Meet the fungi farmers

By Sharon Greally

Featured in Capital #60
Subscribe to get the real thing here.

“You could get all spiritual about it and call it ‘fate’ but we prefer to see it as … a lean sprint.”

A what?

North of Wellington is a remote spot called Ohau. Where? you might ask. Ohau is tucked down a side road that you could easily miss off SH1. It is a gem of diverse landscape and semi-rural living. Sea and sky meet sand dunes.

This is where former Kāpiti coaster Brent Williams, and Jude Horrill have decided to call home, after 30 years abroad. They met in Australia four years ago. Both “creatives and dreamers”, according to Jude, they found they had a lot in common. They had both left New Zealand in 1987 to do the antipodean travel and work rite of passage, and both ended up living in Melbourne, working high-level corporate jobs.

But after 30 years away, they agreed they wanted a different life, back in New Zealand. In September 2017, they returned.

Brent wanted to “get off the corporate bandwagon.” He had been coming back to New Zealand regularly to see family. “The more we came back, the more we became more reacquainted with New Zealand culture. It was time for us to move home. Back to our whānau, our whakapapa. Originally we had thought we would hire a van and travel around to find a place to settle, to find a business, and see what was happening, especially around sustainability and permaculture. But around Christmas that year, I said to Jude ‘You know what? We’re going to be mushroom farmers’.”

Jude didn’t bat an eyelid. “We realised we didn’t need to travel around to find that idea. This was an idea we could build and grow off grid. Our first job back here was with a major global business, but we realised it made us miserable. I thought ‘no’, we really do need to take that next step.”

And “Mycobio” was their next iteration.

Brent continues, “We had a vision that we could build an off-grid permaculture business and lifestyle on the Kāpiti Coast within five years of arriving here. We’ve achieved that in less than 18 months of arriving. We started the business in March 2018, we leased commercial premises at Lindale with a goal to produce 50kgs of fresh mushrooms a week by December. And we did it.”

However, this year they realised they had outgrown Lindale. “We’d been looking for land since we’d arrived, but Kāpiti prices were booming,” says Jude. They looked further north to Horowhenua, and found a private sale within two weeks. It ticked all the boxes. “We knew what we were looking for. We were ready. It also already had some of the off grid amenities we needed. This property allows us to consolidate our business.”

The property was sand dunes when the vendors, a couple, bought the land 15 years ago. Now there are more than 600 trees, including natives, fruit and nut trees, and an olive grove. There are even two shady ponds, surrounded by beautiful leafy trees, all planted by the couple. There’s also a rustic cabana, with a stunning view to the Tararuas in the distance.

“This was a passion sell. They didn’t want to just sell it to anybody,” says Jude. “We said ‘We love what you’ve done here and we will take it to the next step’. We are stewards of this land. We saw it on the Saturday and the deal was all done by Tuesday. Right time, right place, right buyers.”

Why mushrooms? “It’s a niche product that there’s huge demand for. I do a lot of research. A lot. I talked to friends and we started talking about the very interesting nature of fungi. It’s probably the oldest living organism on land that we know of. It may even predate bacteria. Plus the more interesting conscious spiritual awakening of psychotropic-type stuff. Right from the beginning I said ‘We’re not selling mushrooms – we’re selling an experience’.”

He explains the “modular” nature of the business. “We have two shipping containers where we do the growing. We do it in different stages starting with tissue culture through to producing the fresh product. We’re growing Oyster mushrooms, Phoenix, and Shiitake. Grown in 10kg sawdust bags, it takes 10 days to innoculate within the bag. They then fruit, and four days later are edible. And it’s a year round operation – indoors. At the weekend market, a teacher bought two bags to show the children in class, and they watched the changes. Most kids don’t know where their food comes from.”

The pair sell direct to the markets at Paraparaumu Beach and Harbourside in Wellington. It’s very much grass roots. “Part of our brand is about being minimal. We don’t have business cards, just stamped pieces of brown paper.”

Apart from being a nutritional wonder food, gourmet mushrooms are highly sustainable to grow. They require no pesticides or chemicals, little water, and little space, and use waste products like cardboard or used coffee grounds. They also have medicinal properties, containing antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. “Vertical farming can be done anywhere – even in urban areas. We could just as easily be growing this business and developing it in the inner city, or the waterfront in Wellington,” says Brent. “We don’t require any farming land. The whole idea of this off-grid thing is more for the lifestyle, and we built this business to support that lifestyle. We want to build community, to teach people skills about sustainability, to be able to share what we have and learn from each other.”

“We see ourselves as early adopters of a growing trend, and helping people turn ideas into businesses,” says Jude. “We’ve put a lot of time, thought and planning into this business.”

That’s the “Lean Sprint”.


Sign up to our newsletter