New venture ?mushrooms
By UTE SCHULENBERG
BRONWYN and Graham Finch are pretty sure they have heard every 'dark' joke there is.
The Boambee couple have learnt that as mushroom farmers, it comes with the territory.
Nonetheless, four years ago, when they started their business, Lakeview Fresh, it was indeed like looking around in the dark.
"There are no books or schools about mushroom growing and the only courses are in Holland or the USA," Mrs Finch said.
There are also only 103 commercial growers in Australia, so the Finches were pretty confident their delicate product would fill a local need.
So, too, was their local Bananacoast Credit Union branch manager, Brian Leiper, who encouraged the Finches to apply for the BCU's inaugural Bill Ussher Agricultural Scholarship. The award is in memory of Nambucca Valley farmer, Bill Ussher, the credit union's first member, who died last year.
Last week they found out they had won the $5000 prize.
Mrs Finch said they received the news at the end of a long day.
"We were about to go to bed, instead we stayed up celebrating ? it was very exciting," she said.
"After so much hard work, this is like a pat on the shoulder."
Growing mushrooms is a full-time job.
"Mushrooms are not seasonal. We pick every day and are currently harvesting about 1.5 tonnes every week.
"We have five casual workers to help us. The mushrooms are hand-packed straight into their boxes. We don't touch them again ? they are so fragile."
The button and field mushrooms are delivered daily to local fresh food outlets around the region, from Macksville to Woolgoolga. Since starting, their business has, well . . . mushroomed.
"We started with three growing rooms and within a month demand was so great, we had to add another three rooms. Now we have 10 rooms."
The Finches originally began growing native flowers but after September 11 the export market died.
"We started looking around for something unusual and the mushrooms combined my horticulture background with Graham's refrigeration skills really well.
"Mushrooms are fascinating to grow ? they really hook you in.
"I love coming in each morning and seeing them gleaming white in their beds."
"But they are also tricky ? they can be growing along happily and then overnight everything can stop.
"Fellow growers are excellent and we talk using video cameras so they can see what is happening with our beds."
Networking is what the Finches will be using their prize money for.
They plan to attend the 33rd annual Mushroom Growers' Conference in Adelaide in October, where international speakers will be sharing information about compost, spawn and other arcane secrets with the small band of growers.
They have also been offered one week's training at Marland Mushrooms in the Hunter Valley, considered to be one of the country's top growers.
Mrs Finch said the hands-on mentoring will be invaluable for their growing skills.