lead us in the near future to the conversion of a lot of farms from hand-picked mushrooms to mechanical harvesting. Other consequences will be a prolongation of the culture cycle and a decrease in production on some hand-picking farms, as well as some growers leaving the mushrooom industry and stagnation on other farms. These tendencies are now already visible.
Besides this problem, there is also the labour cost problem. A lot of Western European wholesalers and canners are importing fresh or semi-conserved mushrooms from countries with lower labour costs. Although this business has been rather disorganised in the past, it is becoming more structured. It upsets the European market and probably will increase the pressure on prices. It will require an increased inventiveness from the Western European growers on the marketing side to survive the competition with a cheaper product. The search for extra added value will become more important than ever.