Entrepreneurship through an Ecological Lens
An Unexpected Journey into Mushroom Farming
On October 31st, 2021, I became a mushroom farmer, and I’ve been on a journey of sorts ever since. I haven’t traversed vast distances or scaled great heights, but I have grown a lot of mushrooms, cleaned a lot of buckets, and had a lot of time to reflect on life in the process. The most enduring lesson from the whole thing has been a greater sense of the interconnected web we all exist within. Not just a web of people but a web of history, world events, tastes, and sensations. This is a story about the power of small business to raise our awareness of how truly interconnected we are. It’s a story that makes me wonder what society would look and feel like if it were no longer dominated by corporations and supermarkets but instead filled with small, highly interdependent enterprises with a true sense of belonging to place.
It’s difficult to say where a journey really begins. Is it when the idea forms in your head? Or when you set foot on the trail? Or is it somewhere in between, some difficult to place ‘decision point’ where the inkling coalesces into a concrete determination?
My mushroom journey began with an inkling in early 2019 when my new housemate and I started developing our rented Norlane (Geelong, Vic) block into an urban farm. I thought one of our sheds could make a great ‘mushroom zone’ although I had never grown mushrooms before. Those plans stayed in the ‘maybe later’ basket as I focused on other things, though I did get a taste of mushroom growing in early 2020 when I babysat some oyster mushroom buckets for a friend who was going travelling when they were due to fruit. The taste and texture of fresh home-grown mushrooms was amazing!
Fast forward to July 2021 and I had just left the job that I moved to Geelong for. I had felt a wave of relief every time a lockdown had been called and I had to close the doors. It took me a few runs through this cycle to see it was time to move on. I wanted to desire to do the work I was doing, and that desire had faded over time. It was a challenging and scary decision motivated by what can only be described as a ‘gut feeling’. I didn’t have another job lined up, and I didn’t want one. I knew it was time to try and create a business of my own, something I’d dreamt of doing since I was sixteen.I was now intentionally unemployed and at a loss for what I would do next, but also determined to explore whatever options presented themselves. I tried briefly to resurrect some shelved business ideas from my previous role, but contacts had moved to different places and phone calls were never returned: it felt like I was knocking on the wrong doors.
Four months passed of this wandering in the desert, and then I met a guy who offered me his entire commercial mushroom growing business, just like that. One Saturday in October, a message arrived in the Facebook inbox of The Farm Next Door in Norlane, an urban farming collective I was a part of. He was offering some free mushroom growing gear and worm farms, so naturally I said we were keen. The next day I headed out to see what this guy Ernesto was all about. It quickly became clear that he had a lot of ‘mushroom growing gear and worm farms’: he was growing forty kilograms of oyster mushrooms per week in his two-car garage and servicing about ten restaurants across the region. He gave a tour and I was thoroughly impressed. The real shock came when I asked him how much he was giving away.
“All of it.”
It was one of those moments where time seems to stretch and quiver because the quality of attention has suddenly become very sensitive and focused. I realised in that moment this was exactly the kind of opportunity I had created the space in my life for. Yet I was also overwhelmed as I wondered if it would even be possible. I didn’t know where I would put everything, for a start! But I said ‘yes’ and figured things would work themselves out one step at a time.
My friend Jenny, another member of the Farm Next Door crew, offered to have the mushroom farm in her garage, so two days later we’d trucked it all over to her place in Norlane. I’m not sure she knew what she was signing up for, but she’s been an incredibly gracious host for the last eighteen months, especially for someone who doesn’t like mushrooms!
Ernesto gave me his list of restaurant contacts and, as my first harvest approached, I excitedly called the restaurants, one of which said they would happily take the full ten kilos that I was expecting based on Ernesto’s advice.
Then the first harvest arrived: a measly 500 grams. I called the chef apologetically and asked if it was worth bringing them down. It would barely pay for the fuel. He said he’d take it: if I aspired to be a mushroom farmer, I figured I might as well start with what I had.
I’ve since discovered mushrooms are incredibly difficult to grow in a reliable way. I had been given a crash course by Ernesto during the handover, but he didn’t have much time and made it seem super easy. As problems cropped up later, it was up to me to learn most things by trial and error or YouTube-iversity, although I did have a couple of WhatsApp calls with him after he’d settled in Colombia. Half the time I didn’t even know what questions to ask.
A year later, I was still scratching my head about the inconsistent yields I was getting: thirty kilos some weeks, zero in others. I was making just enough money to keep going but not enough to get ahead. Any time I had a couple of bad weeks I’d be wondering how to pay the rent.
Fortunately, from very early on, one of my mates, Cameron, became passionately interested in everything about growing mushrooms and began regularly helping out on a voluntary basis. Not only did this give me someone to bounce ideas off when troubleshooting issues, but this arrangement transformed over time into a business partnership. Wherever things went next, I knew it would be Cameron and me doing this together.
We knew the problems we were having meant we badly needed to find help close to home, so I reached out to a grower in Melbourne I’d seen on Instagram. This farm ran in two twelve-metre shipping containers with three split systems maintaining a constant temperature, filtered fans controlling the airflow, and beefy humidifiers spreading humidity evenly around. In contrast, my garage setup had gaps everywhere and the temperature was all over the place (despite my attempts to insulate it). Slugs were rampant, chomping on the mushrooms and leaving slime trails everywhere, and the wooden rafters harboured moulds whose spores clog the air and discourage the mushrooms from fruiting. Before entering the garage to fruit, the buckets incubated in an open-air lean-to where they quickly became infested with fungus gnats. My farm was a mess, and I knew I wanted some shipping containers. The issue was the money and the land: I had neither.
While I’d intended to live in Geelong long-term, the pandemic had me questioning these plans. I now dreamed of moving to the ancestral farm in South-West Gippsland where I would be closer to family and could let my passion for regenerative agriculture roam free. The advent of mushroom farming felt like a puzzle piece falling into place, and I could finally see myself with a farm enterprise adjacent to my parents’ cattle and agroforestry operation. This shift in priorities led me to sell my house in order to invest in a new mushroom farm in the Geelong region: Cameron and I would own it in partnership and he could keep it running when I left for Gippsland to set up a second mushroom farm. So that was the money sorted, but the land was another question.
I started talking about my plans for a shipping container mushroom farm to anyone who would listen and, lo and behold, through a friend of a friend of a friend, I met someone who was already freely lending their land to a market garden and was keen to host a mushroom farm too. Like Jenny, I don’t think Matt quite knew what he was offering his property for either. He lives off the grid and a mushroom farm draws a lot of power. But he’s a problem solver and seemed to relish the challenge.
At around the same time I met Matt and agreed to set up on his property, there miraculously appeared two separate shipping container mushroom farms on Facebook Marketplace. The house sale hadn’t settled by this point, so I borrowed funds from family and friends to put deposits on both of these.
When the sale settled, I took a holiday while Cameron got to work moving the containers. We created a 50/50 partnership called Bellarine Fungi, and we started planting our first small batches of buckets in May 2023. By June, we were harvesting our first flushes of mushrooms. Now, in August, we’ve had a few harvests and we’re seeing how things average out before we scale up.
We have plans to reach at least forty kilos per week of oyster mushrooms and also explore other varieties of gourmet and medicinal mushrooms such as shiitake, enoki, lions mane, reishi and Cordyceps.
Looking forward, looking back
It’s been a wild ride, and I love telling the story: I’ve been on a two-year crash course in mushroom growing and business management that I never expected. The most significant insight has been how much I need to broaden my view as I go about my day-to-day life. I find it easy to treat myself as a problem-solving machine, or as a consumer, or any other of the many modern terms that collapse the wholeness of a human being into just one thing. But we are not these singular characters. While my tendency is to go about life as though the possibilities open to me are confined to what I can immediately perceive, there are in fact many more possibilities that lie latent, awaiting perhaps a little conversation here or a bit of reflection there. When I left my stable full-time job to go it alone, I essentially followed a single inkling: ‘I can’t paint without a blank canvas’. None of this could have unfolded without the opening which that launch into the unknown provided. I have since discovered that we are as enmeshed in history, community, and possibility as a tree is enmeshed in a forest.
When I hear most people talk about the business they started, it all sounds very engineer-like: “I did A, so B happened”, and so forth. In my experience, the process of starting a business has been far more organic, and I wonder if the extension of organic metaphors into the way we organise our commercial and economic systems would go some way to alleviating the disconnection that drives so many modern maladies.
This mushroom farming venture is not simply an executed plan. It is both a product of its environment while also having its own impacts on the people and landscape which surround it. It vitally depended on people like Ernesto, Jenny, Matt, Cameron, and a whole cast of others, each of them depending, in turn, on a vast network of people and past experiences. The process of farming mushrooms has now, in turn, deeply affected those people, not to mention the soil created from the rapid decomposition of organic matter by the mycelium itself. Additionally, this venture depended on my grandparents who saved up such sums as they could never spend in retirement, leaving an estate to my family that enabled me to invest in my own business.
It depends, too, on the history of the land. Our current site in Drysdale was a commons in early settler times, and that has influenced the way Matt thinks about his land and the uses to which it is put, including leasing it to people like me in return for fresh produce rather than monetary rent. I could go down this track forever, listing the myriad forces relevant to the growth and development of this little business: wind; waves; soil chemistry; biology; human wilfulness; community; finance; on and on!
Starting my own business has been an eye-opening, horizon-broadening journey: the more I’ve looked, the more I’ve discovered the interconnectedness of all things. It’s been one of those experiences in which I feel at once big and small. I feel proud of those decision points that demanded a firm stance in favour of what I would really love to do with my life, and I feel simultaneously humbled by the notion that I didn’t really ‘start’ anything at all: I’m merely the steward of a creative process that seems to guide me as much as I guide it.
We would all do well to consider life through this kind of ecological lens. The subtle ways we each influence the warp and weft of our shared fabric are incredibly significant. The assumptions that guide each step we take can send vast unseen ripples through that fabric which then affect outcomes for other people, creatures, business, and watercourses. What mushroom farming has taught me about myself and the world is to remain open to possibility and simply hold to the character of people, businesses, society, and economy that I wish to see more of, and let the course of life fill in the blanks.
Tom Allen is a Victorian farmer, creator, and educator who believes in the power of small scale enterprise to create much needed shifts in our ecological awareness. He loves to share his hard-won knowledge and support others on the journey, so if you want to know more, just reach out! Email: email@example.com. Ph: 0421 102 154.