The winter chill brings out a smile on Anita Devi’s face for it helps her grow more organic mushroom. By taking to mushroom farming, she has ensured a steady income for her family. She has also changed the fortunes of hundreds of women in Anantpur and 10 neighboring villages of Nalanda district, Bihar, by persuading them to follow in her footsteps.

“Mushroom farming has not only empowered me and hundreds of other women, it has given boost to our rural economy,” Anita Devi, who is in her late 40s, said. “Thanks to mushroom growing, women in villages are now earning members, and are no longer dependent on their husbands and family.”

Anita Devi, a home science graduate, started mushroom farming in 2010 after training at Dr Rajendra Prasad Central Agriculture University in Samastipur, Bihar, and GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Uttarakhand. “I was desperate to earn, so I approached the Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Harnaut in Nalanda,” she said. “The officials advised me to grow mushroom. After that, I began my journey of success.”

Fruits of success

Before Anita Devi took up mushroom farming, her husband Sanjay Kumar was struggling financially. He has since opened a garment shop in Madhopur. Their two sons are studying horticulture and the only daughter is pursuing a B.Ed.

“Some villagers, particularly women, used to taunt me for growing gobar chatta, as wild mushroom is known locally,” Anita Devi said. “They hardly missed an opportunity to embarrass me by telling me it will not help me to change my life. Now hundreds of women grow mushroom here.”

Her success encouraged dozens of women from her village to start mushroom farming, followed by women from neighboring villages. In 2012, her Anantpur village was declared a Mushroom Village by the state agriculture department. Her success in popularising mushroom cultivation has been such that people in Nalanda call her Mushroom Mahila (Mushroom Lady).

Spreading the message

A few years ago, Anita Devi started the Madhopur Farmers Producers Company, which she runs out of her newly-built house, to involve more women from neighboring villages in organic mushroom cultivation. There are nearly 250 women currently attached with her company. “In last few years, I have visited several villages in Nalanda and formed self-help groups of women,” she said. “I have targeted to double the number of women. If things move as per plan, I will fulfill the target of getting 500 women to grow mushrooms by next year.”

These women have been linked to self-help groups formed under Jeevika, the Bihar government’s rural livelihood programme. “At present, more than 50 women are growing mushroom in Madhopur Dih village, 30 women in Rajan Bigha village, 40 in Raitha village, 25 in Soradih village, 15 in Raisha, 10 in Kurthia village and dozens in other villages,” Anita Devi said.

Anita Devi and other women farmers are mainly growing Oyster and Milky White mushrooms because they are easy to grow. Oyster mushroom grows on almost all types of agricultural waste, which is locally available free of cost.

“Both mushroom varieties are suitable to grow in the climate of Nalanda and profit is at least two-three fold,” she said. “The women are keen to grow button mushrooms as well but growing them is high-tech and requires investment and space. Due to lack of such facilities, we are unable to grow button mushroom.”

Growing mushroom indoor in Anantpur, Nalanda. Photo credit: Mohd Imran Khan

Profitable enterprise

The average daily production of oyster mushroom from Anita Devi’s center is 15 kg-20 kg, which is sold for Rs 80 to wholesalers and Rs 120 to retailers. Her monthly income is over Rs 25,000.

“The women have successfully changed their status from poverty-stricken to prosperous,” said Anita Devi. For women looking to earn an income, growing mushrooms is a simple, viable and profitable venture. “I have encouraged women to grow mushroom in their houses with virtually no investment to begin with,” Anita Devi said. “Mushroom is easily grown indoors during the winter.”

Manju Devi, another mushroom farmer, gave an example of how mushroom farming has changed the lives of several women. “Maya Devi used her profit from mushroom cultivation to make her son engineer while Rita Devi’s mushroom farming has made her sons self-employed now,” she said.

Bipin Kumar, field officer of Jeevika in Nalanda, said mushroom cultivation is boosting the income of women in rural areas. “Mushroom farming has given a tremendous boost to women’s empowerment,” he said.

According to Bipin, who is in constant touch with self-help groups in villages across Nalanda, mushroom growing has also helped in farm diversification.

Seed production

Two years ago, Anita Devi set up a high-tech lab for mushroom seed production after getting financial help under the National Horticulture Mission. “When I started growing mushrooms, I used to purchase 20 kg of seed from Rajendra Agriculture University because seed was not available locally,” she said. “When dozens of women joined me, the demand for seed increased manifold. I requested the university to provide me 300 kg of seed. They refused on the ground that so much seed was not available for one buyer. So, I decided to set up a mushroom seed production facility at Anantpur.”

Anita Devi now sells mushroom seeds to small-scale growers, mostly women, NGOs and government agencies. “I sell 20 kg to 25 kg mushroom seed daily on an average but its demand will increase with more chill and fog,” she said.

Uma Shankar Bhagat, district project manager of Jeevika in Nalanda, said mushroom cultivation by small and marginal farmers, particularly women, has proved a successful way out of poverty. “The number of women mushroom growers is growing in Nalanda, known for mushroom farming in Bihar,” he said.

He acknowledged the role of Anita Devi in motivating women to take up mushroom cultivation. “Anita is not only an icon of mushroom growing, she is also known for mushroom seed production and mushroom processing facility in rural Nalanda,” he said.

Mohd Imran Khan is a Patna-based journalist.

This article first appeared on Village Square.