8 March 2024

From suburbia to spores: How Calderwood Valley Mushrooms grew on the Tavernese family

| Kellie O'Brien
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mushroom farm Illawarra

Mushrooms growing at the Illawarra’s only mushroom farm, Calderwood Valley Mushrooms. Photo: Supplied.

Eighteen years ago, a quest to escape suburbia for a more tranquil retreat led Hilary and Richard Tavernese to purchase a mushroom farm, despite limited experience with fungi.

Now owning Illawarra’s only mushroom farm, Calderwood Valley Mushrooms, Hilary admits it hasn’t been the easiest journey, with the couple coming close to closing the doors last year.

“About 20 years ago my husband and I were looking to buy a farm to get out of suburbia and we found a farm that was on Calderwood Road that I had grown up having my horses on,” Hilary said of her horses having grazed on the land.

“He said, ‘Oh, I found this farm. It’s really nice. Let’s have a look’ and so I said, ‘OK’.

“Then on the way out, he said, ‘It’s actually a mushroom farm.’”

Naively expecting to see mushrooms growing in the fields, they were intrigued by the 80-acre property, with a house and business, yet also apprehensive.

Neither had ever picked mushrooms and weren’t big mushroom eaters.

“We weren’t really interested in the business at the time, we just were looking at the land – it was such a beautiful spot,” she said.

However, with Hilary having just sold her hairdressing salon and Richard experiencing high stress in his role as a foreman, they were looking for a new opportunity.

“I just said to him, ‘You know what, maybe we should just try and grow the mushrooms. How hard could it be?’” she said, laughing.

“Famous last words.

“So we took the challenge and we sold everything we owned and borrowed and begged and bought the property of our dreams, hoping that it was going to be the job of our dreams as well.

“It didn’t turn out that way, especially in the beginning.”

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She said they faced many teething problems, including a disease that “spread like wildfire” through the mushrooms.

“We were devastated. We had no idea how to combat this disease or treat it,” she said.

“We thought we were going to lose everything.”

Richard sought out other Illawarra mushroom farmers operating at the time, finding one who gave advice and a recommendation for a compost supplier who eventually provided them with a mentor to guide them through their challenges.

She said that first year, in 2006, was “the worst”.

“This is our 18th year and last year was our second worst,” she said.

“It’s been a rollercoaster, that’s for sure.

“We got to the point where we turned it right around, and we’ve doubled what the farm was growing before we bought it.”

Hilary Richard Tavernese

A quest to escape suburbia for a more tranquil retreat led Hilary and Richard Tavernese (centre and right) to purchase a mushroom farm. Photo: Supplied.

They now supply to Leisure Coast Fruit and Deli, Country Grocer, and Passion In Fruit, two of which were wholesalers providing to Illawarra restaurants. Any surplus went to Sydney markets.

“People like our product and the people that buy from us at the markets, they ring us every week and say, ‘Are you sending stuff? We have customers that only want your product?’” she said.

Looking back, the challenges ahead became apparent during their first mushroom growers’ convention, where industry members asked, “Who buys a mushroom farm?”.

“We were like, ‘We did,’” she said, laughing,” and he said, ‘Nobody buys a mushroom farm. You’re either born into it or you’ve inherited it’.

“It’s hard work.

“It’s more the fact that you think you just feed them … and put them in the dark and they grow, but it’s not like that – they’re so sensitive, and they need certain amounts of oxygen and certain amounts of CO2.”

Supplying year-round thanks to air-conditioned sheds and 10 long-term highly trained staff, the business did well during COVID.

However, post-COVID it has faced some financial challenges and the disease returning, prompting the couple to question whether it was time to sell.

“I said, ‘I just want to sell it, I don’t want to do this seven days a week. We’ve done this seven days a week for the last 17 years,” she said.

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But finding the right buyer proved difficult.

“We’ve built up such a good reputation and name for ourselves that we didn’t want just anyone taking that over,” she said.

“A year later, we thought, ‘No, let’s just keep going’.

“We were very close to closing.”

She said one of the motivators for sticking with it was their manager, their 28-year-old son who lives in the house with them with his pregnant wife.

“We’ll keep going for a bit and then if we decide to retire we might just close it down, but we don’t really want to do that,” she said of preferring to sell it to keep fresh mushrooms growing in the Illawarra.

They remain the only mushroom farm in the Illawarra, with the other farms operating when they started now closed.

Hilary said they were happy to continue servicing their Illawarra customers rather than competing on price in other regions, but admitted there was room for expansion for someone motivated to take it on.

They also sell spent mushroom compost, with excess spread on their paddocks, claiming “our grass is the nicest grass in Calderwood”.

As for eating the mushrooms, Hilary recommended mushroom soup, mushroom creamy sauce, mushrooms on toast or big field flats with garlic and butter on the barbecue.

Visit Calderwood Valley Mushrooms on Facebook.

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