Julia Laidlaw is the newest addition to Melbourne’s backyard commercial mushroom-growing community.
A single mother of two, Laidlaw has long been involved in researching food security and local food systems.
“I’m aware of the potential and interest we have here in Melbourne,” she says.
Struggling to keep up with work-family demands, she wanted to bring her job home by starting a small business out of the carport of her Carlton terrace. Using mostly recycled equipment and solar power, her set-up comprises a small greenhouse and storage facility.
“Since I started, I’ve been producing six kilos a week and selling all of it.”
The 41-year-old grew up in Victoria’s western farming district and says she’s always had a green thumb but learning how to grow mushrooms is a whole other ball game.
Every Thursday, Lailor is up at six in the morning to tend to her fungi colony. Between pasteurising the hay, sterilising the buckets and collecting the yield, the environment needs to remain humid and clean for the product to succeed.
When she started, Laidlaw would trade her mushrooms for haircuts but now she’s looking to upscale as she can’t keep up with demand from restaurants. Her pink oysters and king trumpets appear on menus at Lygon Street eatery Bar Romantica and Brunswick’s Merri Table.
Bar Romantica chef Joseph Farrell says the business has a purposefully local-produce focus and when they discovered Laidlaw’s mushrooms, it was a natural fit. Farrell says he would love to buy more as customers keep coming back for the top-quality produce.
“Julia’s mushrooms are great. They have a really meaty and really clean flavour. She grows them in buckets using a mushroom kit so they don’t have that dirty, earthy flavour.”
Mushrooms are classified as vegetables under Australian agricultural security laws and while there are principles for safe practice, there is little red tape when it comes to production.
“Quality assurance and accountability is the responsibility of everyone in the supply chain,” said Patrick McClelland, from the Australian Mushroom Growers’ Association.
Producer Matthew Robison, 40, quit his job in sales to focus on growing oyster, shiitake, lion’s mane and reishi mushroom varieties in the backyard of his family home in Reservoir.
While he guesses he’s working around 90 hours a week, he says the job is “great fun”.
“When you’ve got a really low-tech set-up, you’re at the whim of any of those spores in the air or in your garden taking over.
“Everything was going great until that happened. And it’s going still fine, it’s just taken me probably eight weeks to start to recover from it.”
But Mira is undeterred, and like Laidlaw, has plans to scale up production. “I’d love to do other varieties. I just have to wait until I’ve got a bigger space.”