Article by: Hari Yellina
The mushrooms at Illawarra’s Bulli Woolworths, like those at other supermarkets, are grown for consistency and shelf life, and may travel considerable distances – even from overseas – before reaching tables. However, across the street, behind the artist studios in the old Molloy Timbermill, there are blooms of strange and delicious oyster and shiitake mushrooms that can be plucked and served within hours. Rory Robinson and Michael Degnen launched their new business, Illawarra Mushrooms, at the Bulli studios a few months ago, with the goal of growing hundreds of kilos of unique mushrooms to sell to local supermarkets, markets, and restaurants.
The two began cultivating gourmet mushrooms at home a few years ago, but during the pandemic, they began to consider how they could turn their pastime into a company. They began farming at Cringila’s Green Connect farm before deciding to build up a professional lab and warehouse at Bulli at the end of last year due to the abundance of rain. Mr Degnen said, “So far, it’s been received incredibly well – everyone loves the mushrooms and has given us really wonderful comments.” “We’re passionate about growing sustainable food locally and trying to inspire others to do the same, so we can get people more connected to their food and where it comes from.”
“Though this isn’t the ‘perfect environment’ for growing mushrooms, our goal was to bring food production into the city and become urban food growers.” “We’ve even considered looking for a location in Wollongong’s central business district to demonstrate that food can be produced on a small scale in the city.” It doesn’t have to be a long distance.” At the moment, the two guys are primarily growing shiitake and a species of oyster mushrooms, and they’ve been enjoying the intricate and often unpredictable process of creating fungi with a considerably wider shape and colour profile than most people are used to.
Their mushrooms are organic and produced without the pesticides or preservatives commonly used in supermarket mushrooms to keep them fresh for weeks, resulting in a much deeper flavour, according to the men. “A mushroom gathered today is significantly different from a mushroom picked five days ago,” Mr Robinson explained. “So, we’ve been harvesting and getting them out to people right soon.” “I think a lot of people haven’t had an oyster mushroom like that before – the difference is huge, and we’re pleased to be able to provide it to people.” Their mushrooms are available at Thirroul’s Flametree Co-op, Tarrawant to’s Meadow Street Grocers, and in some of Green Connect’s veggie boxes.
Mr Robinson explained, “We’ll be approaching local grocers, possibly some IGAs, and then we’ve just applied for Wollongong’s Foragers Markets to test the waters.” “Today, we sold some to Opus cafe in Wollongong, and we’ll also approach some of the restaurants that specialise in local cuisine.” The enterprise is as organic and ecological as possible, and it is aimed to help residents and eateries reduce their food miles at a time of high fuel prices and climate change. “Our mushrooms are produced on waste products from other sectors,” Mr Robinson explained, “so sawdust and soy hulls are inside out blocks.” “Just under this small tent we’ve set up here, we can probably grow approximately 150kg of food every week – image what we could grow in the entire warehouse.”