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Scientists Patent Process Permitting Commercial Morel Production

July 11, 1986

LANSING, Mich. (AP) _ Scientists who learned to think like wild mushrooms revealed some of the secrets of a newly patented process they say will allow commercial production of pricey, highly prized morels.

″This is a completely new technology,″ said James Malachowski, one of three mycologists, or fungi experts, responsible for the breakthrough.

″We’re able to produce the morel almost at will,″ said James Herbert Jr., president of Lansing-based Neogen Corp., which was issued a patent for the morel-growing method in June.

When research started, the prospect of farming morels was ″like making gold from lead - almost that farfetched in the minds of some people,″ Herbert said Thursday.

Malachowski compared the discovery to the invention of the light bulb: ″No one has been able to do this before.″

The breakthrough involves a secret method for growing morel spawn, or seeds, and for forcing the spawn to send up shoots that become the distinctive mushrooms. The morels grow in pasteurized potting soil.

The cone-capped morel is prized by gourmets for its firm texture, hollow cap and nutty, caraway-like flavor.

Morels are more expensive than the button mushrooms that pop up between the peppers and pepperoni on pizza - about $20 a pound wholesale instead of $1 a pound. Morels grow only in the spring, and large numbers of the fresh fungi can be found only during rainy springs in Midwest and Pacific Northwest states.

Up to 500,000 morel hunters flock to Michigan each May to search the woodland for morels, tourism officials estimate.

Morels are the attraction at the annual National Mushroom Hunting Championships in Boyne City, and festivals also draw morel connoisseurs to Mesick and Harrison.

A year-round supply of fresh morels would be a dream come true for restaurateur and mycologist Jack Czarnecki, author of ″Joe’s Book of Mushroom Cookery.″

″From a culinary standpoint, it’s one of the most significant developments in the last 20 years and possibly in the century,″ Czarnecki said from Joe’s Restaurant in Reading, Pa. ″That’s really exciting. I hope I’ll be their first customer.″

Czarnecki, who’s earned a national reputation as an expert on wild mushrooms, said most morels he serves in his restaurant come from prime growing areas in Oregon, Washington and Michigan.

But that doesn’t stop him from trekking through his native Berks County, Pa. in search of the delicacy.

Gary Mills and Malachowski describe themselves as avid mushroom hunters, as well.

Mills scoffed at speculation that commercial production would dim the enthusiasm of fellow hunters. ″People go fishing even though you can buy fish in the grocery store,″ he said.

Market studies indicate worldwide morel sales could reach $25 million a year, Herbert said. About a third of that would be in the United States.

A crucial step in developing the morel-growing process was discovered by San Francisco scientist Ronald Ower, who painstakingly documented the life of the wild morel and first reproduced it in 1980.

Mills and Malachowski picked it up from there.

″We learned to think like morels,″ Malachowski said.

Neogen developed the process under contract with Michigan State University and in partnership with laboratories in Switzerland, Sweden and California. It won’t be ready to license the process for at least 18 months, he said.

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