Richard Mansfield-Clark makes our grow-your-own mushroom kits. But that certainly wasn’t the career path he’d imagined for himself while he was renting out high-pressure jets to clean the QE2.
It’s curious how life can turn on the vagaries of chance. Take Richard Mansfield-Clark. If he hadn’t broken his leg while farming, he wouldn’t have got a job renting out industrial machinery.
And if, some years later, the company he worked for hadn’t relocated to Manchester, he might still be there today, renting out high-pressure water jet machines that clean huge ships such as the QE2.
Instead, he declined the offer to move, stayed in Sussex and became a country estate manager.
If he hadn’t done that – 15 years ago now – he wouldn’t have been at the country show where he bumped into an old university pal, then a micro-mycologist in the US, who inadvertently sent him along a career path strewn with mushrooms.
For Richard, 59, is now the maker of our grow-your own mushroom kits, which come in various forms: you can grow them on logs, paper and even on old paperback books.
“If someone had told me back when I had a proper job that I’d be running my own business selling mushroom kits, I would have laughed,” he says. “It wasn’t a career path that I’d ever imagined for myself.”
Though always a keen outdoors person (his granddad, a blacksmith, was an early influence) and a Plumpton College graduate, he hadn’t been especially interested in mushrooms until he met his micro-mycologist mate. It was he who told Richard how in the US mushrooms were cultivated on logs and then sold.
Richard looked into it, tried it and soon began giving away his own mushroom logs to friends and family. Things grew rapidly and he now makes about 2,000 logs containing mushroom spores and about 1,500 mushroom growing kits every year.
The technique is an ancient one. The Chinese have been cultivating mushrooms on logs since 1300. These early growers used a stone to scratch the bark of a log and then literally crushed a mushroom into the cuts.
Today, a slightly more refined method is used. Spawn is cultivated in sterile conditions and then grown onto dowels or sawdust, which are then “planted” into holes drilled through the bark.
“The logs are sourced locally from woodland thinnings, heathland restoration projects and forestry waste… timber that would otherwise be chipped, burnt or left to rot,” says Richard.
Particularly intriguing is the Book Kit that allows you to grow mushrooms on old paperbacks. “The mushrooms grow on the wood fibres contained within the paper,” he explains.
Don’t they get contaminated with bleach and/or the ink on the pages? Apparently not. “Hampshire County Council ran tests on them a few years ago and found that you would have to eat half a kilo of mushrooms a day for months to ingest any trace of ink or bleach,” Richard says.
“It found they were much healthier than commercially produced ones, which require pesticides to grow.”
He admits that, at first, the transition from well-paid job to estate manager and supplier of mushroom kits wasn’t easy. “For the first couple of years I thought it was the worst thing I had ever done. But now, I love it — especially the freedom of working for yourself and the friendliness of the mushroom fraternity.” Of course: they’re fun-guys to be with. (Sorry.)
When he’s not getting the mushroom-growing kits ready, Richard enjoys walking on the South Downs with his dogs, foraging for wild mushrooms. He’s found truffles and parasols in the past but like all keen fungi hunters he’s not saying exactly where. “On the north face of the South Downs” is as much as he’ll give away.
But that’s OK, because it’s a lot easier to grow mushrooms at home with one of his mushroom kits than traipse through the woods looking for them.
And then, when you’ve harvested your first crop, you can reflect on the twists of fate that have led to them gracing your dinner plate.
Grow Your Own Mushroom Book Kits can be found here.
Grow Your Own Mushroom Logs can be found here.