When Michele and Gary Akers moved their mushroom farm from Queensland, they spent $80,000 to ship them in containers on trains and trucks to settle down in an obscure village of Termeil, New South Wales.
Gary had spent a year in tutelage under the wing of his friend who ran an organic mushroom farm before branching out on his own in Termeil.
Seven years later, Shoalhaven Mushrooms are winning awards for their chemical-free, super healthy mushrooms.
As mushrooms have no leaves, roots or seeds they don’t classify as a vegetable or fruit. However the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes a mushroom as a vegetable because it has as much nutritional value as vegetables.
The combination of A, B-Complex and C found in mushrooms strengthens the immune system. It’s also rare to find vegetables rich in both calcium and Vitamin D as the combination makes for better absorption by the body for strong teeth and bones. The good news for vegans and vegetarians is that it is also protein and iron rich and it can’t hurt that it also compensates for the taste of meat.
Mushrooms transcends cultures and is versatile enough to bring out the best in any international cuisine. It is delicious whether raw or cooked. It is the only source of B12 found in a non-animal fresh food.
As mushrooms contain natural insulin and enzymes that help break down sugar and starch in food, they are highly beneficial to diabetics too. The powerful antioxidant present in mushrooms called ergothioneine protects our bodies from free radicals while giving our immune system a boost. Find out all about how mushrooms benefit your health.
To ensure you get the best nutrition from your mushrooms always buy from reliable farmers and Gary and Michele are small farmers who meticulously watch over every stage of their mushrooms’ development.
“We had no idea our mushrooms would make a clean sweep of winning first prize in all three categories at the Sydney Royal 2015 show in April,” said Michele of her whites, flats and swiss browns.
Visiting Shoalhaven Mushrooms world class farm, it is clear to see why. Michele and Gary Akers cut no corners in producing the healthiest and most delicious mushrooms.
To begin with the mushrooms are housed in state-of-the-art cool rooms and every stage of their development is temperature regulated. In these rooms the mushrooms sprout from specially imported peat from Holland and the best straw in the country.
“We find Australian peat too young. It encourages flies and this opens the door to infestations. We don’t use formaldehyde or any other chemicals to fight infestations or prolong the life of the mushrooms. We simply ensure our environment is always clean,” explained Michele giving a glimpse into many mushroom farms that have no qualms about using old stable straw, chook manure and chemicals to enhance their mushrooms.
Even their spent straw and peat are neatly tied up in packages waiting to be transported away to ensure they do not attract flies.
The temperature in the cool rooms vary according to the different stages of development of the mushrooms. And at certain periods the vents are also closed to introduce carbon dioxide. This encourages pinning which is when the mycelium that has germinated in the beds of peat and straw start producing tiny white pins that stick out from the bed. The exciting first signs of mushrooms forming!
Even then there is no guarantee that the pins will develop into fully grown mushrooms. Many will never mature and begin to discolour and turn dark and must be removed immediately.
It takes a very skilled mushroom grower to balance the right combination of carbon dioxide, temperature and humidity to produce perfect mushrooms.
“We have to work out how much compost produces how much carbon dioxide for the height and depth of each cool room and then control where the airflow goes,” said Michele who admits being frustrated when people don’t understand the health benefits they stand to gain from eating prime quality mushrooms over the cheaper ones in the market.
“Hold this,” she said, handing me a white mushroom and I was amazed at how heavy it was compared to the regular whites you find in the supermarket.
“People buy by price,” she continued when talking about the markets she and Gary supply at Canberra and Kiama. “The only way I can convince them how much tastier organic mushrooms are is to cook them at the markets alongside ordinary ones and let them taste the difference for themselves.”
For a tasting session, Michele would make one of her famous stuffed mushrooms with cream cheese and ham. A vegetarian version would be with English spinach, pine nuts, balsamic vinegar and cheese.
In adhering to quality in service, all mushrooms are picked on the very same day they are sold at the markets.
Michele and Gary have been supplying the markets in Canberra for eight years now. Their swiss brown mushrooms fetch $20 for a one kilogram box and the whites at $11.99 a kilo.
Apart from the markets, they also supply quality conscious restaurants such as Merry Street in Kiola, Bannisters and Tallwood at Mollymook. Others like Berry Sourdough in Berry take five boxes a week to put in their breads and pies.
The public know very little about effort and sincerity that goes into the production of Shoalhaven mushrooms. To deliver everything fresh, they commute regularly between the markets from here to Kiama, Singleton to Canberra and pay a hefty price on petrol. Petrol and electricity take up the biggest overheads they have.
When Shoalhaven Mushrooms world class mushrooms won the Sydney Royal 2015 show, they received a congratulatory letter from their MP, Ann Sudmalis on an official government letterhead bearing the image of the Australian coat of arms. This is what it said:
“Dear Mr and Mrs Aker
It is a wonderful pleasure to write and congratulate you both on your award -winning mushrooms. It was fantastic to read that you won every section you entered as well as taking out Best Mushroom in the Show with your Swiss Browns. These are incredible achievements and I wish you every success in your future endeavours.
Congratulations, you are a true inspiration.”
Michele and Gary feel they are only doing what any farmer should be doing that is producing the best food they can for Australians. Yet they fear that small farmers can be run out by large corporations who aren’t as concerned as they are about the standards in quality and health. With fuel and utility bills being so high it is also hard to compete with larger corporations and they would like to see the government give more incentives to small farmers in small towns.
By winning the Sydney Royal 2015, Shoalhaven Mushrooms world class mushrooms now qualify to contend at the Fine Food Awards in Hobart, Tasmania. If they win here they will go on to represent Australia on an international level.
As Michele carries her precious cargo of Swiss Browns and Whites on the plane to Tasmania she hopes to show Australians how important it is to support small farmers who can supply quality food for them and their families.