Fragrant soups and risottos, a big, hearty, hot breakfast, a succulent accompaniment to both meat and vegetarian dishes … Ever wondered where and how to source the best and freshest mushrooms? Gloria Hayes from Rainbow Mushrooms knows the answer!
What’s the background behind the establishment of your business, Rainbow Mushrooms?
Rainbow Mushrooms was established 10 years ago. We purchased a small business located at Cundletown and relocated it to our property at Rainbow Flat. Here we have 46 hectares and run a small herd of beef cattle.
The original farm was 6 small rooms and operated by family. In 2003 we extended the mushroom farm to its present size − 9 rooms, growing about 2,200 kg of mushrooms each week. We now have a staff of 12 and supply mushrooms to the local area, with the overflow going to the Sydney and Newcastle produce markets.
How did you personally become interested in growing mushrooms?
It was not my intention to run the mushroom business when we originally purchased the farm in 2001. Over time circumstances changed, and I am now the grower. The mushroom industry – the AMGA [Australian Mushroom Growers Association] and other farmers are very supportive of small farmers and run many training courses that allow newcomers like me to enter a highly technical and regulated industry.
What specific types of mushrooms do you grow on your property?
On our farm we grow the White Agarius and Swiss Brown mushrooms. These we market at various stages of their development i.e. White Buttons and Swiss Brown Buttons are grown to various sizes 10 – 20 mm, 20 – 40mm, 40 – 50mm and 50 mm+. White Field and Swiss Brown Portabellos are picked in 3 sizes: small, medium and large.
What are the processes behind cultivating a crop of mushrooms?
Our farm operates on a 6-week cycle, with a room being emptied each week and new compost being filled and cased with peat. We purchase phase 3 compost from a mushroom farm at Windsor, which allows us to have a minimum lead time before we pick our first flush – usually around 17 days from the time the new compost arrives. We get 3, sometimes 4, flushes from the 350 blocks of compost in each room.
• Wednesday: receive blocks from Windsor – load into sterile room.
• Friday: top blocks (case) with peat, to allow mycelium to grow from compost and mushrooms to form. Fresh air excluded from room, temperature controlled to make a warm, humid environment. Water applied during the next week.
• Friday week 2 – fresh air introduced and temperature slowly dropped over the next 3 – 4 days. This allows a staggered pin set.
• Sunday week 3 – start picking first flush mushrooms.
• Watering and picking continues until Tuesday week 6, when the room is emptied of compost, sterilised, any maintenance and repairs carried out, ready for the new blocks the following day.
• The process starts all over again.
How many mushrooms would your farm produce in an average year?
We produce on average 114,000 kg of mushrooms annually.
What are some of the difficulties associated with growing healthy mushrooms … i.e. do wet weather/drought/pests cause major issues?
Mushrooms are sensitive to carbon dioxide build up. This causes mushrooms to cup and open prematurely. This build up is mostly caused by too many mushrooms of a similar size on the bed at one time and not allowing the circulation of fresh air.
Wet weather is not a major concern, except when it involves storms. The nitrogen from a storm causes a growth spurt, and this growth can cause crowding on the beds − making it hard work for pickers. Long periods of wet can cause too much humidity, and this can lead to Blotch forming and mushrooms wasted.
A mushroom doubles its size naturally in 23 hours. Droughts mean we have to use more water to keep the humidity in the rooms at the necessary level. Low levels of humidity cause the mushrooms’ skin to scale. While the mushroom is still edible, the appearance is ruined. Disease is a major threat to our business and therefore is monitored continuously, with all preventative measures in place.
The Phorid fly is common in the mushroom industry and is found naturally in bushland. This has to be carefully monitored, as they spread disease throughout a room and then move to the next one. We have a picker responsible for checking for, removing and treating areas where disease is found. The treatment for disease is – remove the diseased mushrooms, cover the area with table salt and/or wet paper towel. If an outbreak is serious, then effected blocks are removed from the room and off the farm.
In your opinion, have mushrooms’ popularity grown over the years?
Mushroom sales are increasing everywhere, as people become aware and their nutritional value becomes more recognised. See the AMGA Website [www.mushrooms.net.au] for more information. On a personal level, the demand for our produce has increased steadily over the years − to the point where we can no longer produce the required weekly demand.
For the past 6 years we have attended weekly farmers’ markets, talking about and selling our fresh produce. These markets have grown to the point where we now attend Newcastle Farmers’ Market every Sunday, and the comments we continually hear is they taste like mushrooms should, how fresh our mushrooms are, and that they keep longer.
We started growing Swiss Browns – 2 bags each week − and had trouble selling the mushrooms from them to the Newcastle Regional Market. This was one reason we started the direct market approach through farmers’ markets (might I add, this is now probably the most rewarding part of our business – to be told by the consumer that they appreciate your product).
We have steadily increased the amount of Swiss Brown blocks we purchase each week, as demand for them has grown. Our order is now for 150 blocks each week.
What sets your produce apart from other similar crops grown throughout the region?
Most, if not all, fruit and vegetable crops in the region are grown outside exposed to the elements. Mushrooms are grown in air conditioned rooms, and as previously stated, are only marginally affected by the weather and pests. Birds and animals are no threat.
On the other side, we are very dependent on electricity for temperature control and air flow, and we’re a very labour intensive business, as we hand harvest. Mushrooms have a stable price all year round, with top quality receiving top price − unlike most fruits and vegetables that are seasonal.
Where can people source your produce?
We attend Wingham, Forster, Gloucester, Hastings, Port Macquarie, Singleton, The Entrance Farmers’ Markets one Saturday each month, the Riverwalk Market at Laurieton once a month and Newcastle Farmers’ Market every Sunday.
Ken Little F & V Port Macquarie and Camden Haven F & V Laurieton stock our mushrooms
Interview by Jo Atkins.