In a Dark, Dark Room

Mushrooms are the dark horses of the veg bag staples. They have more in common with residues that can build up on your shower tiles than with any plant found on your plate (which is kind of unappetising when you really think about it). Capel Mushrooms was the first organic mushroom grower in the UK, and Local Greens' exclusive provider of this beloved fungus. Owner Patrick Hearne sheds a light on these anti-plants that have become a family passion for over 50 years.

To begin, mushrooms are not plants at all. They are the most familiar face of the fungi Kingdom. These organisms straddle the world of plants and animals, showing similarities to both, but belonging to neither. To be a fungus, one must reproduce using spores and feed off of organic matter, living or dead, through absorption. Instead of roots, they have mycelium and hyphea that resemble tiny threads. Fungi are decomposers, and do not require sunlight or regular water like crops in the field do. The moulds on forgotten foods, yeasts used for brewing or baking, and mildews lurking in bathrooms are all cousins to the mushroom. The beauty of nature and evolution has given us a wide array of edible and symbiotic fungi, including all varieties of mushroom and truffles. At Capel, Agaricus bisporus is the species they grow with care. Amazingly, this one mushroom grows into the familiar button, closed cup, open cup and Portobello varieties – they are all the same mushroom, but picked at different stages of the growing process.

Back in 1962, Peter Hearne purchased a site near Ipswich to set up his mushroom operation. By the 1980s, the business had passed on to his sons Patrick and Damian, who both realized what they were already doing was chemical-free. Thus began an organic honeymoon phase as pioneers of organic fungi farming. “If we had carried down the conventional route, we wouldn’t be here today,” Patrick reckons. This also caught the attention of supermarket giant Tesco, and Capel became their first organic supplier. “We built up the trade together,” Patrick says, “when the organic movement was more of a gimmick,” than the proven method it is now. Nevertheless, the supermarket brought in other suppliers and played them off of each other to create competition and drive down costs. The Hearnes realized this conventional marketplace was taking the joy out of their livelihoods and parted ways with Tesco. “We are farmers,” Patrick continues, “we want to get out there and do the job, not tick boxes and get mired in bureaucracy. [The supermarkets] write a rulebook on what a mushroom should look like…I as the farmer know what’s acceptable and what’s not. If they rejected any of the crop, the farmer would have to pay for disposal. The system was punitive and very iniquitous.”

Free from the shackles of supermarket monopolisation, Patrick concentrated his market on veg boxes, and Capel has seen steady growth, with no regrets. “We love working with veg boxes because you understand it’s not a production line,” Patrick shares, “Problems with disease occur, or a power cut jeopardises the crop - we share this information and you’re understanding. You’re not people in offices thinking of ways to create paperwork.” While he admits there may be some burnt bridges in Capel’s supermarket past, they are still a loyal supplier to Co-op Local in the east of England. Serendipitously, this was also his father’s first customer.

Capel Farm is relatively small, but can produce 8-10 tonnes of mushrooms a week. They operates 365 days a year, Christmas included, with the mushrooms growing in dark, climate controlled sheds. “They don’t whinge about the weather,” Patrick says, “but we control everything: heating, cooling, CO2, humidity. They are funny things, mushrooms. They don’t see daylight, but they know what’s going on outside,” and are influenced by barometric conditions and even “super moons”. The edible mushroom is the fruiting body of the fungus, thrown up by mycelium when it feels threatened and needs to reproduce. Mushrooms grow extremely quickly, with only two to three days separating the size difference between a button and a Portobello. Spring and autumn are traditionally when mushrooms come up in the wild, and winter growing is better than summer, as heating is easier than cooling. Capel invests greatly into the compost that forms the basis for their entire operation. They start with organic straw, pasteurise it, spawn it with mycelium and then provide a slightly acidic environment for growth. Patrick admits, “People see our first flush of crops, and their jaws drop,” at the stacks and stacks upon rows and rows of mushrooms growing like a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

Harvesting mushrooms is also a skilled task. “It takes a long time to train pickers,” Patrick says, “they have to learn to judge what to pick, grade them by size, and have great dexterity and attention to detail.” Capel employs a staff of about 24, and unlike traditional farms that rely on seasonal work, they offer steady, year-round employment. Many have been with the farm a long time, starting at 15 or 16 years old as weekend pickers. Many are also settled Europeans who have been working in the area for 15-20 years. “We are slaves to the mushrooms, and work every day of the week,” Patrick explains, with the crops flushing on predictable, weekly cycles. Fortunately, the recent months have brought a phenomenal surge in demand and the staff is well looked after and sticking around. The farm has a lucrative spin off of selling compost as part of their virtuous circle of no waste. For the first time in its history, Capel ran out of compost this year, potentially due to the spike in home growing. “COVID has made people stay at home and think about what they’re eating. If the legacy is people are more mindful of their diet, that will be a good thing,” Patrick concludes.

In the summer months, mushrooms may go over looked with so many other wonderful veggie choices to be had. The Hearne family and their staff continue to work away, and are grateful to all veg box customers for the support that allows them to grow mushrooms their way. For Patrick, the best way to enjoy a mushroom is as a simple toast topping. His top tip: “I prefer the white variety because it’s a better flavour carrier. Look for the oldest mushrooms; they contain less water. Fry them with butter, a dash of olive oil, some white pepper, lots of salt. Get them caramelised and serve over toast. But please don’t peel them, and never boil a mushroom.”