Wild forest mushroom harvesting in South Africa

October 31, 2009

South Africans do not have a tradition of eating 'strange' mushrooms. As a result, Boletus mushrooms harvested in this country are generally exported and the local industry is dominated by businesses with Italian connections. In the early 1980s, there were reportedly some 22 operators harvesting and selling Boletus mushrooms from South Africa. With the recent demise of Country Fruit that went into liquidation last year, Boletus Mushrooms cc is the sole remaining processor and exporter of this product.

Forest mushrooms in SA Sorting and packing forest mushrooms
Forest mushrooms, a sought-after delicacy in restaurants in Europe, grow wild in pine plantations. Packing mushrooms for export at the Boletus Mushrooms cc factory near Amsterdam, Mpumalanga.


Picking rights to harvest Boletus mushrooms are put out to tender on an annual basis. The tender provides the successful bidder access to the various state, private and corporate plantations for that specific period. As the tenders are short term in nature, they are not conducive to an investment in infrastructure and people so that harvesting has tended to be exploitative in nature. While this may be debatable, it is felt that this may have contributed to the dramatic decline experienced in recent years in the yield of these mushrooms. Other factors contributing to this decline include:

  • the tendency to move staff around to harvest only young, high quality mushrooms;
  • the change in our nursery practice which favours the use of containerised nursery seedlings grown in sterile composted pine bark growing medium and a reluctance to inoculate the young seedlings with the right mycorrhizae to promote Boletus mushroom production;
  • climatic conditions which of late have not been conducive to high mushroom yields.

Boletus edulis is an ectomycorrhizal fungus which produces an edible fruiting body. The mycelia of the fungus infest the roots of the host plant, giving rise to an association referred to as mycorrhizae or 'root fungus'. A number of fungi can form mycorrhizal associations with pine trees. Boletus edulis is simply one of the candidates. This mycorrhizal association is of mutual benefit to both the host plant and the fungus (the fungus provides the tree with nutrients and in return the tree feeds the fungus). The success of pine plantings is dependent on not only climate but also the presence of mycorrhizae in the soil. In South Africa, Boletus mushrooms are generally found in pine plantations at altitudes of between 900 m and 1 500 m. The best yields are experienced when the pines are between nine and 13 years of age.

What are the benefits to the plantation owner of insuring that an effective mycorrhizal association is present in commercial pine plantations?

In the first place, the pine root system is not adequate to support the tree without a mycorrhizal association. The volume of soil available to the tree's roots is increased dramatically by the presence of fungal hyphae. This in turn increases the tree's ability to absorb moisture and nutrients, rendering it more resistant to drought and improving growth. Ideally, a combination of different mycorrhizae is required to ensure that different nutrients are taken up by the tree.

Given the correct moisture and temperature conditions (100 mm of early spring rain and no Berg winds to dry out the soil), fruiting bodies, or the so-called Boletus mushrooms, are produced. Careful management of this resource can prove most beneficial to plantation managers as has been demonstrated in the joint venture agreement between Merensky, Forest Fruits and a local community in southern KwaZulu-Natal. Outstanding, harmonious social relationships exist between the various parties which are played out in a mutually beneficial fire prevention effort from all involved.

The Boletus mushroom industry in this country has been bedevilled by exploitation of not only the resource but also the people harvesting the mushrooms. Short-term harvesting contracts and the requirement that an exorbitant tender fee be paid upfront for the right to harvest mushrooms has resulted in a reluctance to invest in infrastructure and the development of long-term relationships with plantation owners and communities.
Mutually beneficial: mushroom harvesting in forest plantations

Some 10 years ago, Forest Fruits (not to be confused with Country Fruit) formed a JV with Merensky which provided the business free access to the company's plantations on a long term basis. This arrangement also included community involvement in the mushroom harvesting operation. The benefits of this association to Merensky, apart from fire prevention, as has already been mentioned, are that the brushwood arising from their pruning operations is stacked in the plantation by Forest Fruit staff. This is done to improve access to the compartments and to make early mushroom detection possible. The secure long term access to the plantations enables Forest Fruits to invest in infrastructure and to arrange for the seedlings used by the company to be inoculated with Boletus mycorrhizae.

Including the local community in the arrangements has been of material benefit to this party. To quote their representative, Mr Mtimkulu: "The mushroom project was at first regarded as useless but once we understood it properly, we realised it was fun and provided a good livelihood. People are fetched from their homes to harvest the mushrooms and perform other tasks in the plantations. The money is good and the benefits are visible in their homes and in the manner in which their children are dressed."

Boletus Mushrooms cc and its subsidiary Forest Fruits, in collaboration with Amahlathi Emerging Entrepreneurs Forum, is currently working on a new strategy to develop a more sustainable forest mushroom business. The basis of the strategy is to bring the business in line with the requirements of the Forestry Charter, specifically in respect of Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) and to develop a system of profit sharing to the benefit, in particular, of poor people in the rural areas who will do the mushroom harvesting.

Being a small family business with a turnover of less than R35 million, Boletus Mushrooms is regarded as a Qualifying Small Enterprise (QSE). As such, the business is only expected to perform in a minimum of four out of the seven Charter elements, the most obvious being in the fields of skills development, preferential procurement, enterprise development and socio-economic development. In order to achieve this goal, community access to the resource is necessary and long term secure relationships need to be developed so as to build trust and to make it possible to invest in necessary infrastructure.

Drawing from experience gained from the long-term arrangement that currently exists with Merensky and in discussions with other parties in the forest industry, there are a number of benefits that land owners can expected from the current proposal. These are:

  • brush stacking in compartments that have been identified for mushroom harvesting which will improve access to the compartments for all concerned;
  • a coordinated effort to inoculate pine seedlings with Boletus mycorrhizae;
  • reliable information on Boletus yields for purposes of FSC audits;
  • the development of cordial relations between communities and the plantation owners;the reduced incidence of fires in plantations;
  • the creation of a positive image of the company within the neighbouring communities based on trust and upliftment.

The success of a venture of this nature, which would be of benefit to all involved, is an example of a positive application of the Forestry Charter initiative.

Published in September/October 2009

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