Could an oyster mushroom, grown in an unassuming suburban backyard on the NSW South Coast, have the potential to change the planet – one bag of fresh market-bought mushrooms at a time?
Jessie Tomkins, the owner of the new mushroom business The Gables Gate, believes so. In fact, the mushroom advocate is so passionate about the environmental potential of toadstools that she’s put everything she’s got into growing sustainable mushrooms for locals throughout the Illawarra and Shoalhaven regions.
“About a year ago, I was looking at ways to make that into my job as part of a change of lifestyle,” Tomkins, a regular farmer’s market stallholder, tells SBS Food.
“I am very passionate about sustainability and the footprint we have on the environment and was aware that mushrooms can be grown from waste products that would otherwise go to landfill. That’s why I started this business. It was a leap of faith.”
In just one year, Tomkins has managed to rise from an average backyard gardener in Oak Flats NSW to a single-use plastic-free mushroom producer, supplying two high-end Illawarra restaurants and customers at local farmers markets with oyster mushrooms.
“It’s definitely been a hard road to walk on but I made the decision to give it a shot – so it I knew it was now or never.”
A coffee waste compost mix
The secret to Tomkins’s mushroom start-up success has been two-fold. Firstly, she explains, her product aims to be environmentally efficient – this is something that appeals to a lot of conscious cooks.
Tomkins, who has a science degree, uses compost made of sustainable waste products that would otherwise go to landfill. In the mix used to grow mushrooms, she puts coffee grounds, straw from agricultural waste and sawdust, a by-product from a local sawmill.
The farmer also grows her mushrooms in recycled six-litre plastic containers, repurposed from a chocolate seller in Wollongong. “I take them, wash them drill holes in them and then the mushrooms grow out of the side of the container. So rather than those buckets going to landfill, they are having a second life with me.”
The other contributor to Tomkins’ growth is the humble farmers market. She currently sells at Berry Farmers markets and used to sell at Friday Forage in Wollongong – both have given her a strong customer base and a local reputation for quality produce.
“I am very passionate about sustainability and the footprint we have on the environment and was aware that mushrooms can be grown from waste products that would otherwise go to landfill. That’s why I started this business."
“Having a stall at a weekly market is so important,” she tells Ainsley Harriott when he visits her market stall at Wollongong’s Friday Forage market in episode five of the new season of Ainsley's Australian Market Menu.
“It means that I'm able to sell direct to my customers. They're able to put a face to the name and they're able to see that somebody local is growing this. They're able to see the passion and the love that's been put into their food.”
A pearl of a fungi
Tomkins currently sells two main types of oyster mushrooms: pink and pearl. She used to grow other varieties but made the decision to specialise to maximise her yield.
Pink oysters are a vibrant showstopper, which often grow in clusters or large flower-like bouquets. Originating from tropical jungle areas, they can taste quite meaty.
The pearl oyster mushroom or tree oyster mushroom, which is believed to have been first cultivated in Germany during World War one, is more common than the pink variety. They are popular in Asian cuisines, appearing in many Japanese, Korean and Chinese dishes.
“Mushrooms are pretty incredible,” she tells Harriott.
“You don't need a lot of space [to grow mushrooms] so you're able to grow intensively in a small area and they're also so dynamic and diverse. You can do so many things with mushrooms.”
Magic market mushrooms
Although Tomkins is still working a 9-5 job to support her mushroom dream, she hopes to one day earn enough money from her mushroom farming business so that it can become her full-time job. Until then, she’ll keep ploughing away in her shroom set up, growing the household vegetable from her back-yard farm.
“Over the past year, I’ve learned that as a [producer], you put so much of yourself into the growing process and realise that the prices many growers sell their product at is not determined because they want to [charge you more] – they are probably charging the bare minimum they can to run their business,” she tells SBS.
“So I encourage people go to farmers markets to buy their food and support our local farmers. And, while you’re there, if you see a mushroom grower, go and have a chat to them. They are probably very passionate about what they are growing because there’s a lot of love, sweat and tears that go into producing mushrooms.”
Ainsley Harriott traverses The Friday Forage markets in Wollongong during episode 5 of the brand-new season of Ainsley's Australian Market Menu. Catch it at 7:30pm Thursday 7 November on SBS, catch up on SBS Food at 7:30pm Sundays, or stream on SBS On Demand. Visit the Market Menu website for recipes, the episode guide and more.