Blacklick boy's hobby has mushroomed into full-fledged business

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

When it comes to parenting, incentives are essential. Kids often need some motivation to pursue things such as chores and homework. Some kids are motivated by candy, others by screen time. But Te'Lario Watkins II? He just wants to make things grow.

Last year in Cub Scouts, Te'Lario grew cat grass and basil from seeds, and he couldn't wait to get home from school to see how much his plants grew while he was gone. Te'Lario's mom, LaVanya Watkins, seized the opportunity for an incentive. "T," as his mom calls him, had to get his homework done before he tended to his plants.

"When the cat grass ended, it was like, 'Oh my gosh. What are we gonna do?' " LaVanya said. "We gotta get something we can grow."

Te'Lario got an idea. "My parents wondered, 'What can I grow in the winter?' And I said, 'mushrooms,' because mushrooms can grow in the dark," he said.

Mom and Dad were skeptical at first. Te'Lario didn't even like mushrooms all that much. But they decided to give it a try and purchased a simple kit to see if they could grow mushrooms at home, soaking the base in water for 12 hours and then spraying it twice a day. It worked, so they started buying more kits: shiitake, white button, oyster, portobello.

"He loved taking care of them," said T's dad, Te'Lario Watkins. "We'd spray them before work in the morning, spray again when we come home, and he just loved watching them start to grow."

"From the morning to the evening, they'll double in size," LaVanya said. "It's really neat to watch."

"It's crazy - pop goes the mushroom!" said 8-year-old Te'Lario, who gestures with his hands and flashes a contagious, toothy grin whenever he talks about his fungi. With the help of his parents, he channeled that enthusiasm into a business, Tiger Mushroom Farms.

"We grew so many, it was like, pazow!" he said.

Walk into the basement of the Watkins' Blacklick home and there are several racks with dozens of rectangular blocks of compacted sawdust, many of which have white shiitake mushrooms beginning to grow off the sides. Strips of flypaper hang from the ceiling to trap fruit flies, and multiple humidifiers hum to keep the humidity level between 80 and 90 percent.

Te'Lario, wearing a Tiger Mushroom Farms T-shirt ("Keep calm and shroom on," the backside instructs), grabbed a handheld sprayer, gave it a few pumps and misted the recent crop with water. Several big ones look ready to pick.

"There's a mushroom that's so big!" he exclaimed, pointing. "Is this one ready, Dad?"

Though Te'Lario will probably grow some more oyster varieties this summer, right now it's all organically grown shiitake, which thrive on soft woods rather than compost. (LaVanya is understandably wary of keeping compost in their basement.) Shiitake mushrooms are loaded with vitamin D and they're sturdier than delicate oysters, which makes them easier to transport to all of the central Ohio farmers markets Tiger Mushroom Farms supplies. A 4-ounce container costs $5.

Last October, Te'Lario's mushrooms landed him on Steve Harvey, the daytime talk show. You might think going on national television would make a kid anxious, but Te'Lario said he doesn't get nervous. While Mom and Dad were biting their nails, he was backstage dancing around the green room and helping himself to doughnuts.

On the show, Harvey and Te'Lario hit it off. Te'Lario told the host all about his mushroom farm and that he was looking for "a zillion dollars" to get his business off the ground. The studio audience ate it up.

The Watkins family has big plans for Tiger Mushroom Farms. Someday they'd like to make shiitake ice cream, shiitake lotion and shiitake candy. And the sooner they can move the farm out of the basement and into a warehouse space, the better. (Those fruit flies like to migrate upstairs when someone leaves the door open.)

This summer, Te'Lario also will grow some outdoor veggies in raised beds thanks to a $500 grant he and his 13-year-old sister, Kennedy, received from Katie's Krops. They'll donate the produce to local food banks.

But the big question is: Does Te'Lario actually like to eat the mushrooms he grows?

"I like mushrooms now," he said. "I have more fun eating them than growing them. They're yummy in my tummy."