From an average homemaker to a successful farmer and an entrepreneur, the story of Shije Varghese from Alappuzha is an inspiring tale of how women can take charge of their destiny given the slightest opportunities. Onmanorama Women takes a closer look.
Born to a conventional Christian family in Alappuzha, Shije, who prefers to be called by her first name, was married off at a young age to lead the monotonous life of a homemaker. But the enterprising woman Shije was, she didn’t waste her time watching TV serials. Instead, she grew her favorite food item – mushrooms.
And when her husband, Thankachan, blended his love for agriculture with his wife's new hobby, Shiji's organic farming business started taking shape. Today, in front of her mushroom-themed villa that sits pretty at Eramalloor in Alappuzha, stands a board that says ‘Coonfresh: an organic way to healthy living’ - a modest initiative that brings her a steady a profit.
Beyond the mushroom installation in the lawn and a well that looks like a sprout, there are several greenhouses where you can find fresh and pale mushrooms peeping out of the hanging beds. The smell of fermented yeast and mushrooms is so strong that it feels like a different world altogether.
“I was left with a lot of free time when my children grew up. I wanted to make effective use of it. Mushrooms have always been a favorite food item of mine. That is how I ventured into mushroom farming. Trust me, this is something every homemaker could do,” Shije sounds confident.
Shije cultivates two varieties of mushrooms, viz., milky and oyster, on a commercial basis under the brand name Coonfresh. She has installed more than a 1,000 mushroom beds across the three greenhouses in the compound.
Temperature, humidity and air circulation are the three major factors affecting mushroom cultivation. One must have ample technology to maintain a favorable atmosphere for yielding good profit and that's the reason why mushroom farming is not so mainstream. But Shije, who's a science graduate, has developed a simple fan and pad mechanism to serve the purpose.
A three-feet-long pad, made of dried vetiver fiber is placed behind two fans and is kept wet using water sprayers. This ensures a consistent flow of cool, humid air in the greenhouse. A large hose placed above the mushroom beds suck the expanded warm air and expels it out.
“Usually, homegrown mushrooms are cultivated in beds made of withered hay. I use the saw-dust of rubber trees instead,” says Shije. "Rubberwood saw-dust is soft and it decomposes easily, making it easier for the fungus to spread around and grow.”
Each bed is prepared by filling saw-dust and mushroom seeds in a plastic bag in alternative horizontal layers. The plastic bag should have at least 20 needle holes to ensure air circulation. In a favorable atmosphere, the fungus would take around a week and a half to spread around. Once saturated, mushrooms would come out through the holes and it mature in just three days.
Shije harvests an average of 650 kilograms of mushrooms on a monthly basis. “Initially, I used to earn Rs. 10,000 a month. The profit steadily increased once I started experimenting with new technologies. I have invested around Rs. 38 lakhs over a decade and have earned it back by now,” Shije says.
Spawn production and home laboratory
Unavailability of healthy spawns or fungus is a major challenge to most mushroom farmers. But, with her subtle flair in chemistry, Shije overcome this hurdle. At her small home laboratory, she manually induces tissues into a sterilized medium and cultures the fungus in test-tubes. “I am a graduate in chemistry and have a diploma in laboratory technician course. That academic background helped me understand the process involved in spawn production. After a few failed trials, I could successfully culture healthy mushroom spawn,” she says.
For this, she cuts a small tissue from a healthy mushroom and deposits it in a plasmatic medium prepared out of potatoes, dextrose and agar, inside a test-tube. The mouth of the test-tube is covered with a piece of cotton and is stored in UV-protected, air-conditioned rooms. As the fungus evolves, it is mixed with half-boiled rice grains and stored in air-tight bags. The fungus spread all over in no time and voila, the spawn packets are ready.
Coonfresh: branding and marketing
Coonfresh, the brand under her company Asia Mushrooms, is performing well in the market, says Shijie, who supplies her mushrooms in several supermarkets and retail shops. Shiji’s air-tight Coonfresh packets come along with a catalog of special mushroom recipes.
Shije plans to expand her venture into manufacturing value-added products such as cake, cutlets, pickles and others from the mushroom. She also hopes to implement a recycling plant where the used mushroom beds could be converted to fertilizers.
The unassuming farmer says she received immense academic and financial aids from the state horticulture mission. Apparently, in their drive to support and nourish organic farming, the horticulture mission identifies persevering farmers and extend them technological, financial and academic aids.
According to Latha G. Panicker, deputy director of state horticulture mission, Alappuzha, Shije's organic farm is one of the best-performing mushroom farms in the district.
“Horticulture mission extends a financial aid of Rupees 9,000 to small-scale farms and provides for half the expense of installing hi-tech green-houses in large-scale farms. But aspiring farmers are ignorant about the support they can avail of. Ignorance shouldn't stand in the way of your love of agriculture,” Panicker says.
Shije's son Anto Joseph has dedicated his career for the digital marketing of his mom’s home-based business. Her elder daughter is a software engineer.