3 May 2024

City couple's mushroom venture sprouts from pandemic

From Country Life, 7:40 pm on 3 May 2024

by Maggie Tweedie

In a large warehouse, not far from Taupō, a young couple is busy bagging gourmet mushrooms. 

Their established vegetable garden and loyal Jack Russell terrier make it difficult to imagine the pair once lived a city life in Auckland. 

Benson Thomas and Hattie MacLennan at Forage HQ

Benson Thomas and Hattie MacLennan at Forage HQ Photo: Maggie Tweedie

Benson Thomas and Hattie MacLennan took the plunge into a new food production venture in January 2023 using the Thomas family's earthworks company to clear their farm paddocks. 

They transformed four hectares into land suitable for mushroom growing and the result is Forage Mushroom Co. 

They produce several varieties of oyster mushrooms -  Italian, Phoenix (which are native to New Zealand) and Pink - selling them at farmers' markets, to online customers and to local restaurants. 

Taupo's Embra restaurant's confit lamb neck, spelt risotto, spring peas and Forage oyster mushrooms on top

Taupō's fine dining restaurant Embra sources oyster mushrooms from Forage Photo: Supplied

Forage was born during the pandemic when the pair began brainstorming a new way to make a living. 

Thomas had a background in agricultural and applied science and was interested in horticulture and in 2020 he unearthed an obsession with mycology, the study of fungi. 

MacLennan, meanwhile, was working in HR and realised she could work remotely when they made the switch to rural living. 

She calls Wednesday her "forage day", harvesting and bagging the mushrooms for customers across the region.   

Pink Oyster Mushrooms

Pink Oyster Mushrooms Photo: Supplied

Forage's HQ is a 600 square metre warehouse brimming with shipping containers and climate-controlled, purpose-built equipment and mushroom grow kits which the pair sell online to those who want to grow their own in just six days. 

Mushroom fruiting chamber

Mushroom fruiting chamber Photo: Maggie Tweedie

Starting a business from the ground up hasn't all been smooth sailing though. 

Thomas wants to see more regulation as he says their small business has battled to compete with so-called New Zealand mushrooms, which originate in China at a cheaper price and are sent here to "grow".  

Earlier this year Thomas made the difficult decision to pull 300 kgs of his produce from Asian food stores in Auckland because it was being undercut.

The volume drove the price down and it wasn't viable for Forage to continue with that market, he said. 

Forage grow your own gourmet oyster mushroom kits

Forage grow your own gourmet oyster mushroom kits Photo: Supplied

Oyster mushrooms are famous for being able to handle high cooking heat without losing their volume. 

"We whack them on your plate, Bob's your uncle," MacLennan said, cooking up a plate of Forage fungi for Country Life, with fresh elephant garlic from Hawkes Bay, homegrown thyme and chilli oil.

Positive feedback about their produce has prompted the couple to start working with chefs to develop a new food product they hope to sell to supermarkets. 

Grey oyster mushrooms

Grey oyster mushrooms Photo: Supplied