Near Playa Leona in the district of La Chorrera, one can find the first plant in Panama growing portobello, crimini and champignon edible mushrooms, twelve months of the year, using state-of-the-art technology and in compliance with the highest standards of sustainable production.
Cultivating and marketing mushrooms in the tropical climate of Panama, added to the fact that mushrooms have not traditionally been a popular ingredient in local cuisine, certainly is not the easiest route, but a commitment to development and sustainability that, for Agrícola La Lomita, is well worth it.
La Lomita is a family business, of Italo-Venezuelan origin, which set out to develop something unique in the country back in 2013, the year in which the company was founded.
Hugo Pineda is the Plant Manager of Agrícola La Lomita, where a non-negotaible policy was very clear from day one: natural production, that is, without any type of chemicals or pesticides and based on temperature, humidity and water.
According to Pineda, growing and harvesting high quality mushrooms is an operation that involves various stages that require not only specific components and environmental factors, but also time and attention to detail: from the care of the inoculated substrate that is brought from Holland in strict control of its cold chain, to constantly monitoring the cultivation beds to ensure adequate humidity and temperature conditions … a lot goes into the cultivation of mushrooms in a clean and safe environment.
In addition, cultivation and grow happens in a relatively fast cycle: fifteen days pass from the incubation of the compost to production; each piece of compost will give up to three buds of fungi. Once the mushrooms have matured, harvest begins and the mushrooms are classified according to their type and size, a work done by completely hand by the staff of La Lomita.
Pineda explains that the portobello, portobellini and cremini mushroom is actually the same type of fungus (brown fungus), but its harvest is done at different stages of growth to achieve the desired differences not only in size, but also in taste.
A laboratory established at the City of Knowledge provides an essential service to La Lomita: Sedicomvet Internacional Corp specializes in quality assurance analysis and contributes its expertise in physicochemical analysis necessary for production.
According to Dr. José Riera, Director of Sedicomvet, “the analysis of the physicochemical properties of food is one of the main aspects in the assurance of its quality.” The analisis carried out in the Sedicomvet facilities at the City of Knowledge from the samples collected in La Lomita, play a very important role in the control of the parameters required by health agencies and industrial standards such as the Panamanian Commission for Industrial and Technical Standards (COPANIT, for its acronym in Spanish). “The analysis is necessary to ensure that the product is suitable for human consumption and to ensure that they meet the characteristics and composition expected of them,” he says.
Thus, La Lomita currently produces approximately 7,000 kilos of mushrooms per week, however the plant has a capacity to produce twice the current national market demand. According to Pineda, the increase in future production will depend on the demand and national consumption of mushrooms, which is why they constantly seek to encourage it.
On the other hand, consumption of mushrooms is growing gradually in Panama, currently hovering around 176 tons per year and although traditionally the mushrooms consumed in Panama are exported, La Lomita mushrooms are 100% Panamanian.
A valuable complementary food
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, mushrooms provide a variety of nutrients with only 15 calories per cup (chopped or sliced) and are a good source of selenium, an important antioxidant that helps reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
In addition, they are a logical complement for people who want to balance their intake of red meat and increase the consumption of plants: mushrooms have a fleshy texture and add a taste known as “umami”, which in addition to being agreeable to the palate, makes them ideal to include in sauces for pasta, stews, casseroles, chilis and other mixed dishes in which one seeks flavor, as well as texture.
Finally, mushrooms contain, on average, 80% water and are low in calories, fat and sodium. For all these reasons, some crop experts have promoted mushrooms as an alternative to supply the scarcity of food in some regions.
Globally, the mushroom industry “is not only an important industry of great economic and technological development, but also an industry that generates employment and weighs in local economies. Mushrooms more specifically, have gone from being an exclusive resource and little access, to be a product of consumption of all kinds of people.”
La Lomita mushrooms are just the tip of the iceberg in thermos of the positive impact that their production may have on the country’s development. Besides being naturally produced, they generate employment in the communities surrounding the plant and they are produced locally, which means that they do not need to travel kilometers and miles to get to our table, which reduces the carbon footprint generated by having to import them from other countries.
The majority of the staff at La Lomita is local labor and 60% of them are women, who receive constant training that enhances their skills as fungiculators.
Approximately, 80% of the production of the plant is sold in supermarkets in Panama, while the other 20% seeks presence in local markets and shops that allow closer to the end customer.
“The Urban Market at the City of Knowledge Foundation is one of those spaces in which the commercialization of mushrooms takes on a different meaning,” explains Walter Cantore, one of La Lomita owners. “It is a meeting platform that allows us to connect with the consumer, in addition to supporting the movement of an agriculture free of chemicals.
Participating in these spaces is important for us, as it reinforces that our raison d’être goes beyond the production of mushrooms: we care about clean production, local development and respect for the environment. We have a commitment to the Panamanian community,” he adds.