Tuesday 25 April 1989

Mushroom Farming


Warminster Young Farmers' Club travelled to Bradford On Avon last week, for a visit to the Blue Prince mushroom farm.

The Manager, George Ponting, explained that the business was started in 1913 by some French men in Kent. They called themselves 'Agaric' and later moved to Corsham before a final transfer to Bradford On Avon.

The business was taken over by Heinz in 1967, and the farm at Bradford On Avon is one of five in the group, the others being in Sussex and Surrey. The Bradford On Avon farm specialises in large open breakfast-type mushrooms, producing 1,750 million pounds (lbs weight) per year.

Mr. Ponting described and demonstrated the lengthy process of producing mushroom compost, and then escorted members over the main road to a redundant quarry, where the mushrooms are grown in eight and a half acres of underground caverns - the result of hand-mining Bath stone.

The caverns, about 90 feet below ground, give two and a half million cubic feet of air space where the mushrooms are grown in 4,500 wooden trays, which have a useful life of about eight years. Each week 300 trays of 'new' mushrooms go in, as 300 spent trays are removed.

A crop of mushrooms takes eight weeks to mature. The farm employs 100 people but the picking is mostly done by women, whose hand-to-eye co-ordination is considered superior to men's.

The farm labels and stamps the sell-by-date on the punnets for the supermarkets, which also demand bar-coding, and even dictate where the farm shall buy its bar-code printer.

In 1928 mushrooms sold for 7s. 6d. per 1lb, at a time when an agricultural labourer's wages were about 9s. 0d. a week. The cost today is about £1 per 1lb, much less than the current wage packet of a farm worker.

Mr. Ponting said: "Growing mushrooms presents daily demands both mentally and physically."

A vote of thanks to Mr. Ponting for his commentary and the fascinating tour of the farm was given by the club's vice-chairman Steve Tippetts.

Everyone agreed that commercial mushroom growing was far removed from the old days when 'mushrooming' meant roaming about over the hills at dawn in search of the tasty morsels.

Report by Danny Howell.