There is no dearth of corporate stories about how the pandemic is spawning alternative business strategies aimed at riding out the current crisis and also being future-ready.

Similarly, small businesses and individuals also experiment with new ideas to earn an income now and later, at low investment and almost-zero recurring cost.

This thinking seems to have led to a renewed interest in oyster mushrooms, which look exquisite like frills on an opera dancer’s dress, but as some people are discovering now, can be an unfussy and helpful “earning member” of one’s household. Oyster mushrooms are edible and enjoy a market as a food item.

Sample these examples, provided by William James, who runs a farm and trains people in oyster mushroom cultivation, bee-keeping methods and also how to grow medicinal plants.

William points out that on Old Mahabalipuram Road, someone running a hostel for working professionals has let oyster mushrooms “occupy” eight rooms. With many IT companies going in for a near-total work-from-home arrangement, vacancy in these hostels has scaled an all-time high. Hence this initiative.

Sometime ago, at the invitation of the voluntary organisation Green Cause Foundation, William conducted a workshop on oyster mushroom cultivation for residents, largely farmers, of Morapakkam village near Maduranthakkam. The exercise was organised by the Foundation to help residents through the COVID-19 crisis, and it has offered hope to K. Padmavathi, whose family is cultivating oyster mushrooms to supplement their income.

According to William, growing oyster mushrooms — more appropriately, letting them grow in your home — comes with a high yield-on-cost ratio, to borrow an investment term from the corporate world.

“The maximum investment per bed is ₹75 and the return can’t be less than ₹360, when sold at a retail price. Each bed consists of a plastic cover, some straw, and oyster mushroom spores. Straw that is anywhere between six months and one year old can be used; paddy straw is ideal. For two beds, 350 grams of oyster mushroom spores, costing ₹65, will do,” says William.

“Holes should be made in the cover, and the straw has to sterilised, and the process includes boiling it in hot water for 20 minutes, and then spreading it out on mat, and letting it dry till it achieves the right moisture content. A cool space has to be created, and it can be done by letting wet gunny bags hanging in any cordoned-off spaces within homes, including the balcony. They can also keep the floor at this section cool by spreading out sand and soaking the sand with water. There are also people who place the beds under the bed in their bedroom, taking advantage of the air-conditioning in the room.”

William says that the bed starts yielding mushrooms after 15 days of being set up, and the growth will continue up to two-and-a-half months, and each regular-sized bed will yield a minimum of around one kilogramme of oyster mushrooms.”

William recommends a method just for those who may want to test the waters, before plunging into this activity. He says, “They could try growing just five beds of oyster mushrooms, in the bathroom, hanging the beds on the riser arm of a shower, using a bed hanger that can hold those five beds. The bed hanger can keep the beds out of the face of someone using the shower, and also ensure the shower water does not fall on the beds, which will damage it. With the water falling on the bathroom floor evaporating, there would be sufficient cooling in the room to help the oyster mushrooms grow. They can do this till they gain in confidence,” explains William.

People with outdoor space can raise a hut which they can keep cool by hanging wet gunny bags, and also keeping the earth wet.

An empowerment story

In Morapakkam, Green Cause Foundation is said to have conducted the workshop with the view to providing farmers and other villagers with an alternative income source that could be helpful during the current crisis.

“We conduct workshops on sustainable, nature-friendly green activities that would provide farmers with a quick income without however eating into the time they need for their regular farming work. The oyster mushroom cultivation work was organised particularly keeping the current scenario in mind, but they will continue to benefit from it even after the COVID-19 crisis is past,” says M.J. Prabu, coordinator, Green Cause Foundation.

Padmavathi, resident of Morpakkam, who is employed at the rural primary health centre at Endathur, says that when she shared her family’s recent experience with the other nurses at the PHC, they evinced great interest in it.

Padmavathi and her husband V. Kumaragurubaran have set aside a corner of their house to grow oyster mushrooms.

Says Padmavathi, “For the time being, we have placed just four oyster mushroom beds. We are watching the growth, and waiting for the harvest. Our neighbours are curious about oyster mushroom cultivation, and once we have our first yield, and gained in confidence, we will share the know-how with them.”

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