In Europe, people were cultivating mushrooms as early as the 1600s and, in the 19th century, commercial cultivation of “Paris champignons” began in the tunnels under the city. Australia’s first commercial mushroom farm was also in a tunnel – in this case, the disused railway tunnel below Circular Quay in Sydney.
It wasn’t the first attempt to grow mushrooms. An article in 1934 cites a failed venture 30 years previously, along with another in the Glenbrook Tunnel in the Blue Mountains. The writer attributes the failure of these operations to the poor quality of imported mushroom spawn.
The Sydney mushroom farm was established by a Spanish immigrant, Raymond Mas, in 1933. He had assistance. A biologist from the New South Wales Department of Agriculture, Dr R. J. Noble, supplied him with high-quality spawn and supervised the careful preparation of the beds. There were challenges, including the removal of undesirable fungal growths from the tunnel and the elimination of insect pests.
Despite this, the venture was soon successful, producing up to 10,000 pounds of mushrooms a year. Mas was able to sell his mushrooms for around two shillings and sixpence per pound to retailers. In addition, he marketed the spawn in one-pound packets, allowing other farmers and the public to grow their own mushrooms. Raymond Mas became an authority on mushroom growing and published two books on the subject.
By the end of the 1930s, mushroom farms could be found in most Australian states. The first Victorian mushroom farm was established at Ferntree Gully by the Alburnie brothers in 1937. Often the mushrooms were grown outdoors in raised beds. Later operations used growing rooms where the climate could be more controlled. By the 1980s there were about 140 growers Australia-wide, but by 2019 the number had fallen to around 40.
Modern mushroom farms produce a wide range of exotic mushrooms. In 2023 a mushroom farm was established on the old Holden manufacturing site in South Australia. The Epicurean Food Group claimed it would produce more than 20,000 tonnes of Oyster, Shiitake, Enoki, King Oyster and Lion’s Mane mushrooms and mushroom products each year and employ 350 full-time staff once fully completed.