Featured on Belfast Live - 17 FEB 2021
Like most of us, Terence and Judit Vaz got up and went to work every day, cared for their kids and relished the handful of holidays they took each year. But when the pandemic hit, furlough followed and the East Belfast couple found themselves staring at the same four walls, with little to challenge them.
In a bid to fill his largely empty days, Terence started helping out at a friend’s garden tending fruit and vegetables - and that’s when inspiration struck.
The former luxury cruise agent and dental assistant, Judy, whose second maternity leave kicked in as coronavirus took hold, started growing their own food at home and soon found a niche in the Northern Ireland market for gourmet oyster mushrooms.
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Now the 35-year-old husband and wife split their days between tending to their two little ones as well as five varieties of mushrooms - with plans to grow from there.
Belfast Live popped down to Hearty Growers HQ at East Belfast’s Portview Trade Centre to hear how spores and fungi have taken root in their hearts.
Terry told us: “Back in March I was furloughed as a cruise travel agent. It was quite rough for me from my mental standpoint to be furloughed all of a sudden.
“In a funny way it did help because nine months of furlough did something to us physiologically, we were ready for the next move not knowing what it was.
“It just gave us the confidence to do something and create something - so we were in that flow of gardening and fixing things so when mushrooms happened, we did the education and then starting practicing it.
“That was a changing moment for us,” he added.
The dad-of-two’s interest first took seed volunteering at a friend’s “organic market garden in Helen’s Bay”.
“That became an avenue for me to just go and be out with nature and at the same time help him,” he explained.
“I started learning loads of things through the farm, from setting beds to composting to seeding, maintaining, then harvesting and boxing them and eventually farmer markets once a week.
“We got a well rounded picture of what organic markets were all about, how the local community comes together to support the local farmer. “It introduced us to a world that was not on our radar at all,” he continued.
“We love to cook, there’s Hungarian, Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine that we share between ourselves - we enjoy fusing food together but when we realised we can grow these crops and cook them. It just took us to another level.
“We started growing in our back yard - 40 different varieties of veggies and herbs and we saw that it’s all possible without in-depth education. Through that we stumbled on a few videos online to grow your own mushrooms, so I sourced a couple of things like spores and substrate online - brought it home, followed the advice of these videos and a month later we actually had produce.”
Because restrictions had slightly lifted in summer, Terry said they got to treat friends to what they had grown at barbecues.
“We harvested a few mushrooms, Judy sautéed them with the rest of the food, they bit into them and said ‘what meat is this?’ he said.
“That expression on their face when they had bitten the mushroom, that’s when the penny dropped and we realised we could do this for a living.”
During a holiday, the couple decided to give it a real go together and invested in everything they needed to start, including a business course with Belfast City Council.
Following a couple of month’s practice when friends and family were gifted kilos of mushrooms, they then secured start-up funding from East Belfast Enterprise and Belfast City Council, after which they were able to move the growing kit out of their home and into a business park mid January.
Judy said: “It was an interesting journey. I remember when Terry was furloughed and we had that month where we didn’t know what was going on and how long it would happen.
“He lost his job later on and felt really down, and as he said, decided to work at the garden and his face was shining. That was beautiful. “When he had the idea of turning our garden into a vegetable garden - I freaked out because having two babies under two at home and then trying to manage that, without having other people to contribute.
“But it happened anyway and I just fell in love with the whole process.
“Then he brought the mushrooms.”
Laughing, the trained dental nurse, added: “My very first reaction was ‘yay, you go ahead I have enough to do’.
“But I remember the barbecue when we harvested it and I cooked it and served it and seeing our friends’ faces. That was really the moment when we thought this could be it. I got on board 100% and I love it.
“The kids love it. Our daughter is three and ever since we started growing mushrooms she just sees mushrooms everywhere. That helps us to stick to the plan,” she added.
A month on from their official launch, the couple now grow, harvest and sell about 20 kilos of mushrooms a week with plans to eventually triple production and add more varieties.
And their customers, they say, have been extremely important in decisions like how they package their goods, from recyclable cling film and grow bags, to compostable containers.
“When you start contributing to the local community, the ecological side of things and the environmental side of things, it becomes exciting to be part of a solution than be part of a problem,” added Terence.
“We are not here as gurus growing mushrooms, we are just students bringing something to the market and we want to grow with the local market. “This part of the city is multicultural, we’ve got friends from all parts of the globe here and it just feels nice to contribute locally.”