By Lakhram Bhagirat
Michael Blake, a man who has been in information technology for all of his adult life, is using his skills and attention to detail to find success in the agricultural field. However, the concept of growing his own food has never been foreign to the Beterverwagting, East Coast Demerara (ECD) native.
Growing up, Michael’s parents had their own kitchen garden and even opened their backyard to members of the community who would farm for the benefit of the community. That has impacted the way Michael sees food and growing his own food.
About five years ago, the 42-year-old Network Operations Manager decided that he needed to look at alternative types of activities to both act as a hobby and supplement his earnings. It was then he decided to look at agriculture.
At the time, he had a small kitchen garden at the back of his home and his neighbours were willing to purchase vegetables from him so that further fuelled the decision to enter into the field.
However, he wanted to do things differently. Always being someone that takes into consideration the realness of climate change and the sustainable way of development, Michael started to explore sustainable and eco-friendly farming methods and crops.
“I started to research different farming methods and all these things and non-traditional goods. Because our agricultural sector is traditionally, you know, flooded more or less with the high demand for traditional things but I wanted to create a niche. Also, I would have recognised in my research the dangers of a lot of chemicals we use in farming especially in Guyana. I know it’s not properly regulated and I know farmers use a lot of poisonous chemicals which we then ingest that can cause cancer and all these things.
“So those are the things that pushed my research. I started looking at things like microgreens and then I came upon mushrooms and mushroom farming and that piqued my interest. So, I spent like the last three years doing a whole lot of research on mushroom farming,” he explained.
He began the experimentation with actually growing mushrooms in March 2020 and later began commercial production in January of 2021. However, mushrooms are not Michael’s only passion and he has since leased a plot of land from the Government where he is growing organic produce.
“So, mushrooms of itself, when I looked at it, it fits into a couple of the criteria I was looking for. One is sustainable, it is what I consider green agriculture, it is very eco-friendly and it is grown on agricultural waste. You can literally grow mushrooms on any agricultural waste from sawdust, straw, banana suckers – when you cut down the banana you can grow mushrooms there – corn cobs or any agricultural waste. I know we have a lot of waste coming out of the traditional agricultural sectors here in Guyana and I think it would be a good way to reuse and extend the value of that waste. So that was one of the big things that I identified with,” he explained.
Another driver for Michael deciding to enter the mushroom farming arena is the fact that with Guyana’s new economic position and changing culinary landscape, the demand for alternative foods will increase. In fact, we are seeing that already with more and more people opting for non-traditional foods while also hopping on the health food trend.
“Historically, also, the older generations in my family had challenges with things like hypertension and diabetes and in my research, I recognised the medicinal properties of mushrooms in aiding the management of these very common lifestyle diseases. So, it fits quite a few of what I was looking for in my choice of what foods to grow and how to grow them. It is also a bit climate-resistant because you can create an indoor microclimate and grow them,” Michael added.
Currently, Michael farms his mushroom indoors where he can control the climate so that his crops can remain bountiful.
Michael grows one of the gourmet varieties of mushrooms – the oyster mushroom. This, according to many food review blogs, carries the flavour profile of shellfish and in the raw form, they are fairly robust and peppery. Cooking them makes it milder and with the ability to withstand longer cooking times, oyster mushrooms are the perfect meat substitutes in stews and other dishes.
“Right now, I do pearl oysters and pink oysters but through my research and development, I am now looking to move to grow other gourmet mushrooms. So right now, I’m expanding on my oyster farm and researching to start growing other gourmet mushrooms which would include the lion’s mane, golden oyster and some other varieties of oyster and eventually I’ll expand into things like shitake and other gourmet varieties.
“Once I think I would have covered most of the main and common gourmet variety, it is my intention, hopefully, maybe in about two to three years to start growing medicinal mushroom and providing medicinal supplements for our population,” he said.
Getting started and challenges
Michael understands the importance of research and when he was getting started, he made sure to inundate himself with the relevant information. However, he also believed he needed hands-on guidance which he sought from the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI) and while they encouraged his venture, they had no resources to provide on the ground assistance to him. Nevertheless, he persisted and networked with a Professor from the University of Guyana – Tain Campus who provided some technical knowledge on growing mushrooms.
Since Michael created his own climate room to grow his mushrooms, it means he requires steady power to ensure consistency. However, with the unstable electricity supplied by GPL, this poses a challenge to him.
“Operationally, my challenge currently is the cost of electricity and the amount of blackout. So, if you can imagine, if I need to be running air conditioning and other things to build my environment a certain way and then GPL will say on this day, you’ll get this number of hours of blackout. I’m not at the point where I can afford a generator. So, when the blackout comes, my environment collapses and I can easily lose that crop and the whole value of that. So, I would say the electricity situation in Guyana right now is currently my number one challenge,” he explained.
Another challenge he faces is accessing the relevant tools and materials needed for mushroom cultivation since they are not readily available on the local markets. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a further delay in shipping so meeting his customers’ demand is taking longer.
In order for you to access Michael’s mushrooms, you can contact him on +592 608-1116 or check his Facebook page – Callisto Farms.
He explained that the reason he sells his produce to customers directly is to ensure maximum freshness.
“This is essentially because one of the key parts of my brand is to develop the mushrooms as fresh as possible. So, nobody that gets mushrooms from me, get them in more than 24 hours after they have been harvested and the only way I can guarantee that right now, is by taking the order directly. So, most persons get their mushrooms literally within an hour of harvesting as fresh as you can get them because there is no waxy coating over it to try to store it. The mushrooms I grow, grow very delicate and usually have about seven-day shelf life. So, they degrade quickly and they need to be used fresh within seven days or less stored in a refrigerator.”
Michael advised that anyone deciding to enter the non-traditional crop arena should ensure that they research carefully. He is also offering his knowledge to those who are interested.
“Many have attempted farming and rushed into it, and only then quit after six months or a year because they did not do enough research. For mushrooms specifically, it is my intention to do consultancies and teach others and provide resources that were never available locally here for me when I was starting. If others would like to get into mushroom farming, I am more than willing to assist. It is not a case where I think there’s a market, I’m trying to monopolise on so I’m willing to offer any assistance to anybody that is looking to get into mushroom farming.”