Tilly Roberts’ inspiring interview with small business owner Roger Adams
Roger Adams created his own business during the lockdown by diversifying his vegetable patch. With the help and knowledge from the wider mushroom community, Roger converted his two sheds into a mushroom incubator and fruiting room. Before the pandemic, Roger used to work as a taxi driver in the Chichester area. He is now the owner of Hambrook Mushrooms; supplying pink, yellow, and grey oyster mushrooms to restaurants in the local area such as Chichester Festival Theatre restaurant, 36 on the Quay, and Tuppenny Barn.
I contacted Roger in the hopes to find out how his new business was faring. After our interview, I felt considerably lighter and more hopeful. I discovered how much Roger and his family have been doing for the local community and the environment. When the lockdown began, Roger had to stop driving taxis and spent a lot of time at home looking after his son Ashley, who has a disability and requires a lot of care. During this time, Roger became very ill with Covid, and as he was unaware of the procedures for those with severe symptoms, he stayed at home throughout the worst of his illness.
“I will never be the same again,” says Roger, “Covid has permanently damaged my heart.”
An important reminder for us all, that although restrictions have been lifted, the pandemic is certainly not over – repercussions are still affecting people’s day-to-day lives. Roger tells me about his large garden; it is roughly 1.5 acres and includes a vegetable patch and two sheds. This space allows Roger to grow food to last his family the whole year round. He delights in telling me all about his seasonal vegetables and herbs, from carrots and courgettes to chillies and celery. The family even kept pigs in this space once upon a time. Roger tells me a little bit about his specific gardening techniques.
‘I like to practice no-dig gardening, as it is important to me to ensure the micro-organisms, mushrooms, and worms are not disturbed or harmed.’
I am intrigued; as a Sunday gardener myself, I have never heard of this method. So, Roger explains to me why it is essential to leave the fungi alone.
‘When you refrain from disturbing the natural structures of the ground, you respect the work of the fungi that are already there. They distribute water and nutrients to plants and trees. And, the more you dig up the soil, the more fertilisers and pesticides you need to use.’
Indeed, there is a lot of sense to this technique, as the mushrooms we see and eat are only the fruiting bodies of the organism. The main body of fungi is actually the mycelium, a network of thread-like structures that grows underground and can stretch for many miles. For example, you can find the world’s largest mushroom in Oregon’s Blue Mountains in the US. This mushroom is called a ‘fungal mat’ and it stretches across a staggering 2,200 acres.
“So how does one grow a singular mushroom, let alone a giant fungal mat?” I ask Roger.
“To grow mushrooms on demand requires a controlled environment,” Roger explains.
“It must be dark, rich in oxygen, and warm. That’s why I had to insulate my shed. Mushrooms need warmth and normally grow between March and November. Maintaining their optimal conditions is tricky and requires a lot of careful planning.
“Airflow is also important. The air is changed five times a day in my sheds. With that volume of fresh air, it becomes challenging to heat the sheds, especially in the winter. However, I was lucky to have the space to set this up; most people start with a box or two or a hydroponic tent in their garage.”
Roger uses spores from Belgium, which he says are quite expensive as you have to pay for the shipping.
“But, they are the best quality,” he assures me.
He mixes the spores with pasteurised hay and coffee grounds. Then he packs the mixture into plastic tubes to create a sustainable synthetic tree trunk.
“Incubation takes three weeks, and then the fruiting takes another three. It is pretty time-consuming. But, of course, on a larger scale, they have hundreds of pickers working shifts to cope with the masses of mushrooms.”
As a mushroom enthusiast myself, I can imagine how exciting this process must be. I wondered if I could also start a mushroom box. So, I asked Roger to explain how he had learnt so much about urban mushroom growing. Roger learned everything he needed to start his business last winter when he took a course with GroCycle.
“I was introduced to a lot of other growers during the course. Sometimes, I would be speaking to someone on the other side of the world. It’s amazing how we are still doing the same thing, although the seasons and environment are different. The community is very supportive and friendly; we are always sharing our knowledge.”
I asked Roger whether he had an interest in foraging mushrooms before he went into the business.
“I am more of a cook than a forager myself. Although, now that I have the knowledge from my course at GroCycle and my business, I think I would feel safer picking wild fungi.” I find this comforting, as I have been foraging for a while myself and am still not completely confident. For those curious about how to best cook and serve oyster mushrooms, Roger also recommended a few classic combinations that his clients often use:
“You can serve them with steak, and they are also delicious on toast, dry-fried with salt, garlic, chilli, and butter. But the addition of butter does make it a less healthy meal. Mushrooms have very little calories, you know.’
Gary the owner and head chef at 36 on the Quay, tells me how after trying a sample of the oyster mushrooms from Roger he was impressed by the quality and locality of the product. Hambrook Mushrooms are used across the menu, for example the halibut, cherry & soy dashi, is served with oyster mushrooms and sushi rice. ‘Our customers are always interested to know that the mushrooms are grown locally, as everyone normally expects them to come from a big producer. We also support other small businesses; South Downs Venison and Game, Fresh from the Boat and Straightgreen Scallops –the only free dived— scallops in the UK.’
I ask Roger whether producing food in this sustainable way makes him feel like he is a part of something more than a business venture.
“I think that because I am so involved with supporting the local food banks with my wife, Sarah Adams, I don’t necessarily think of Hambrook Mushrooms as my main involvement with feeding the community. However, now you mention it, my business does work very well alongside my involvement with the food banks.”
Roger’s wife Sarah is the process manager for West Sussex Food banks and works with local schools, churches and supermarkets to distribute food boxes and meals to those who need them.
“I try and support my wife as much as possible with preparation and distribution.”
Roger tells me more about how being a taxi driver gave him a clear view of the wealth gap in Chichester.
“I have seen and moved the wealthy and the ones who can’t even afford public transport. Cleaners, for instance, who work at night when there isn’t any transport available.”
It is remarkable to me to hear how Roger has seen first-hand how imbalanced the system is, and has reacted in such a supportive and sustainable way. To crown off a very successful and challenging year for Roger, the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show recognised Hambrook Mushrooms this September. On request from Arit Anderson, an award-winning garden designer, Roger collaborated with his friend and fellow grower Jodie Bryan. The two worked together to feature their mushroom logs in ‘The Garden of Hope’, created by The One Show and the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. ‘The Garden of Hope’ has now been moved to the Mother and Baby Unit in Dartford to provide a relaxing and nurturing environment for mothers with severe mental health issues.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Roger. “As the show lasted seven days, we had to bring a rotation of mushroom logs. To ensure they were fresh, we had to time the incubation process very carefully.”
Roger shows me some pictures of his logs from the show. They look beautiful, just like they have come straight out of the forest.
“Those are the exact conditions that I am seeking to reproduce in the growing process. The ideal environment for mushrooms is woodland in the autumn months when it’s still warm even though the leaves are falling, and the light comes through the canopy.”
Roger has utilised the space available to him, supported his family and the wider community, and demonstrated how to make ends meet alongside his own values. I can see how understanding the benefits of urban mushroom growing and vegetable plots could have the power to shift our ideas of where our food should come from.
“We respect and support the local environment – if we weren’t culling the deer population the flora and fauna would suffer across the South Downs area. With low milage and low-fat content venison is good for your health and our beautiful surroundings.” Jack Smallman co-founder of South Downs Venison and Game – The Old Dairy, Petworth, GU28 0LT
“Well at the moment the focus is on food miles; at the COP26 summit their menus had the amount of CO2 produced per course next to the description. With the majority of the produce coming from 100mile radius of Glasgow. This is going to be important for producers and businesses to consider right now.”
Arundel Brewery –
Unit C7, Ford Airfield Estate Arundel West Sussex, BN18 0HY