adventurous agriculture: mosul's mushroom farm a first for Iraq

Although they grow wild, mushrooms remain a relatively exotic food in Iraq. Now one ambitious Mosul man plans to change all that: by starting Iraq’s first mushroom farm. And there are already shoppers queuing for his fungi.

The casual observer would be hard pressed to find signs of an ambitious agricultural project with great commercial and culinary potential, here on this quiet street in the working class neighbourhood of Ras al-Jadda in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Yet this is where one of Iraq’s most innovative agricultural projects is underway: Iraq’s first mushroom growing project.

Two years ago Majeed Hamid Sallal got a license from the investment commission of the state of Ninawa, which encourages new investments in the northern state, to start his mushroom farm.

“But growing mushrooms requires special conditions,” he said. “And for these reasons they thought that my project would fail. Nobody encouraged me to carry on.”

However Sallal has proved the mushroom naysayers wrong. Proudly holding up one of his mushrooms, Sallal said he has already come up to international standards in white mushroom growing, with his project’s potential to produce an average of between 20 and 30 kilograms of mushrooms per square meter of mushroom compost. And he is very confident that he can continue to make his mushrooms a success. His achievement in the face of such difficult circumstances, he feels, deserves praise.

After being unable to get much advice or help from academics at the University of Mosul, Sallal went to the city of Aleppo in Syria where he paid to take courses in agricultural science and where he was also introduced to similar mushroom projects. For instance, mushrooms have been grown successfully in Idlib, Syria, which neighbours the state of Aleppo.

When NIQASH came to visit the mushroom project in Mosul, Sallal lectured this correspondent on the intricacies of growing mushrooms as though he were a university professor. “Growing mushrooms requires pasteurization and sterilization to get rid of harmful bacteria,” he explained. “This was done here,” he said, indicating a small chamber containing steam machines, which are needed for the pasteurization of mushroom compost. “These machines were made in Mosul,” Sallal says, “because importing them would have been too expensive. And they work perfectly.”

To successfully plant, grow and harvest the mushrooms, conditions need to be optimal – and this includes heat and high humidity, with just the right levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Various machines create these conditions in a room with specially built walls that will ensure best conditions for baby mushrooms can be maintained. Today, in the terraces that have been built throughout the space, one can already see the white sprouts coming up.

“The most difficult part is preparing the seeds,” Sallal explained. “And that happened in a laboratory. But there’s no room for mistakes at any stage because all the stages complement one another.”

What is particularly interesting about Sallal’s mushroom project is that it is almost completely local: the only stage at which foreigners intervene is in the preparation of the seeds.

Nonetheless, Sallal said the project had still been an expensive one. He was reluctant to talk about the real costs of the project. Although he had used his own money to set the mushroom project up, he had also been able to get a loan from the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. “It is too costly,” Sallal complained, “but at the same time, it is also profitable.”

The state of Ninawa is well known for its agriculture and is Iraq’s leading wheat and barley producing region, responsible, on average, for around 20 per cent of the country’s total wheat production and around 30 per cent of its total barley crop. But mushroom farming is something new to Ninawa and it may well be an interesting, potentially lucrative, alternative for grain farmers in the area heavily hit by successive droughts and unsteady government support over the past few years.

A professor at the College of Agriculture and Forestry at Mosul University, Ali Kareem, recalled that there had been an attempt to grow mushrooms in Ninawa before, back in the 1970s. “But if production has already started, then that is sufficient proof of this [Sallal's] project’s success already,” he noted.

Despite Sallal’s fungal success so far though, local authorities still seem to have some reservations about the mushroom project.

The head of the local council’s committee on agriculture and water, Nawaf Turki al-Faisal, told NIQASH that he was concerned about whether the end product would be fit for human consumption and that he would need to check with health and environmental authorities. Then again, this procedure was supposed to have been undertaken before Ninawa’s investment commission licensed the project.

Meanwhile back at the mushroom project, Sallal talked about how watching mushrooms grow made him happy. Although mushrooms are not that common in Iraq, the people of Mosul like to eat well and Sallal’s aim is to encourage more of them to try his mushrooms. Ninawa has a population of around three million and Sallal would like mushrooms to become a steady culinary favourite here.

Sallal gifts some of his mushrooms to his friends because at the moment, the project is still in the experimental stage and not that many are being produced but every week small amounts of his white mushrooms also arrive at the Barakat al-Rahman supermarket in the Jadida neighbourhood of Mosul. One kilogram sells for IQD6,000 (around US$5), the store owner reported.

But, as the shop owner quickly pointed out, “some customers now wait for [Sallal’s] mushrooms to arrive because they consider them better quality than the imported mushrooms.”