PETERSBURG, VA. -- A marketing cooperative is being developed to help Virginia growers sell gourmet mushrooms, an extension specialist said last week.

Thirty-six growers will buy stock and be the central owners in an equity-owned cooperative, said Andy Hankins, extension specialist in alternative agriculture at Virginia State University.

The growers are the most experienced of the state's more than 200 mushroom farmers, and expressed the most interest in setting up the cooperative, Hankins said. "If these 36 can work together," he said, "I think we can have 236 next year."

The cooperative, which is scheduled to start up in May, will work with major supermarket chains and food companies to provide markets for shiitake mushrooms, a gourmet variety with a rich texture and flavor that resembles beef. Hankins said supermarket chains and food companies will not work with growers on an individual basis.

The production of shiitake mushrooms has been going on for about four years, with growers all over the state selling to wholesale restaurant supply firms. But growers are now producing more mushrooms than they can sell to restaurants and are looking for another market, Hankins said.

The three dozen growers are committed to selling 80,000 pounds of mushrooms during the 1988 growing season, which begins in the spring, Hankins said.

The cooperative will work out a transportation arrangement whereby refrigerated trucks will pick up mushrooms at various locations around the state. The mushrooms, which have a shelf life of about 12 days, then will be taken to the grocery chain for sale.

One of the cooperative's main functions will be to ensure consistent quality in the mushrooms. "The supermarkets want consistency in price and quality, and a reliable quantity each week," he said.

Only the best mushrooms will be shipped to the grocery chain, with poorer-quality ones being allowed to dry for sale in a nonperishable form.

Hankins also said the cooperative wants to try to keep the price of the mushrooms within the reach of the average consumer. The mushrooms often cost as much as $20 per pound, but Hankins said the growers would like to be able to sell four ounces for $2.69.

Hankins said he hoped the cooperative would help introduce consumers to the shiitake. "Few people have tasted the mushroom," he said. "These mushrooms have a richer flavor than the white ones, they have more texture, they're an excellent source of vitamin D, and can be used as a meat substitute."

The cooperative also could encourage more production of shiitakes, which is a low-investment operation that can be done in conjunction with other kinds of farming or even other kinds of jobs.

"We're trying to promote this as a supplemental crop for farmers, or a supplemental income for land owners who may be employed but have time on the weekends to spend to make some extra income," Hankins said.

Shiitake mushrooms are grown on four-foot white oak logs in the woods, with each log producing about two pounds of mushrooms a year over a four-year period, Hankins said. Most of the growers in the cooperative's core group have 1,500 to 2,000 logs under cultivation.

Hankins said the cooperative is getting technical assistance from the Department of Agriculture, Virginia State University and Virginia Tech.