The world is full of many great mysteries. Is there order in chaos? What exists beyond the universe? Why does sour cream have an expiration date? We all love a good mystery. The more unexplainable the mystery is, the more we tend to love it. There are, however, some mysteries that are significantly more mysterious than others.
One of these mysteries is the mushroom. A microscopic connected community that is in a continual process of dividing and colonising until it grows big enough to fully consume the substrate it’s grown in, which then triggers fruit production and – shazam! We get to wow our friends with a colony of mushrooms we’ve grown under the couch. Good news though – Rick Measday and Rachel Smith, the entrepreneurial duo behind The Good ‘Shroom Co. - have a far more sophisticated setup than an accidental mushroom colony under the couch.
Inside a couple of fully enclosed, climate-controlled shipping containers on a property in Newell Beach, 20 minutes north of Port Douglas, something astonishing is going on. All day and night, the combination of a marvel of nature and human ingenuity is producing food, and a reasonable amount of it. Each week, about 50 kilos of mushrooms are produced from that single setup by the self-confessed mycophiles (mushroom lovers, for those playing at home).
“I’ve no idea when the fascination with mushrooms started,” says Rick. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a park ranger, I was always intrigued by nature. I became a tradie instead, but the underlaying allure was always there. When I met Rachel up here in North Queensland, we would go exploring every weekend and I was always drawn to the mushrooms.
“Fast forward ten years, and we’re now running the most northern coastal mushroom farm in Australia. We deal with salt in the air, long daylight hours, heat, humidity … all the natural deterrents to growing mushrooms. Yet here we are!
“The mushrooms here are obviously very different compared to the forest pines I was used to as a kid. When toying with the idea of growing commercially, I started to read as much as I could from North American and European textbooks, and while not specific to tropical climates it was an excellent learning curve into the world of mushrooms. In Australia, there’s only a small number of mycologists, so I’ve had to learn by trial and error, becoming a small-scale scientist to make this business work, especially as we’re growing mushrooms in an environment that isn’t natural for them,” Rick says.
“We put mushrooms in a food category, but they’re so much more than that,” exclaims Rachel excitedly. “They’re not a plant, they’re not an animal – the mycelium is its own web of nature; it spreads across the planet and connects every living thing. The nutritional and medicinal properties are extraordinary. They’re simply not studied enough!”
Most of us think of ‘mushrooms’ as the toadstools and fungi that pop up out of the ground. “Best not to eat those though,” Rick warns. “The difference between something tasty and a painful death is microscopic.” Hidden underground to the untrained eye is a vast web of stretched out ‘strings’ called mycelium, spreading on and throughout the soil, giving mushroom species extraordinary properties. This web-like mycelium can intertwine and co-exist between fungi species, just like different coloured spaghetti strands in a pot. The network of mycelium, affectionately known as the Wood Wide Web, links plants via their root systems, mediating the exchange of sugar, water and nutrients between plants and fungi. Plants share sugars with fungi and in turn, the fungi assist plants in collecting water and nutrients, while relaying chemical signals that provide an otherworldly communication system to the plants, such as warnings about predators”.
Mushrooms grow from spores that are so tiny you can't see individual spores with the naked eye. Rather than soil, these spores rely on substances like sawdust, grain, straw, or wood chips for nourishment. A blend of the spores and these nutrient sources is called spawn. Mushroom spawn acts a bit like the starter needed to make sourdough bread.
“Starting from the very beginning, we collect the spore from the varietal we want to grow and add in a culture and let it grow out,” says Rick. “We then use that spore to inoculate our first run of substrate to create a Gen 1 substrate, typically a mix of locally sourced agricultural waste, organic plant supplements, hardwood shavings and locally sourced sugar cane mulch. That will grow out and completely colonise that block, cultivating the growth of spawn. The spawn supports the growth of the mycelium, which is the beginning stages of the mushrooms. The mycelium grows first in the substrate before the first mushroom pushes through the soil.”
Specialising in white, gold, pink, tan and Phoenix oyster mushrooms all so pretty they resemble floral bouquets, The Good ‘Shroom Co crop is taken from spore to maturity and relies on a mushroom’s incredible knack of doubling in size every day, given the right conditions. “They’re very sensitive to outside effects that can’t be avoided, which is why the growing rooms are fully enclosed and climate controlled, “explains Rick. “Being only 100 metres from the beach just adds in another dimension of challenge”.