West Tamar Fungi
HOLY SHIITAKE: Urban farmer Tim Murch chats about growing West Tamar Fungi from a modest hobby to a full time occupation in just four short years. IMAGE: Supplied
AFTER more than 10 years in the finance industry, Tim Murch was ready to take on a new challenge and, after creating a small space on his urban farm patch in Legana, West Tamar Fungi was born.
Producing gourmet mushrooms for the market and restaurant trade since 2018, Tim said his degree in biology and chemistry had a hand in choosing his new career path which has blossomed over the past four years.
"It started as a hobby to keep me busy and has evolved into a full-time occupation," Tim said.
Using locally sourced materials, Tim is the sole employee, controlling the entire process - from the initial agar cultures (germination) right through to harvesting which is achieved by delicately twisting the mushroom off at its base in order to keep the mushroom intact.
"Fungi are amazing organisms and have given me the chance to farm without having large areas of farmland and machinery."
Cultivating a wide variety of fungi including oyster, lion's mane and shiitake, Tim has - through trial and error - slowly found his groove in this niche, and sometimes temperamental, industry.
"Our original production aims were 40kg a week and we vary between 30-35kg most weeks. I have to balance the work with family life and four young children.
"The average day would consist of making up the substrate and spawn bags for sterilisation, checking the fruiting room for any sign of contamination, cleaning humidifiers, delivering mushrooms to restaurants and members of the public," Tim said, adding he usually finds time for lab work in the evening, once the children are in bed.
Grown in a modified building in Tim's garden, the fungi is without climate controlled heating or cooling, so the varieties chosen are seasonal and success is weather-dependent.
Similar to vegetable producers with a variety of crops to tend to, Tim adheres to a strict seasonal rotation for some fungi, while others can be grown year-round.
"Shiitake, king oyster, nameko, pioppino and flame cap struggle in the heat, so we phase them out in late spring.
"[In] early spring, I start looking at making my warm varieties (pink and yellow oysters) [and by] late summer, I start preparing my cooler varieties," Tim said.
"Spring and autumn are the perfect times to grow as you have a wide range of mushrooms to grow and they grow quite quickly. Summer is the most problematic time as most species struggle over 20 degrees celsius, so I have to reduce my range at this time.
"I like growing lion's mane as it doesn't grow too quickly, grows all year round and is popular due to its crab like texture and nootropic qualities."
With more and more clients happy to explore different varieties of fungi in their home-cooking, Tim is investing in expanding his offerings.
"I'm trialling new mushroom varieties constantly. At the moment I'm working on creating my own oyster mushroom strains and trialling some new species like wood ear, abalone mushroom (Pleurotus Nebrodensis) and some different enoki varieties.
"I'm also looking to increase my production of shiitake as I have found a new substrate recipe that doubles my yields and they are very popular."
From harvesting to processing and packing, travel miles are kept to a minimum, and cleanliness to a maximum, with the entire process remaining on-site until the mushrooms are out for delivery to restaurants and clients across the state.
"Cleanliness is everything with mushrooms, so we make sure everything is sterilised using autoclaves before use.
"The fruiting rooms are cleaned and sanitised constantly which gives us higher yields and better quality mushrooms.
"My products are available Tasmania-wide every fortnight through Tas Produce Co and people can also order directly through my website," Tim said, adding his fresh produce is also available every Saturday at Harvest Market, Launceston.
"Our mushrooms are always harvested and delivered fresh giving us superior quality."
With a major shift in the restaurant trade due to pandemic-related restrictions, Tim said he took the opportunity to diversify his income by making 'grow bags' nationally available for people to grow their own mushrooms at home.
"During the initial Covid wave all the restaurants closed but the grow bag side of the business boomed. You just have to give things a go and see what works and learn from that.
"My customer-base is quite diverse. I have local cafes and restaurants who buy the fresh mushrooms [and] I have people who want to grow their own at home who also buy fresh mushrooms," he said.
"There seems to be a real shift towards people eating healthy, local food and connecting with the grower."
*First published May 2022 for Tasmanian Farmer Newspaper - owned by Australian Community Media.