IT finally happened: wild grass can now be turned into nutritious and delicious mushrooms. No, it is not witchcraft, but modern agricultural technology, bringing cash and dignity to poor farmers in China and beyond.
The technology enables edible and medicinal fungi to grow out of chopped grass or herbal plants, in a similar way that some fungi grow from trees. The herbaceous plants are called juncao.
The idea was the brainchild of Lin Zhanxi, 75, a professor with Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, who came up with the technique 30 years ago.
The Juncao Technology Project was launched at the UN headquarters in May and has been supported by China-UN Peace and Development Trust Fund. The project will help developing countries prevent soil and water loss, while combating poverty and malnutrition.
Lin’s journey researching juncao started in the spring of 1983 when he visited Changting County in eastern China’s Fujian Province.
He was shocked by what he saw — excessive deforestation, water and soil losses and poor people.
Returning to university, he started researching growing edible mushrooms from grass. Traditionally, mushrooms were cultivated in sawdust, which meant cutting down many trees, damaging the environment.
After three years of arduous research Lin saw the world’s first juncao mushroom sprout from a bottle filled with forked fern and other ingredients.
However, encouraging farmers to use the new mushroom-growing technology was not going to be easy.
In Youxi County in 1988, Lin broke his ribs in a traffic accident, but he left hospital only four days after surgery to convince 27 local households to pilot his new technology.
The residents, like most people, had no idea that mushrooms could be cultivated from wild grass. Many thought Lin was nothing more than a fraud and a cheat.
“I promised that I would compensate them if they lost money,” Lin said. “If Youxi County, which boasted rich forest, could grow mushrooms from grass, other places would follow suit.”
The Youxi trial was a success. By 1995, the number of households participating Lin’s project had increased from 27 to more than 4,200.
China has 400 million hectares of grassland, nearly three times the area of arable land, according to Lin. By using just 3 percent of grassland, the juncao industry could generate more than 135 million tons of mushrooms and create tens of millions of jobs.
In the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Lin’s project has helped lift 17,500 households from poverty. The annual income of the local farmers increased from US$80 in 1998 to US$1,024 in 2007.
While encouraging the growth of juncao domestically, Lin and his team have been working hard to extend it abroad since the 1990s. He is soon going to Papua New Guinea to teach more farmers about the wild grass technique.