Jessica Toth has been growing fungi since she was eight years old and now runs one of WA’s biggest mushroom farms.
Meet the grower: Casuarina Farm mushrooms
Mushrooms, often called nature’s original superfood, are fast becoming one of Australia’s most popular plant foods.
“Demand for our mushrooms has been incredible over the past few months,” says Jessica Toth, head grower at Casuarina Farm in WA. “Healthy lifestyle choices we believe are driving this demand.”
Each week the four-hectare farm, part of the nationwide Costa Group, produces an astonishing three million mushrooms – mostly the popular button and flat mushroom varieties.
“We select the varieties that give us the most consistent product,” she says. “Consumers expect mushrooms to taste good, but also look pretty.”
Costa has been supplying high-quality mushroom to Coles for over 20 years, with mushroom-growing facilities in Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia.
Jessica believes that consumers are increasingly attracted to mushrooms because of their nutritional qualities. “Mushrooms are naturally rich in vitamins and minerals and are a good source of Vitamin B,” she says. “The caps are like our skin and if you expose them in the sun for 15 minutes before consumption, they can absorb Vitamin D for added nutritional benefit.”
Mushrooms are known for their versatility. Available all year round, they are grown in a controlled environment in beds which are vertically stacked to minimise the footprint.
“They are a very sustainable product, too,” Jessica says. “We use by-products from other industries, such as chicken manure, and then recycle a lot of our waste products.”
Despite advances in technology, successful mushroom cultivation still relies heavily on the skills of human labour, with all mushrooms being harvested by hand. “It takes around six months to train a harvester because they are not just picking but grading and presenting the mushrooms,” she says.
Like bananas, mushrooms can easily be damaged if poorly handled. Harvesters must be fast and delicate. “It’s pretty much a one-touch system,” says Jessica. “You don’t want to be handling them too much.”
The Casuarina Farm employs around 130 skilled harvesters. “We have a diverse workforce which makes our workplace a great little multicultural community,” she says.
Jessica’s affection for her pickers is not surprising. Eight years ago she joined Costa as a trainee harvester before studying horticulture and rising to her current management position. “When I first moved from New South Wales to Western Australia the only job I could find was as a picker, so that’s where I started,” she says.
But her career trajectory is not entirely accidental. Jessica has been playing with compost since she was eight years old and running around barefoot on her parents’ farm.
“I spent a lot of time in the growing room,” she recalls. “Basically I was happy to do whatever I was asked to do. It was better than doing my schoolwork!”
Mushrooms from Costa’s Casuarina farm are available at Coles supermarkets across Western Australia. Costa mushrooms are available in Coles nationally.