In his basement, where most 12-year-old boys would be playing video games, Te'Lario Watkins is running a business growing mushrooms. More than a hundred logs of shiitake and oyster mushrooms are lined up, in different stages of growth. They are waiting for Te'Lario to harvest and pack them in four-ounce containers for the Worthington Farmers Market.
What started as Cub Scout project five years ago has become a successful small business, Tiger Mushroom Farms. And the young entrepreneur hopes to expand this year with a new warehouse space so he can grow varieties, like portobello, lion's mane, and cremini, that require pasteurized manure fertilizer. Right now, he buys inoculated sawdust logs wholesale and just adds water. Te'Lario checks on his mushrooms daily to ensure that the temperature and humidity are ideal growing conditions.
“You always have to do something that you like,” Te'Lario says. “That's why I started growing mushrooms. I wanted to learn more about different things that you can grow. Mushrooms aren't a fruit or a vegetable, and that was really interesting to me.”
Mushroom growing all started with a science experiment.
Both of Te'Lario's parents have science degrees, and growing mushrooms was the perfect experiment for the whole family.
“He wasn't really into doing homework in first grade,” his mom, LaVanya Watkins, says. “When we found out that he loved to grow things—first it was basil and cat grass—we wanted to keep that love of growing going, so we used it as an incentive.” Before Te'Lario could go check on his plants, he had to finish his schoolwork. “Then in winter, when the basil and cat grass died, we were wondering what can you grow in winter in Ohio.”
Te'Lario suggested mushrooms, since they can grow inside in the dark. His mom never liked mushrooms growing up, remembering when her mom would feed her slimy canned mushrooms as a girl, but was happy to support Te'Lario and give it a try. They bought a kit just for fun, never thinking that this hobby would literally mushroom into a full-fledged business.
“We watched these mushrooms grow from a box in just 14 days,” LaVanya recalls. “Every day it would double in size, so that intrigued all of us. We got some more mushroom kits with different mushrooms and fell in love with the oyster and shiitake.” The Watkins family started cooking with mushrooms and discovered just how delicious they are, even when they're just sliced up and sautéed with onion, garlic, and butter or olive oil.
These days, Te'Lario grows about 100 pounds of mushrooms each week, selling them to local chefs, specialty grocery stores, and directly to customers at the local farmers' market.
Te'Lario is a natural businessperson.
Growing great mushrooms is just one part of running a successful business, and after growing and harvesting comes what for many people would be the hard part—selling. Te'Lario is a natural salesperson though, hamming it up with customers at the farmers' market while handing out samples of shiitake bacon.
“He loves being the center of attention, and he eats it up,” his mom says. Te'Lario regularly speaks at churches and schools, encouraging other kids to follow their dreams, start their own business, and give back to their communities. In his sixth grade economics class, his teacher asked him to explain concepts like goods and services to his classmates. Public speaking may be a fear for many adults, but for Te'Lario, it isn't.
“I never get nervous,” he says. “I'm a very outgoing person.”
Creating Tiger Mushroom Farms has led Te'Lario to a number of other opportunities as well. He has published a book about starting his own business and is on the advisory board for Chop Chop Family, testing healthy recipes for families to cook together at home. He even founded a nonprofit this year—The Garden Club Project—with a mission to end childhood hunger and encourage kids to eat healthy.
The whole family supports the dream of Tiger Mushroom Farms. He's happy to grow the business slowly, without taking any money from investors, even though people have inquired. Then he hopes to pass the business down to his own kids one day.
“I want to grow my business so I can grow more mushrooms, inspire more kids and adults to eat healthier, and get more people out of food deserts,” he says. “I want to get more mushrooms, vegetables ,and healthy foods in schools because better food means better education.”