Growing a big business

Ian Warden
Mushroom picker, Kat Leung at Majestic Mushrooms.
Mushroom picker, Kat Leung at Majestic Mushrooms. Photo: Rohan Thomson

You get glimpses of some picturesque, 19th-century-looking farms on the long bush drive out to Ian and Helen Chu's very-21st-century Majestic Mushrooms farm near Murrumbateman.

On the drive you see quaint, wooden, mouldering wooden buildings of the kind much beloved by city suburban artists who like to paint idealised bush scenes. They are the sorts of charmingly muddy and smelly farms (sporting pigs, cows and ducks) immortalised in the famous old nursery rhyme song ''Old MacDonald had a farm/Ee-I, Ee-I, O!''

But at the young Chus' farm these sorts of artists would be disappointed. The focus of the Chus' farm (set, though, on a roomy, green and pleasant property) is a giant, gleamingly newish metal shed.

Button mushrooms growing at Majestic Mushrooms at Murrumbateman.
Button mushrooms growing at Majestic Mushrooms at Murrumbateman. Photo: Rohan Thomson

It could be an aircraft hangar or an indoor tennis facility (with ample room for four courts), but as already hinted, it is the home of the Chus' mushroom-growing business. Majestic Mushrooms is one of only two local (to Canberra) mushroom farms, and the Chus supply some local outlets (but not yet giants such as Coles and Woolworths). They have their own Majestic Fresh shop in the Canberra Centre and they are a famous presence, too, at Canberra's Saturday Farmers' Market at EPIC.

The Chus, with two children of their own and three they are caring for, turn out to be classic illustrations of the tree-change phenomenon. They forsook Sydney's Cabramatta and lives of safe-wage slavery to come and live this vastly different life.

We pause at the door of the shed, shivering a little in the bracing morning air, to talk about these things.

Majestic Mushrooms owners Ian and Helen Chu at Murrumbateman.
Majestic Mushrooms owners Ian and Helen Chu at Murrumbateman. Photo: Rohan Thomson

''We were in Sydney and I was a teacher and Ian was an engineer,'' Helen explains.

''Yes, the rat race, the corporate world,'' reflects Ian, who was previously an electrical engineer with Telstra.

''So this is a big difference,'' Helen continues.

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''We'd had enough of all that and wanted to pursue a new world and a new career and see where life's gonna takes us and so we decided to give up everything. We lost a lot of friends along the way and copped a lot of criticism from family and friends saying 'What are you guys doing?'''

Helen hinted that there's been a bit of a bombardment of criticism. Among some Asian folk and communities (the Cambodian refugee fled from Pol Pot as a child), the sorts of jobs they had, after being tertiary-educated, seemed prestigious and ideal.

''But farming's considered a very inferior sort of career,'' Helen says.

The packing room at Majestic Mushrooms, Murrumbateman.
The packing room at Majestic Mushrooms, Murrumbateman. Photo: Rohan Thomson

''They think it's a non-educated path. They think we should want an office job, wearing a nice tie and working in an airconditioned environment. Although,'' and she laughs heartily and gestures at the blue sky and breeze-caressed trees, ''we claim our workplace is airconditioned, too [with real air].''

In fact, the Chus' decision and their choice of this kind farm seems highly educated.

When I wonder why, starting from scratch like this, they'd chosen this kind of a farm (why not chickens, say, or sheep or alpacas?), they say they did two years of obsessively serious thought and research before making their decision.

Their place feels more like a facility (a laboratory, even) than a farm and they seem like the antithesis of undereducated old MacDonald in his muck-stained wellies. Helen chortles that some visitors come imagining the mushrooms growing willy-nilly out in the paddocks. But the mushrooms are grown indoors in highly scientific ways (everything about the Chus' system and equipment is Dutch because there's one ultra-modern Dutch company that has no counterparts in the antipodes).

And the mushrooms' cultivation the way the Chus are doing it requires braininess and hardly any brawn at all. For example, everything about the mushrooms' growing conditions is supervised by computers. Ian can check up on his mushrooms' health and well-being from Sydney, and from anywhere in the world, using his iPhone. And so, leaving the chilly outdoors (where a magpie warbled from the boughs of a wattle festooned with sulphur-yellow blossoms), we enter the spacious shed.

All visitors entering have to dip the soles of their shoes in a liquid that kills any foreign spores, and Helen chortles: ''This is a real test if you have holes in your shoes!''

The Chus grow button mushrooms and Swiss brown ones, and we go into one of a row of six laboratory-like growing rooms where buttons were being grown on tiers of shelves. The highest shelves need a stepladder on wheels to reach. Elsewhere under the shed's broad roof are three similar rooms devoted to Swiss browns. After the breezy chill of outdoors, the room is a still and slightly steamy and clammy 18 degrees.

There is a faint aroma being given off by the tens of thousands of bright, starkly white, round mushrooms all contrasted with their black growing medium. They looked like perfect golf balls of all proportions, ranging from the size we and Tiger Woods might play with to the tiny ones pixie golfers might use.

The mushrooms, Helen explains, mature in ''flushes'', with the pickers (between 20 and 30 are employed there) harvesting the mature ones (about the size of the golf balls) and coming back later for others because, as Helen points out: ''They double in size in 24 hours.'' Yes, a lot of the association of mushrooms with folklore and magic derives from the mysterious speed of their growth. Walking your dog on a meadow in the morning there's no fairy ring (circle of mushrooms) but then walking it in the same spot in the afternoon there is one.

This writer comes from a very superstition-prone part of rural England and throughout my morning in this growing room I couldn't quite shake the idea that there was something magical about the mushrooms.

Their silence (Ian says there is something very restful and contemplative about visiting them last thing at night or at three in the morning to check that all is well) felt eerie, as if they were silent because they were thinking.

The Chus' Dutch way of mushroom farming is clinically efficient. Nothing is wasted. The stalks are sold as cattle feed and the mixture the mushrooms grow in is, at intervals, emptied on to a swish 21st-century conveyor belt (made by the same Dutch company that has created everything else in the system) and sold as the soil-enriching mushroom compost we buy in bags at nurseries.

If we've made the Chus' business sound easy and idyllic then, though an improvement on Old MacDonald's back-breaking way of farming, it's still desperately hard work for the couple. They explain that because all the rooms are climate-controlled, there are no ''seasons'' as such and cultivation and harvesting and packing of these size-doubling products from their nine growing rooms is never-ending.

It's true the Chus have no horrors of weather and nature (such as droughts and locust plagues) to have nightmares over but they do have, Helen explains with feeling, the nightmare of power blackouts. The finely balanced temperatures of the growing rooms and of the coolroom, where harvested mushrooms may have a brief pause before delivery, are so power-dependent.

And though we aren't intrusive enough to ask searching questions about the costs of mushroom growing, there is an occasional glimpse in Helen's excited conversation of some high anxieties.

She hints that the electricity bills are hair-raising and said that if mushrooms can seem, to shoppers, relatively expensive, it has to do with the fact every single one has to be gingerly hand-picked, and that of course pickers have to be paid wages.

She and Ian have investigated one (inevitably Dutch) mechanical picker but both were horrified at how, in Helen's words, it ''butchered and bruised the mushrooms''. Scarred and bruised mushrooms just won't do for the Chus because, as Helen kept emphasising, it's the extreme freshness and flawless complexions of their mushrooms that make them attractive to discerning Canberra buyers.

Ian says that those same discerning buyers are highly conscious of ''food miles'' issues (the environmental importance of consuming locally produced foods).

Thus he hopes that one day Canberra branches of the supermarket giants will think this a good reason to supply his farm's locally grown mushrooms to Canberrans.

Meanwhile, at the end of an educational morning for this reporter, we were shown a box of just-picked and methodically packed button mushrooms that seemed (the box and its contents) as much a work of art as a box of food. The mushrooms, glowing with an almost luminous white health and without marks or colours of any kind, had a peculiar perfection about them. It seemed a shame that such perfection would be spoiled by cooking and eating, but when it is spoiled in that way, Helen enthuses, mushrooms have an amazing array of health-giving and even cancer-repelling qualities.

I wondered, hopefully, if they were an aphrodisiac as well, but for all her mushroom-promoting zeal, Helen didn't want to go quite that far.

>> Ian Warden is a staff reporter.