In an old timber and corrugated iron shed, nestled amongst the dense rainforest, Daniel (Dan) Tibbett and Katrina (Kat) Atkinson are hard at work harvesting oyster mushrooms from bags hanging from the ceiling, carefully packing them for a weekend of deliveries and market stalls.
The shed’s rustic exterior is in stark contrast to the interior, which is immaculately clean and ordered. And while the growing process seems almost clinical, the result is some of the most stunning mushrooms I’ve ever seen. With soft and subtle shades of grey, cream, pink and yellow, these mushrooms are a world away from the varieties you’re used to seeing at your local grocer.
Originally a pineapple packing shed on a Montville property in South-East Queensland, the shed is now Dan (29) and Kat’s (30) creative domain, from which they run their small but thriving farming venture, Mountaintop Mushrooms. ‘We started the business just over a year ago. After relocating from Perth, we did a two-week permaculture course and ended up spending the next 12 months volunteering with our teacher. We’d always felt a strong pull to the land and had this desire to “be the change”,’ says Kat.
Having no access to land, and insufficient funds to buy it, the couple decided on a unique approach to fulfill their farming dreams. They voraciously researched the local market looking for a niche that wasn’t currently being filled. ‘Mushrooms were something that we could produce in a small space without needing to own land or spend time and money trying to cultivate soil on leased land. It required very little start-up capital and we knew we could grow them in a sustainable way,’ Kat explains.
While house-sitting on a property they approached the owner about using the old abandoned shed for their new venture.‘They were happy for us to experiment and use the shed, and after we moved on from the house-sit they allowed us to continue leasing the shed to keep the business going.’
Dan and Kat grow their mushrooms using an agricultural ‘waste’ product, organic sugar cane mulch, which is then inoculated with a culture. ‘We’re working to implement systems that turn local agricultural waste streams into food. As well as the sugar cane mulch, we’ve also had success growing mushrooms with barley straw, macadamia husks, and sawdust,’ says Dan.
He explains that while they currently do most of their production in bags, they’re in the process of moving over to 20-litre buckets that will be reused, in order to eliminate the single-use bags. ‘We’re aiming for 100% zero waste. We already use compostable packaging, and once we harvest the mushrooms we donate the left-over finished substrate to other growers and home gardeners to use for compost or in mulching beds,’ he tells.
The couple grow oyster mushrooms all year round, cycling through several different strains as the seasons change. ‘The colours can be quite amazing – blue, pink, yellow, white, and both dark and light brown,’ describes Kat. ‘It’s funny, you see some people’s reaction at the markets and I suppose it’s this human instinct or response to the colours, and they say – “you can’t eat those!” Generally, though people are blown away and fascinated because they’ve never seen anything like it before,’ adds Dan.
Dan, a sign-writer by trade, works sporadically off-farm, while Kat, who hails from a corporate background, works casual hours for a nearby seed company. ‘The business is still relatively new, so we need to work off-farm to supplement our income. But it’s growing at such a pace that we’re having a hard time keeping up with demand. We’re quickly progressing to a point where I should be able to commit to full-time farming,’ says Dan.
The pair currently supplies local restaurants, their local organic co-op and a string of markets throughout the area. As well as oyster mushrooms, they cultivate shiitake mushrooms outdoors on logs collected from a local pecan orchard. ‘We’ve been receiving a lot of interest from local cafes and chefs recently, which is really exciting. The support we’ve had from our local community has been amazing. It’s a very conscious kind of area that we live in, and people are genuinely interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it’s grown,’ says Kat. ‘We’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices to get where we are today, but changing the way we live from consumption to production has been incredibly satisfying to the soul.’
Will Work For Food is a creative partnership between writer Karen Locke photographer Honey Atkinson, who are working to elevate the importance of sustainable, ethically produced food. Find out more on their blog Willworkforfood.com.au.