Politically 2019 was a year of deadlines and brinkmanship, while in the more sedate world of the mushroom industry things proceeded along more evenly.
January jumped off with a science article on Mycronutrient and the effect of applying a casing supplement. Irish food and drink exports were healthy at a €12.1 billion for the year previous - this year the same figures stand at over €13 billion.
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said “While the possibility of a disorderly Brexit poses an unprecedented strategic challenge, the Irish agri-food sector has repeatedly demonstrated that it is both durable and innovative”.
In the notes there was news of JFM heading to the NAMC. Mushrooms were shunted to 13th place in the UK’s list of favourite veg. There was news that Emiel Lacet, formerly of Christiaens Group, had joined the Mush Comb sales team. And there was the sad news of the passing of a mushroom industry notable, Patsy Gildernew - a true gentleman.
February focussed in on Irish food exports, the American Mushroom Institute, and protection of fungi in England with SSSIs. The AMI hired a new Executive Director in the shape of Rachel Roberts. Natural England announced new sites of special scientific interest in Dorset and Dudley near Birmingham.
Monaghan Mushrooms was looking to biotechnology and expanding it's British footprint in order to cope with the effects of Brexit. Vice Chairman Paul Wilson said that Irish mushroom producers only real market choice is the British one, due to the short shelf life of mushrooms. He said the challenge for Irish growers was to remain competitive with British and Polish rivals in the years ahead.
The opening of the new Northway facility was being presaged in the notes. The Russian Mushroom Days In April were also highlighted. Monaghan Mushrooms vitamin D variety were getting a nice plug in Ireland’s most popular magazine - the RTE Guide. The veganuary movement was noted again, with a boost for veg sales in the UK, no doubt there will be a boost this year too, as the movement gains ground. Shiitake mushrooms were also being appraised for their ability to mitigate high blood pressure apparently in much the same way as ACE inhibitors.
March of many weathers arrived with storms, winds, ice and snow. A European tour of single layer production technology was in the offing for six Northern Ireland growers. DAERA was offering the chance to travel to the Netherlands and Belgium to learn about innovative management practices in mushroom production. There was an article on mushrooms helping to slow mental decline - the compound ergothioneine was the main focus of the study, as it's a compound that humans cannot synthesise. The threat of a no-deal Brexit was highlighted by Agriculture Minister MIcheal Creed in a speech from Brussels on St. Patrick’s day.
Other noteworthy subjects included, the pound on the up on the currency markets. Sainsbury’s merger with Asda was in doubt and carbon neutral mushroom production was a thing. Irish shoppers were deemed to be more concerned about product packaging that other nationalities; the upcoming 35th edition of the Dutch Mushroom Days got a look in too.
Advancing into April, the weather was pretty fair with mostly sunshine and the odd high wind. It was a quiet month news wise too. Currency volatility was still to the fore after the Brexit deadline was reached and breached. There was also the sad news of the passing of Nutrigain’s Frank Parker , a regular contributor to The Mushroom People over the years. Online there was breaking news at the end of the month from the AHDB conference in the UK. A new body to promote the interests and progress of British mushroom growers had been agreed.
The new group was open to both mushroom growers and allied trades.
Jack Ward, CEO of British Growers said: “The industry needs to raise the profile of the mushroom sector and build its credibility as a high-tech forward-looking industry making a positive and valued contribution to the UK food chain and the UK economy.”
Leaping into May and the hedgerows were white with haw. More news on the new body set up to promote the industry in the UK - the main aims of the group were stated to be to guide the use of grower levies spent on R&D through the creation of an R&D strategy for the mushroom sector. The mushroom days event in The Netherlands was being attended by nearly 175 mushroom sector companies from around the world. Several Irish companies were there making their presence felt including JFM, McShane Packaging, McDon and Harte Peat. Meanwhile Monaghan and Walsh Mushrooms were making their presence felt in the list of the Top 1000 Irish companies.
The Balmoral Show was once again held, with estimates of up to 115,000 visitors through the gates - that certainly is a big agricultural event. Magic mushrooms were decriminalized in Denver Colorado, which made headlines all around the globe. Also reports from Yorkshire indicated a deal between Asda and Monaghan mushrooms - only locally grown mushrooms would stock the shelves in the region's Asda stores.
June arrived with a fuller report from the Champignondagen - another successful event. There was a report on the Irish government's climate action plan - a burgeoning field if ever there was one. Agriculture of course, in every guise, is firmly in the spotlight when it comes to climate action. No doubt there will be a lot more on this in the months and years to come. Meanwhile scientists in Australia had discovered a fungus that draws gold from its surroundings - a gold medal to those researchers! Politically in the UK the sands were shifting as Theresa May was finally edged out of her top spot. But also making the news was the fact the Greggs new vegan sausage roll was making the company a mint - by the end of the year the company was giving bonuses to all staff on the back of the Quorn-filled roll’s success.
More political moves in July as the new PM was installed in Downing Street and the summer was named “The Summer of Brexit”. Straw prices were a topic of discussion as prices were expected to go through the roof by the end of the summer. News of drought ravaged farms in Australia presaged the conditions that were to culminate in all the bushfires dominating the news by Christmas. Climate change was mooted as the reason for the closure of a mushroom farm in Queensland. While here in Ireland we were looking for dry weather and St. Swithin’s day was dry at least. Mushroom blonde was the in hair colour in the US , pound euro parity was mooted by some analysts on the currency markets - that never materialised. Weather reports indicated that the world had experienced its hottest June the month previous, and the ever present spectre of the No-Deal Brexit was examined. Central Bank analysis was gloomy - "A disorderly Brexit would present enormous challenges for the Irish economy, especially in the near term.”
Into August and news of a Canadian mushroom picking robot was to the fore - a vision guided robot that can pick trim and package mushrooms. Also from Canada was news of a new $20 million mushroom farm from the Fyffes stable of companies. Highline Mushrooms was expanding in Calgary. There was an article on how the lowly mushroom was becoming a nutritional star, thanks to research into the many compounds contained in the fresh produce. Ergo, or Ergothioneine is regarded with great interest by dieticians and scientists alike. There was an interesting piece on UK fresh food traders bracing for Brexit. There’s not long to wait now.
In notes, the Lambert Spawn Europa party at the Mushroom Days seemed still to be a talking point - it must have been a good one. Another notable mushroom man who passed away was Connor Mac Neice - who was very well known in the industry.
And the big news at the end of August was that Northway Mushrooms opened their new facility near Ballygawley in Co. Tyrone.
September slid into view with the main report on the new facility operated by Northway. Northway Mushrooms had created 20 new jobs at the Ballygawley site following a £25m spend.
There was a big article on mushroom nutrition, looking at the benefits of mushroom consumption and the different varieties out there. While parliament in the UK was prorogued and then reinstated, the mounting tension re Brexit was palpable. Strange times indeed. It was National Mushroom Month in the US, a new forest fungi guide for Irish mushrooms was reviewed. The benefits of choline to the diet got a mention - the substance is contained in mushrooms of course. Mushrooms as potential saviours of humankind was noted - in the vent of a deadly asteroid impact so the scenario went. And mushrooms being potentially effective for warding of prostate cancer got a mention - the science was emanating from Japan, and Stalker cautioned as ever against absolute belief in health claims like this. Increased cost for mushroom growers in the US was also noted.
Observing October from the vantage point of this new year the uncertainty that abounded at that time is now all but gone. Brexit fever was gripping the UK, and the General Election was yet to be called. However the cosy chat between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach near Liverpool sent sterling higher on the FX markets. JFMcKenna were receiving plaudits for a win at the National Poultry Awards . There was some local opposition to a proposed mushroom facility being planned in Augher in Tyrone. A blob of yellowish unicellular slime which was fungal in appearance but acts like an animal was making waves in Paris. Also the Irish governments launch of a review into the extraction of peat caused a stir on the news pages. The climate debate and the future of the local environment are sure to feed into the consultation process on peat use and extraction. No doubt we’ll hear more on the subject in the months to come.
November arrived with a bang weather wise - a cold snap hit the country with sleet and snow. Brexit-wise there was a headline of tariffs on 60 per cent of goods entering NI from GB. And still there is no clarity on what actually the shape of the trading deal between the UK and the EU will be, come 2021.
Mushroom picking for mindfulness was mooted in an article, as was news of the Mushroom Council in the US plying $1.5 million into research - areas for research included nutrimetabolomics - a head scratcher if ever there was one.
The oil price was remaining stable - something that is still pertaining despite recent events in the Middle East. Mushroom extracts were also being touted as beneficial to immune system health. Synergistic effects were mentioned. The National Poisons Information Centre in Dublin was issuing warnings about people picking mushrooms for consumption.
Dipping into December the end of the year hoved into view with electoral clarity and hence some Brexit clarity too (but not total clarity). Bord Bia food and drinks awards got a mention, as did the news that there were new members voted onto the Mushroom Council in the US. Scientists were growing slabs of ‘meat’ from mushrooms in the US. And the ongoing ban on mushroom picking in Epping Forest was revisited. There was news of new antibiotics from mushrooms, and a mosquito killing compound in mushrooms. Sterling was up against the euro after the election result, but promptly lost ground again as the spectre of no-deal persisted with deadlines being set for the conclusion of the trade deal talks.
The year ended with lessened hysteria on the Brexit front, but a sense that the uncertainty of 2019 may well be repeated as we approach the end of next year.
Looking forward to the rest of 2020, the exit date is clear and what happens thereafter is anyone’s guess.