Instead of Playing Video Games, This 12-Year-Old Is Running a Mushroom Farm in His Basement

updated Aug 25, 2020
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Tiger Mushroom Farms
Credit: Tiger Mushroom Farms

Most 12-year-olds might choose to spend their free time playing video games, riding bikes with friends, or playing on a sports team, but Te’Lario Watkins has a more unique hobby. When he leads me down the stairs into the cool, dark basement at his home just outside Columbus, Ohio, it’s to show me his mushroom empire. Once my eyes adjust to the dark, I see more than a hundred sawdust logs sprouting with shiitake and oyster mushrooms that will be harvested that weekend for the local farmers market.

The young entrepreneur grows and harvests around 100 pounds of mushrooms each week, operating his business entirely out of his family’s basement. His plans for expansion this year include adding warehouse space so he can grow more varieties, like cremini, portobello and lion’s mane. All of these mushrooms require pasteurized manure fertilizer, which Watkins’ mom understandably doesn’t want stinking up the house. Local restaurants like Ambrose and Eve, Sassafras Bakery, and Flatiron Tavern are serving his mushrooms, and customers are clamoring for more. 

In first grade, Watkins had little interest in homework, but he loved growing things. He started growing herbs for a Cub Scout project and after his herbs died, he had to find something new to grow — something that could survive inside in the dark during the cold Ohio winter. So, his family bought a $20 mushroom kit from Back to the Roots

“Mushrooms aren’t a fruit or a vegetable, but they grow so quickly and that was really interesting to me,” he says. Watkins’ parents are both science majors, and they entertained the idea as a fun family experiment. Little did they know that the project would “mushroom” into a full-fledged business just a couple years later.

In just two weeks, the mushroom kit they purchased was chock-full of mushrooms. It seemed to double in size each day, and the instant gratification intrigued the whole family. “They just don’t stop growing if you have the right environment,” says Te’Lario’s mom, LaVanya Watkins. “When our kids like something they know that we fully support it — but we don’t do anything halfway.” The family ordered more logs — experimenting with white button, crimini, lion’s mane, oyster mushrooms, and shiitake.

Credit: Tiger Mushroom Farms

Te’Lario found that shiitakes were easy to grow, and they were sturdy and meaty. The Watkins family had never tasted shiitake mushrooms until they grew their own, but they quickly became everyone’s favorite mushroom to grow and eat. LaVanya had only eaten canned button mushrooms as a kid, which she hated, but the family discovered that fresh ones are delicious simply sautéed with sea salt, garlic, and olive oil. Now, the Watkins family regularly eats mushrooms in tacos, omelettes, frittatas, or dehydrated and seasoned to make jerky and bacon. Watkins loves cooking too, and his favorite recipe for shiitake mushrooms is in a grilled cheese sandwich. 

Get the recipe: Shiitake Mushroom Bacon

After Te’Lario purchased 25 shiitake logs, his parents realized they had a business on their hands. “We had mushrooms everywhere and couldn’t eat them all,” LaVanya says. “We didn’t want to waste them, so we reached out to local farmers markets. We needed insurance to participate and a name. So we decided to name the business Tiger Mushroom Farms since Te’Lario was a Tiger Scout at the time.”

From there, his business started to boom. “After I was on the Steve Harvey Show, it was getting really exciting,” he recalls. “I thought, I can do more with this, instead of just a hobby, to make it something I want to do for a living. This is just part of my career though. I also want to be the president of the United States.”

Credit: Tiger Mushroom Farms

Watkins is a charismatic salesman, charming customers at the farmers market with his megawatt smile and samples of mushroom bacon. 

“We have a lot of people at the market thinking that we tricked them and thinking that it’s actual bacon,” he says. “It’s funny to see their reaction when they figure out that these are actually mushrooms and not pork bacon.”

Ultimately, Watkins hopes to use his business to bring healthy, fresh food to food deserts and encourage kids to eat healthier. He’s even published a book about starting his business and speaks to other kids about healthy eating and entrepreneurship at schools and churches.

“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.