'Every single week we sell out', say native mushroom growers
As an accountant, Greg Rathbun knew enough about lifestyle horticulture businesses to know that plenty of clients lost money chasing their dream. But that didnt stop him, a self-confessed greenhorn with a city background, and his partner Tann Duangprasit, from buying an avocado orchard in Maungatapere, Northland. Mushrooms were never really part of Rathbuns plan, who still works as a consultant and doesnt believe in retirement. But Duangprasit was a big mushroom fan, and after discovering the existence of native mushrooms, started experimenting, learning online and meeting others involved in fungi cultivation. Now Maungatapere Mushrooms has become the bulk of the farms income. READ MORE: * Foraging is great, but stay away from death cap mushrooms * Are mushrooms a health food? We explore what this new hype is all about * How to grow oyster mushrooms * Mushrooms are having a moment, and Kiwis are growing their own Duangprasit started growing the oyster mushrooms in a plastic greenhouse that wasnt airtight, with the mushroom bags sterilised in a 44 gallon drum with a fire underneath. Tann was sometimes up at 2 or 3 in the morning stoking the fire, he says, with a tinge of guilt, but they soon started selling their novel wares at the Whangarei market. Duangprasit foraged for mushrooms as a child growing up in Thailand. After selling 6kg in five minutes at the market, she realised this was what she wanted to do. Since then, theyve invested in better sterilisation equipment, built a multipurpose shed and fitted out shipping containers to better control the environment. But its still a fairly low tech, high effort operation, with hundreds of mushroom bags needing to be moved regularly to different locations. Now they produce around 100kg per week and grow six varieties, some of which are seasonal. I dont dry any because we never have surplus, says Duangprasit Every single week were sold out. Rathbun thought there would be resistance at that price when you can buy a kilo of button mushrooms for $17, but people love their locally-grown native mushrooms : even at $40 per kilogram. Rathbun believes that while industrialised agriculture may be needed to feed the world and stock supermarket shelves, theres room for all growers and small-scale locally-produced food will continue to play an important role. As a small producer, diversification is key. The couple also grow bananas, which sell for a significant premium at the market compared to imported supermarket bananas, and they rent out tiny holiday homes on their property . While the avocado industry has been in turmoil recently, Rathbun says the collective website Avos to Go has successfully sent high-quality fruit direct to customers without the need for cool storage or retail margins. The couple would like to grow their mushroom business, but just to service Northland and maybe Auckland. And if psychobins are legalised, Rathbun would also like to explore the potential of mushroom extracts as a treatment for mental illnesses. While he doesnt want to be running a $10 million business, Rathbun likes the idea of starting something, working with iwi, government and other local businesses, creating good jobs in an area that needs many more of them. He points to Southern Paprika , which started in a field in 1988 and is now producing seven million kilograms of peppers each year in high-tech glasshouses in Northland, as an example of how small farmers can become big suppliers and employers if they invest in the right technology. The farm already has solar panels and batteries, keeping energy usage low, but if they do expand, Rathbun knows theyll need to keep reducing their emissions because the ESG (environmental, social and governance) framework is such a massive global trend. Ive never seen such a concerted push from every player: Governments, banks, businesspeople, marketers... When I was selling avocados at the market Id get 20-year-olds ask me if I was growing the trees sustainably? I thought Im growing trees, theyre carbon sinks, of course I am. But when you start thinking about it, in reality youre not because youve got your fertilisers and your diesel tractors. Becoming aware is the first step.