In Blacklick, Ohio—a suburb northeast of Columbus—a 9-year-old boy is living his dream of being a mushroom farmer. Te’Lario Watkins II grows shiitake mushrooms in his basement and oyster mushrooms in a spare room of his parents’ home. With the help of his parents and his 14-year-old sister, Kennedy, he’s grown his interest in mushrooms into a home business, Tiger Mushroom Farms. After only two years, Te’Lario sells dried and fresh mushrooms at 10 area farmers markets, two grocery stores and a local hospital.
Te’Lario and his mother, LaVanya Watkins, shared with New Hope how the home business has grown and what’s next.
How did you decide to grow mushrooms and start a business?
Te'Lario Watkins: My first meeting at Cub Scouts, I grew cat grass and basil and it was so interesting, I wanted to keep growing stuff. My parents said, what can we grow in the winter? And I said, we can grow mushrooms, because mushrooms can grow in the dark. We grow shiitakes in the basement and oyster mushrooms in a spare room because they need different environments.
LaVanya Watkins: We first bought a mushroom-growing kit from Back to the Roots. That was really easy. Everyone in the family loved it. We tried different types of mushrooms … and we fell in love with shiitake and oyster mushrooms.
TW: We grew too many mushrooms and we couldn’t eat them all. So, we decided to sell them at the farmers market. The market manager was surprised I was so young [7 at the time], but he said, 'This is great.'
LW: You have to have a vendor’s license and you have to have insurance, so we decided to make it a small business. He was a Tiger Cub Scout, so that’s where the name came from, Tiger Mushroom Farms.
How did you expand the business?
TW: Other farmers markets asked me to come. They had heard about me from customers. I started selling mushrooms at the grocery stores when they asked. They wanted fresh mushrooms grown locally. And I met people from the hospital at the farmers market. They asked if they could buy my mushrooms. I said yes because I wanted to help the people who are really sick.
We also sell shiitake-and-onion soup mix. My mom came up with it, because some people don’t like the texture of mushrooms.
We sell at 10 markets now, but I don’t work at all of them. We hired two people.
LW: We use a commercial kitchen to make the soup mix. We won the Ohio Signature Food Contest, which awards assistance with business planning, product development, nutrition information and more. It helps get products into stores.
What have you learned from growing mushrooms?
TW: It’s a lot of fun and it takes a lot of work. You should watch the temperature and humidity [of the rooms].
LW: Mushrooms are ready for harvest in 17 days. We harvest twice a day, every day, in the morning and evening.
What have you learned about growing a business?
TW: I have to network; I have to talk to different people around the world.
I’ve sought advice from the Back to the Roots owners. Alex [Velez, Back to the Roots cofounder] taught me how to sell my mushrooms and how to pay my workers. To sell, I must know my product and stay engaged. He told me I can pay my workers on commission.
LW: Back to the Roots had an opening for a brand ambassador, but he was too young. They made him a junior ambassador. They [Velez and cofounder Nikhil Arora] really support him. They talk on Skype. Te’Lario was at the Back to the Roots booth at Natural Products Expo West. It’s amazing what he took from that original box.
This is the first year we are working full time on the business; we also are investing in real estate. We’re helping him build the business, and he’ll get it when he’s an adult. He sees the money come in; we take him to the bank. He knows that we have different accounts for the business and for the house or personal expenses. He helps count the money and he’s starting to understand taxes.
TW: I’m writing a book about how I started my business. It’s hard, because you have to think about the details and all the people you want in it. I hope to finish by the end of the fall. I started being homeschooled in August.
I would love to grow morels. I would like to build a big, giant factory to sell mushrooms all around the world. I would put my factory in Ohio.
LW: Our next step is trying to get a warehouse and grow mushrooms in there so we can supply the demand.
How do you give back to your community?
TW: I grow a vegetable garden and donate to a food bank. I have four raised beds, with squash, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans and different vegetables. I do it so I can help kids who don’t have enough to eat.
I also speak to groups such as Teen Corps volunteers, after-school programs and Rotary. I tell them to dream big and believe big. That’s my main advice after I’m done with my speeches.