In 2016, Amy Christensen and her partner Mickey Pascoe received a slightly odd gift: a mushroom-growing kit.
They immediately became fascinated by the fungi they cultivated. “They’re like magic … They appear out of nowhere, and they double in size every day,” says Christensen. “We were blown away by how they grew and what they tasted like and how different they were to the mushrooms we’d grown up eating.”
The pair already shared an interest in backyard food cultivation and began researching how to grow mushrooms. “We started growing them under our house in Paddington in Brisbane. It became a hobby,” she says.
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Both Christensen and Pascoe had a background in business – Christensen running a graphic design studio and Pascoe, a marine biologist by trade, in online retail – and saw a gap in the market. “We hadn’t seen anything like this before. No one was growing them locally. We thought, hey, there’s a really great opportunity here to grow mushrooms and supply local cafes and restaurants with this great product that wasn’t available to them from a local source.”
They started Little Acre in 2018 and began growing mushrooms in climate-controlled shipping containers in West End. “We found them to be the ideal crop to grow in an urban space,” says Christensen. “You can grow them indoors, they don’t require much land, they don’t require much water, you can grow them on recycled material like agricultural by-products, so it’s quite sustainable in that way, and very space-efficient as well.”
Little Acre cultivates various mushroom species, including bright-hued oysters in pink, gold, white and blue varieties; shiitake; lion’s mane; chestnut; and black pearl, a hybrid of an oyster and a king brown developed in Japan. Christensen’s favourite is king browns – “the fat-stemmed ones with the smaller brown cap” – for their versatility and pleasant flavour. “There are lots of different ways you can cook them,” she says. “We use the little baby king browns and cook them whole and toss them through pasta.”
The most common misconception Christensen encounters about mushrooms is that they’re dull in colour and grow in dark, dank spaces. “When we tell them ‘No, these mushrooms are grown under lights 24/7, and they have all these different amazing colours, they’re very clean, and there’s no compost involved’, they’re really surprised,” she says. “When we started selling them at farmers markets, we had a bunch of people ask if we dyed them … they’d never seen colourful mushrooms before.”
In 2020, Little Acre outgrew its West End premises and moved to a larger warehouse in Brisbane’s northern suburbs. When Covid-19 sent the nation into an unexpected lockdown in March 2020, Little Acre was in the process of scaling up production to meet increasing demand from local cafes and restaurants. “The restaurants had to shut down, and suddenly we didn’t have an outlet for our fresh mushrooms,” she says. “We went from our biggest week ever to no orders, overnight.”
The pandemic lockdown necessitated a shift from wholesale fresh mushrooms to selling supplies and running courses online. “It changed the direction of the business,” says Christensen. Fortunately, Little Acre had launched its mushroom grow kits in November 2019. “There was a real surge of interest in growing your own food at home,” she says. “Everyone was thinking about where their food comes from and what happens if the supermarket doesn’t have what they need. Food sovereignty, eating local, growing your own food and being more self-sufficient came to the fore. That drove people to find out about us and growing mushrooms.”
Little Acre’s survival during such a tumultuous time has required creativity, agility and the capacity to react quickly to changing circumstances. “We couldn’t afford to rest on our laurels – we had to completely change our business model in order to survive,” says Christensen. The business uses accounting platform Xero, which Christensen says has been invaluable in navigating uncertainty. “We can bring up our dashboard and see at any point how we’re tracking,” which she says helps with decision-making, and Xero’s integration with e-commerce apps allows her to keep up with her bookkeeping.
Even after a challenging 18 months, Christensen still finds a lot to love about running a small business. It’s both purposeful and rewarding. “Freedom is a funny word to use here because when you’re running your own business, you tend not to have a lot of spare time, but it is a certain kind of freedom,” she says. “You’re in charge of your own destiny. I like that aspect of it.”
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