When Stu Hartley started experimenting with growing mushrooms four years ago, he never thought his product would be sought after by high-end restaurants and nationally recognised in food awards.
- Stu Hartley has won a Delicious Produce Award for his gourmet oyster mushrooms
- The farmer started experimenting in his shed with growing funghi just four years ago
- Now he has a successful business and high-end restaurants trying to get their hands on his produce
Together with his wife, Adele, Mr Hartley runs Mother Fungus out of his shed at Old Bar, a small coastal town on the New South Wales Mid North Coast.
“I never thought I’d own a lab or have cool rooms like this,” Mr Hartley said. “Let alone get awards or have Australia’s top chefs rating my product.”
The pair has been recognised in the Delicious Produce Awards — run by the glossy food magazine — which involves some of the best chefs in the country rating a range of gourmet products, from cheese and butter to saffron and seafood.
Top-bill menu items
Mr Hartley’s king oyster mushroom came under the From the Earth category, where only 20 gold medals were given to producers across Australia.
“We’re among a small sort of elite group, I guess, which is a bit of a buzz,” he said.
High-end restaurants in both Newcastle and Sydney have reached out to Mr Hartley wanting to add his gourmet mushrooms to their menus.
“It’s amazing to have their interest, but it would mean we’d have to expand, it’s something to think about for the future,” he said.
From farmers’ markets to supplying restaurants
Mr Hartley started experimenting with mushroom growing in 2017.
“I was just playing around with [mushroom growing] as a hobby and we kind of thought we’d take it to the next level,” he said.
After two years of trial and error, developing their products, the Hartleys started to sell their mushrooms at local farmers’ markets across the Mid North Coast.
“The very first market we did was [at Nabiac] and I think we did $100 and thought that was just so great,” he said.
Just over a year later, they started supplying to local restaurants.
“Basically, all of our stuff goes to restaurants these days,” Mr Hartley said.
Science behind mushroom growing
Mr Hartley said many people did not realise how much science there was involved in growing mushrooms.
“To start with, we grow on sawdust because we grow forest mushrooms,” he said.
“We bag the sawdust up, [then] it has to be sterilised and then inoculated [mixed] with mushroom spawn.”
The mixture is then moved to the “incubation room”, a 22-degree-Celsius room that replicates summer conditions, to help the mushroom spawn grow as mycelium.
“If you get a log in the forest and it’s been lying on the ground for a while, if you peel the bark back, you’ll see the white mycelium often growing under there,” Mr Hartley said.
“So that’s the actual organism, the mycelium, and the mushrooms are the fruiting body of that mycelium.”
Once the bag is full of mycelium it is placed in the “fruiting room”, a 16C room with 90 per cent humidity — imitating the autumn climate after a rainstorm — to grow mushrooms.
“We bring the [white block] in here, we slice the bag open and the mushrooms sense the oxygen in this room, they start growing out of the slice in the bag,” Mr Hartley said.
Unlike plants, mushrooms do not need sunlight because they do not use photosynthesis as they grow.
“Something that people actually don’t realise is that mushrooms are actually like humans, they breathe oxygen and give off carbon dioxide,” Mr Hartley said.
Small community of gourmet growers
Mr Hartley said he did not know anyone else in the state who grew mushrooms the way he did.
“There’s one in Western Australia that is slightly bigger than us, there’s also one in Queensland. Western Australia and South Australia are … [on] similar levels.”
As a result of mushroom growing proving to be quite rare, Mr Hartley relied on the internet to not only learn how to grow mushrooms but also how to build the equipment needed to grow them.
“There’s nothing off-the-shelf … everything is sort of cobbled together from home-brewing equipment, from friends building it for me and me building it,” he said.
Mr Hartley avoided growing varieties that were already on supermarket shelves, such as button or portobello mushrooms.
“[These varieties are] actually grown on compost, so they’re a different style of mushroom and don’t play too well with ours,” he said.
“We’re mainly doing the oyster [a variety of gourmet mushroom] at the moment, so we’ve got a grey and a white oyster, a black pearl — which is a new hybrid king oyster — and we also do the standard king oyster.”
The oyster mushroom variety can handle the cooler winter months, but Mr Hartley said, come summer, he would add several new varieties to his collection.
“[The community of Old Bar] definitely call me the ‘mad mushroom man’,” Mr Hartley said.