Mushrooms are loved the world over for their rich umami taste and are a staple in international cuisines. But they are a strange species. For one, the fungi’s brown-and-white appearance and spongy texture, and its reproduction via spores, resemble a primitive form of extraterrestrial life.
But to Philbert Khoo, co-founder of Mushroom Kingdom, what amazes him most is the mushroom’s voracious growth rate. He established the online mushroom retail and distribution company two years ago but is still intrigued by how fast they can grow. “They can grow up to a finger’s length in one day,” says Khoo.
Unlike other crops, which take anything from three weeks to a few years to be harvest-ready, mushrooms can be harvested in as little as two weeks. (If you don’t believe these claims, you can try for yourself: Using the company’s home mushroom growing kit, Mushroom Garden, you can produce edible mushrooms in just five days.)
Philbert founded Mushroom Kingdom with Janson Liew; they met while working in finance at OCBC Bank. They collaborate with a large mushroom farm located in nearby Johor, a state in Malaysia that borders Singapore.
The 8-acre farm, located 53 kilometres from Singapore’s border, produces about 15 tonnes of mushrooms a month. Mushroom Kingdom stocks grey oyster mushrooms, black jelly fungus and royal abalone mushrooms, which grow in a tropical climate and are widely used in Asian cuisine. It also retails shiitake mushrooms and portobello, which are found in temperate areas and sourced from an external supplier, as well as shiitake mushroom chips.
But demand for fresh mushrooms far outstrips supply, says Philbert. “The consumption market in Singapore is way bigger. The consumption runs into a five-digit tonnage the whole year round. We are barely scratching the surface,” he says. And with consumers becoming more health-conscious and desiring fresher goods, demand for mushrooms grown close to Singapore is only going to increase, he notes.
This demand has encouraged Agrivo Mycosciences, the parent firm of Mushroom Kingdom, to develop another 24-acre farm just 20km from Singapore. Both farms are located in Johor’s agricultural heart, away from the aerial pollutants of the city, and no pesticides or chemical fertilisers are used in the farming process.
The next superfood
Mushrooms have been gaining recognition as a “superfood” as more people discover their nutritional properties. They are rich in selenium, a mineral that has many health benefits. Selenium is known to increase antioxidant activity, which helps to prevent common cancers, as well as defend against viruses and slow symptoms of chronic conditions like asthma. Mushrooms also contain ergothioneine, a naturally-occuring amino acid that has antioxidant effects.
Mushrooms are also considered cash crops, as they have a higher price and grow faster than leafy greens. Mushroom harvesting occurs every 15 days and this quick turnaround and the premium price people are willing to pay for mushrooms prompted Philbert and Janson to establish an online store.
The mushrooms are grown on substrate logs, placed vertically in grow houses of about 1,500 square feet each. Mushroom Kingdom’s current property comprises 24 of these grow houses. Unlike farming vegetables indoors with grow lights and temperature control, mushrooms can grow in dimly-lit and humid environments, which keeps operating costs low.
Agrivo Mycosciences, which researches mushroom cultivation and produces the substrate logs, oversees the initial stages of tissue culture, the substrates mixing, the growing and finally the harvesting.
Philbert and Janson plan to operate their own mushroom farms in the near future. They are also working on introducing tropical variants of shiitake and portobello. Adapting the mushrooms to a warmer climate will create long-term cost savings, says Philbert.
“Growing temperate varieties would require climate control, which would involve putting up some very expensive infrastructure. This will ultimately increase the retail price of the mushrooms. And this sector is very price-competitive,” he explains.
Mushroom experts in the making
Philbert and Janson have no prior experience in the agriculture business. “I was only interested in the food part, not the farming,” says Philbert. The company founders wanted a career change and after considerable research decided to leverage their experience in economics and finance… by growing and selling mushrooms.
They learned all they could about the fabulous fungi by making trips back and forth to farms in Johor three days a week. Starting without any contacts in the industry, they networked with potential collaborators and were eventually introduced to their current partners.
“The farmers are not very savvy with social media and they tend to be very traditional as well. So they were hard to reach,” says Philbert. “We weren’t intimidated by the fact that we knew nothing about mushroom farming, but we went there with the sincerity and the commitment that we wanted to do this. They were moved by it and they were also thinking of expanding.”
Philbert and Janson eventually inked a seed funding round with Agrivo International, an agricultural company which owns pepper farms in Cambodia and has an agri-investment arm. With some capital in hand, they set up Agrivo Mycosciences, and Mushroom Kingdom as its retail business.
The founders wanted to get involved in the farming side of the business, but decided to let the farmers run it in the end. “These farmers have a very particular way of doing things. We decided that the healthiest way to proceed is to let them run the farms the way they like it, and for us to sell the mushrooms in Singapore,” says Philbert.
Delving deep into mushroom agriculture gave Philbert a sense of appreciation when it came to his food consumption habits. “Whether it is consciously or subconsciously, I started becoming very picky in the produce I eat and really enjoy quality produce. It makes a big difference to the overall taste of the dish,” he says.
“And as mushrooms deteriorate, they will produce a very strong smell. It’s stale and pungent. Some people are already used to the smell so they can’t tell how fresh the mushroom is. But when the mushroom is very fresh, there is no odour at all.”