By Doug Graves
BLACKLICK, Ohio – At age 12, Te’Lario Watkins II has a resume that is hard to believe. The Blacklick native has become a food activist, successful businessman and youth leader to end hunger and food waste. And he owes it all to the mushroom.
Watkins was just 7 when he finished up a Cub Scout project of growing cat grass and basil. His project with these two plants gave him thoughts of become a farmer and with winter settling in and his impatience of waiting for spring, Watkins discovered mushroom can grow in a cold and dark environment – his parent’s basement.
“I became obsessed with the mushroom for many reasons,” he said. “They’re easy to grow, they’re good for you and they can go into a variety of dishes like spaghetti, omelets and pizza. Most of all, I’m impressed that they grow in the dark.”
First up for the young entrepreneur were shiitake and oyster mushrooms. Lots of shiitake and oyster mushrooms. “It was fun and I found it interesting,” he said.
Watkins – and not his parents – decided it was time to branch out and make his love affair with mushrooms a thriving business.
“We kick-started this business after contacting a company called Back to the Roots,” Watkins said. “They let us in on their secret of growing mushrooms using coffee grounds. They gave me a mushroom kit. This all arrived during the winter months and gave me something to do.”
Watkins founded Tiger Mushroom Farms and today it is a thriving business. He grows and sells shiitake and oyster mushrooms to high-end restaurants and to customers at three Ohio farmers markets (Worthington Farmers Market, Westgate Farmers Market and the Franklin Park Conservatory Farmers Market).
“Our family used to have a drive-thru business but now it’s a walk-in business,” he said.
Watkins has a few goals in life, like being a “zillionaire and president of the United States,” but his realistic goal behind this mushroom(ing) business is to help people grow healthy food. And, with this in mind, he formed The Garden Club Project to help youth grow their own food in community and school gardens.
“The goal of the Garden Club Project is to end childhood hunger and encourage kids to grow and eat healthy,” he said. “I would like to see more mushrooms served in schools and mushrooms used for medicinal purposes.”
In his own backyard garden, Watkins is currently growing tomatoes, carrots, radishes, kohlrabi, spinach and lettuce. Inside, he plans on adding morel mushrooms to his food arsenal. But much more than self-indulgence, he continues working in community gardens and inspiring other youth to grow their own food. Tiger Mushroom Farms also plans to partner with several local organizations that will be hosting gardening-related programs in the summer.
“I would also like to reduce food waste and address food insecurity,” said Watkins, who likes his mushrooms sautéed, stuffed or fried.
According to Feeding America, the United States wastes 72 billion pounds of food annually while 37 million Americans struggle with hunger.
“People don’t realize that there are people who don’t have enough food, so they usually just put it in the landfill,” he said. “But a good way to stop that is to make people notice that there are people who don’t have food to eat. You also should be finding places for the food to go, such as food banks.”
Following his own advice, Watkins partnered with two national organizations, No Kid Hungry and Food Rescue U.S. in order to help put an end to hunger and food waste. “With Food Rescue U.S., we go to local restaurants, pick up food, then we donate that food to local food banks,” he said.
As a Hunger Hero with No Kid Hungry, he hosts an annual Friendsgiving as a way to fundraise and increase awareness around food insecurity. Many have taken notice of Watkinsand his love for the mushroom. He was featured on the Steve Harvey Show and received a Global Child Prodigy Award.
Notoriety is fine by Watkins, but he treasures time with his family. Right now they’re all working to grow the business, and hope to soon have a warehouse to grow more mushrooms and meet demand. “What I enjoy most is working with my family, because I get to spend more time with them,” he said.