• Tatiana Collier

Mushroom Magic

This article was developed for and featured in Ballarat Living, Winter 2021, produced by Provincial Media.

An innate desire to farm, a keen interest in science, and a humble fascination in mushrooms have led this Ballarat man to cultivate his dream job.

We all strive to build our work life around something that we love. For Jason Crosbie, it was a culmination of three passions that led him to establish The Mushroom Connection - a mushroom farm growing and supplying some of the most exotic produce available in our region.

Based at Scotchmans Lead, about 15 minutes from the centre of Ballarat, Jason has purpose-built his farm sheds to grow a wide variety of organic mushrooms.

“I’ve always loved mushrooms. I remember going for walks in the bush when I was younger, searching for mushrooms just so I could photograph them. I was fascinated. Since I already liked to try and grow things, I thought I’d give mushrooms a go.

“My first attempts were at home in my bedroom, using a three-tier, plastic hothouse from the hardware store. I managed to grow some oyster mushrooms, which are pretty much the easiest type to grow, and I’ve been experimenting ever since.”

Jason’s passion for growing, and the science behind mushroom cultivation, means he produces the mushrooms from scratch, making them a true, locally grown product.

“In a farming sense, mushrooms are grown on what we call ‘blocks’. I make my own from soy husks and saw dust, and I keep them in biodegradable bags.

“You can import the blocks; many big farms do. But blocks absorb chemicals and minerals that are in the air, so imported blocks contain heavy metals from the overseas pollution, and the fruiting body, the mushroom, also contains those contaminants.

“I go the extra step to guarantee an organic product. They really are 100% Ballarat grown.”

Since launching The Mushroom Connection in 2016, Jason now produces ten of the most interesting and unusual varieties of mushrooms available on the Australian market, and Victoria is embracing it. The business currently supplies restaurants and cafes in Melbourne, Geelong, Daylesford, and Ballarat – the more exotic the better.

“Lion’s Mane is really popular now. Restaurants like it because it is different, and because it has a seafood like texture and flavour. I’ve seen the mushrooms used for vegan ‘crab’ cakes.

“King Browns are another really popular one because they can be cut up and seasoned like steak, making it another really versatile vegan option.

“I’ve also just started producing Coral Tooth, which is the first native Australian mushroom to be commercialised. It was discovered in the Otways, and only recently been engineered into a strain we can produce and sell.”

Yet it is not just restaurants that are seeking out these speciality items. Community members from Ballarat and surrounds are also keen to buy the exotic produce.

“Lion’s Mane is receiving a lot of attention lately because of its medicinal benefits, and people are really jumping on that. But mushrooms in general are good for you. They are a naturally clean and nutritious food. I think people love what I’m growing because it’s a bit weird and whacky.”

Like all businesses, The Mushroom Connection was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jason was forced to cut back his growing capacity by 50%, as cafes and restaurants stopped ordering. Fortunately, the local demand for home deliveries kept the business ticking over.

“The Ballarat community was awesome – I was really surprised. They came out and supported us and that has continued beyond the lockdown, as people seem more focussed now on sourcing locally grown food.”

The Mushroom Connection is certainly gaining attention and a reputation for quality, and this is spreading far and wide. Most recently, cooking show MasterChef called in an order.

“They ordered some King Brown mushrooms still on the block for one of their episodes. That was exciting – to receive the call and then go to Melbourne to make the delivery. I’m looking forward to seeing what the contestants do with them.”

Jason confesses while he has the knack for growing them, he does not specialise in mushroom recipes.

“Chefs would probably cringe if they saw what I do with my mushrooms. But I guess that’s one of the best things about them. Despite how they look, you can cook them the same way you would a simple button or cup mushroom. As long as they’re cooked, you’re good to go.

“Recently my partner and I made mushroom ‘buffalo wings’. They worked well. Whenever I go to a barbeque, I take some marinated King Browns that I’ve cut into steaks. They’re always a hit.

“Anyone can do it. You really can’t stuff it up.”

The Mushroom Connection has always been a solo operation, although Jason admits if it weren’t for the support of his parents, the business wouldn’t exist.

“When I told Mum and Dad I was quitting my job to start a mushroom farm in a shipping container, they didn’t bat an eyelid. They just said, ‘OK, we’ll make some room.’”

With business now picking up again, Jason has a few ideas of what could happen next.

“Once business is back to where it was before COVID, I’d like to hire someone to do the day-to-day maintenance, so I can spend more of my time experimenting and dialling in the new equipment to maintain the perfect growing conditions.

“I also have an idea to make a retail product, like mushroom jerky, possibly setting up a commercial kitchen to do more products like that.

“I want to focus on the science behind it all - automating processes, learning what each variety needs and then successfully producing something new and different. That’s the side of the business I love.”

Mushroom orders can be made online at www.themushroomconnection.com.au and are delivered to your door on Monday or Thursday each week. You can also follow The Mushroom Connection on Instagram.

MasterChef Episode 56, with Jason’s King Brown mushrooms, is schedule to air in early July.

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