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When Bien Lema emigrated to Victoria from the UK in 2006, having accepted a job as a design engineer for Ford, the idea that his new home would one day offer up the opportunity to cultivate mushrooms in a temperate corner of the state would have seemed far-fetched.
Having previously worked for BMW in the UK and Germany, and earlier, in the construction industry, Bien spent five years at Ford in Melbourne before returning to the residential construction industry.
It was around this time that Bien and his former partner developed an interest in mushrooms and mycology (the study of fungi) which quickly grew into a passion for growing their own mushrooms.
“We always tried to eat healthy and our diet was predominantly plant based,” Bien explains.
“As new research started to come out about the different health benefits associated with the different varieties of mushrooms, they quickly became a staple ingredient in our meals.”
As well as being a good source of protein, B vitamins and antioxidants, such as selenium, which helps to support the immune system, there are also many types of medicinal mushrooms, such as Lions Mane, Turkey Tail, Reishi, Chaga, Shiitake and Cordyceps, all of which have additional different compounds and health benefits.
Bien says the more they learned about mushrooms, the more their passion for them grew.
“After reading books and attending a course on the subject of mycology, we became hooked and decided to take the plunge and grow some easier varieties at home for ourselves using a small makeshift mushroom environment, which we put together.”
However, while Bien’s interest in cultivating mushrooms grew, he also learned that the majority of commercial gourmet mushroom growers relied on single use plastic bags to cultivate their mushrooms in.
“These single use plastic bags are then removed and discarded, typically ending up in landfill or worse, contributing to the amount of plastics already in our rivers and oceans,” he explains.
In 2018, Flora and Fungi was officially launched on the Mornington Peninsula before Bien and his former partner relocated themselves and the fledgling business to Ellaswood in East Gippsland, in January 2019.
“We always enjoyed day trips to the Gippsland area, and so we made the decision to leave the corporate world and move our new venture here, to East Gippsland.”
As advocates of the permaculture approach of reuse, repurpose, and recycle, Flora and Fungi explored numerous alternatives to using single use plastics for the cultivation of its gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, which range from King Oyster, Lions Mane and Turkey Tail to Reishi, Pink Oyster, Golden Oyster, and Summer White varieties.
“We looked into biodegradable plastic bags and compostable materials, but in the end decided against them as it is not clear whether they actually offer an environmental advantage over conventional plastics, especially as biodegradable bags by design break down and fragment into microplastics.”
Instead, they made the decision to reuse and repurpose food-grade plastic and glass containers for their mushroom cultivation, extending the life of these vessels for as long as possible and producing many mushrooms in the process, before finally committing them to recycling.
“Although, our chosen approach is definitely more labour intensive and less convenient than your traditional commercial grower, we believe the additional effort is definitely worth it for the environment.”
“We are proud to say that we do not use any single use plastics at any stage of the mushroom growing process.”
Not only has Bien found a way to cultivate his mushrooms in a regenerative way, he has also won the hearts of East Gippsland’s hospitality industry, who can’t get enough of his sustainably grown gourmet mushrooms.
“I sell predominately to chefs who care about good quality, locally grown produce and who can also appreciate my approach of growing them in an environmentally friendly way.”
Bien currently supplies to Chef Hat Award winner, Sardine Eatery + Bar (Paynesville), as well as Long Paddock (Lindenow) and The Stables and Northern Ground (Bairnsdale) and has had interest from several other restaurants and cafes to start ordering his mushrooms once the current COVID-19 restrictions have eased.
And while the local foodies have fallen in love with his gourmet mushrooms, Bien has fallen in love with the region, with a climate that is perfect for growing mushrooms all year round.
“Different species require different temperatures in order to fruit. For example, Enoki mushrooms require very cold temperatures, whereas Pink Oysters require much warmer climates in order to fruit,” he explains.
“Personally, I like both climates. The colder months allow me to focus mainly on the colder varieties such as King Oysters, whilst in the warmer climates, I can focus on other varieties and also wear shorts and t-shirts all day,” he laughs.