Mushrooms can be as delicate and beautiful as flowers. Take the pink oyster mushroom, for example – its fragile caps curl over like petals, and it grows in clumps reminiscent of a coral garden. Or the lion’s mane mushroom, with its shaggy white texture resembling the fur around a lion’s face. Plain old button mushrooms could be called boring in comparison, but there’s nothing boring about fungi.

The kingdom of fungi is a fascinating one that draws you deeper and deeper into a complex ecosystem the more you learn about it. It’s a world Maleny’s Katrina Atkinson and Daniel Tibbett have become fully immersed in as organic mushroom growers.

This eco-conscious couple owns Mountaintop Mushrooms, a small-scale agribusiness start-up specialising in gourmet and exotic mushrooms, which they began 18 months ago with very little capital. A crowdfunding campaign in October exceeded their expectations and they were able to raise more than $12,000 to help take the business to the next level.

“At the moment we’re predominantly growing oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane and we’re about to experiment with some reishi,” Katrina says. “The old button mushrooms are so familiar and we wanted to do something new.”

The couple was thrilled to supply its mushies to world-class Japanese chef Zaiyu Hasegawa, who visited their facility in Montville during the Curated Plate festival in August. Katrina and Daniel supply restaurants like Spicers Tamarind Retreat and Brouhaha in Maleny and have requests from other restaurants seeking their amazing mushrooms. With regular stalls at Witta, Yandina and Noosa farmers markets, their produce is in high demand and it can be challenging to keep up.

“It’s hardcore,” says Katrina. “Dan works three days on the Coast as a sign writer and I work full-time at Green Harvest and Barung Landcare. Dan’s there twice a day, every day. They grow so quickly – they double in size every 24 hours. We’re incubating them and they have to be moved into the fruiting room. The temperature fluctuations are killing us because with the heat, they thin out. Dan has to be there all the time keeping an eye on them. I’m there at least two or three afternoons a week, as well as doing all the farmers markets.”

Their passion drives them forward and with the success of their crowdfunding campaign, they have big plans for the future of their fungi farm, though they’re wary of scaling too quickly. “We’re upscaling now and we’re going to double the size of our incubation room,” Katrina says. “We’ll add a bit of climate control to the fruiting room – rebuild it with cool room panels. At some point we want to go sterile. A sterilisation vessel requires a lot more infrastructure, but it would enable us to produce and sell more, and it opens up the varieties we could grow.”

Katrina and Dan found they shared an interest in sustainability and organics when they first met in Amsterdam as travellers 10 years ago. Katrina was from the Samford Valley near Brisbane and Dan was from Perth, but it seems their paths were destined to cross.

“We shared an interest in how the greatest systems work,” says Katrina. “Economics, food, the cultural differences around the world. It was a global curiosity; to learn more about the planet and how we were evolving as a species.”

After six months together, they went their separate ways for a few years. Dan worked in a pub in England, while Katrina lived with an Indigenous Peruvian family in the mountains near Cusco. “I helped with the children and with cooking, which is where my food journey started,” she says. “We would go to the quinoa fields, harvest peaches and potatoes in the mountains. They had such a strong relationship with the source of their food.

The pair returned from their respective adventures around the same time. It was then they reignited their relationship and settled in inner city Perth.

“That was my first time ever living in suburbia in Australia,” says Katrina. “We thought, this is not the life we want to lead. We want to get out of the city. We had that connection to food and we were drawn to sustainability and organics. We’d go to the farmers markets every week to buy our food and talk to the farmers. The interest kept growing and we decided to go to Crystal Waters in Conondale and study permaculture.”

It was there the seeds were sown for their move into mushroom growing.

“We went to all the farmers markets to see what wasn’t being done because we didn’t want to compete,” she says. “We already had our eyes on the amazing world of fungi. There was new science around the medicinal and ecological benefits. Fungi have been neglected in science and are only just starting to get the attention they deserve.

“The more we learnt about them, the more we discovered their awesome role in nature of breaking down wood. Button mushrooms live in the soil. Their role in ecology is further down the line in terms of decomposition. They’re different to the ones we grow, which are primarily saprophytes, which grow on cellulose-rich material. They break down wood and provide the initial stage of the decomposition process.

“In a rainforest, these kinds of mushrooms live on dead wood. If a branch falls from a tree, it’s initial stage of being broken down will be the fungi starting to decompose it. It will run through the log and break it down and convert the material into mushrooms when it fruits. They trim the branches off the canopy – the spore will germinate and decompose it so the branch will eventually fall down. If it falls, it’s the fungi’s job to decompose it and break the wood into soil.

“We grow most of our shiitakes on pecan and they also like certain eucalypts. The main thing for shiitakes is they have to grow on hardwood. We grow our oyster mushrooms on sugarcane. We’ve done that on purpose because of the Queensland sugarcane industry, which has so much leftover product. We seek out an organic sugarcane. After they’ve extracted the sugarcane, we use what’s left over. We are taking agricultural waste and inoculating the leftover fibrous material.”
After the mushrooms are harvested, the waste product then goes into creating organic compost for The Falls Farm at Mapleton. “One of the other reasons we were drawn to these types of mushrooms was the concept we could take a waste product and turn it into food. I just really love growing food; it is the most rewarding thing,” says Katrina.

“I don’t think fungi could ever not be a huge part of our life now. I do hope this business is successful for us and continues for us for a long time.”