Graham Upson, Touchwood Mushrooms, Denmark, is the go-to mushroom man

By Leah Tindale
Updated May 3 2022 - 10:20am, first published April 28 2022 - 10:00am
Owner and self proclaimed "fun-guy" Graham Upson inspecting the growth of his mushrooms near Denmark.

WHAT springs to mind when you hear the word medicinal mushrooms?

Perhaps you're thinking of some tie-dye wearing, barefoot, forest folk, trying to sell psychotics?

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This niche industry however involves years of research and some heavy hitting science.

One of the most influential companies in the game is Touchwood Mushrooms.

Located down a long gravel drive, near the quaint town of Denmark, surrounded by lush bushland and of course a winery, here owner Graham Upson has carved out a name for himself as the go-to mushroom man.

A mycologist with more than 45 years in the game, he grows not just any old mushrooms, but organically grown, medicinal mushrooms.

Studying mycology initially before branching out to explore photography, he found his way to mushrooms in 1976, after he and his wife Lee Upson, came across a retired wheat farmer in Kalamunda.

With a few mushrooms growing in his back shed, the old farmer inspired Mr Upson with just a few words.

"He said 'Graham if you can grow these things, you can make a fortune because no one is doing it', so I thought well that's all I really need to hear," Mr Upson said.

One of the many final products Lions Mane liquid extract.

With very little knowledge of what they were doing and no one else in the game to brainstorm with, Mr Upson established a trial growing room in Baldivis.

"We very successfully lost a lot of money over six years, not knowing what we were doing but we persevered," he said.

The persevering, testing and trialling eventually paid off as the business grew from growing 50 kilograms a week to 15 years later 12 tonnes a week.

At that volume, Mr Upson decided it was time to expand, putting up a new farm and building the most hi-tech facility in the southern hemisphere.

He and 76 staff ran a slick and efficient operation in 1990, using turn-key technology from Holland, they could produce 20 plus tonnes a week,

"From that point on we were running really fast and it was a real buzz," he said.

"We were producing our own compost as we had done from the beginning, a couple hundred tonnes of compost a week, which is a big pile of compost.

"We were supplying Coles and Woolworths, exporting to Tokyo and Singapore.

"Then we received a very good offer and decided to sell that farm in 1995."

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A mushroom spore.

Mr Upson sold the farm to American company, Campbell Soup, thinking to himself perhaps it was time for a new adventure, away from mushrooms.

So with that he and his family packed up and moved down to Denmark - a location they had always loved, and where they had a home for quite some time.

Needing to move away from mushrooms, he decided to try his hand as a winemaker, a different industry that still combined his love of nature and science.

So he established Somerset Hill wines, which he owned and ran for 20 years.

During that time he specialised in Pinot and Champagne and found the winemaking process fascinating.

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"With my background in science and chemistry it was an easy extension for me," he said.

"I was so used to being inside with mushrooms where you could control everything."

"But with wine you don't control anything more or less, you get what you get, whatever the season serves up, that's what you've got to work with, so I found that a little bit different, challenging."

Along with the vineyard, because wine growing didn't seem quite challenging enough, Mr Upson decided to dabble back in the world of fungi.

At first just trailing button mushrooms in a small shed at the back of the vineyard.

However, button mushrooms, according to Mr Upson, are notoriously difficult little things to grow, particularly without chemicals.

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Of course that was part of the allure and before long he had mastered this obstacle with an operation up and running, pushing out a casual 2.5t a week.

Just a "small mushroom farm" as Mr Upson would say, that was just "ticking over" and scratching that mycology itch.

"In the back of my mind was always medicinals, with my knowledge in mycology you can't forget it, so you might as well put it to good use," he said.

"So I decided to wander into medicinal mushrooms, and that's been my interest for many years, working out just how I wanted to do that."

This "wandering" led him to isolate clones for a few different types of mushroom, such as Lions Mane, Turkey Tail and Reishi.

Led by thousands of years of research that lay before him, he looked into Eastern medicine to see what varieties they found and were used in history.

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"I thought there's something in this, these are the varieties that have stood the test of time, these are the ones I'm interested in," Mr Upson said.

"The more modern companies in our era have done the same thing and in Japan and China there has been research done into the varieties.

"So you're hanging off every word that everyone is saying, then you develop your company through all that information and that's how we've chosen the clones that we use, the types of mushrooms that we use and how we recommend them."

He now has a very sophisticated class 100 laboratory, with a three micron filtration system, the equivalent of what you find in an operating theatre.

An autoclave sterilises the substrate ensuring the end product is exactly as it should be.

Mr Upson's laboratory also means they have the opportunity to isolate clones from the local bush area.

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"Did you know you can take mushrooms from the bush and isolate their clones," he said.

"You're talking about mushrooms from very old soil, old country, old land, so we might have a different approach here to what everyone else is doing in the rest of the world, so that's always in the back of my mind."

With the medicinal mushrooms grown, they are then taken into a secure location, where not even journalists can go and are turned into either a powder or a liquid extract.

With the system down pat and the operation running seamlessly for three years now, Mr Upson continues the research and the play element.

"Now we play with mushrooms, there is research being done in medicinals for cancer, dementia, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, leukaemia, inflammation, diabetes," he said.

Touchwood has supplied mushrooms to the University of Hong Kong and Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Perth, for research.

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He also spent five years on the Australian Mushroom Growers' Association board, researching mushrooms further and looking into how they can help people.

"After a fair bit of time researching in Sydney, I felt we were qualified to take it to the next step and start helping people's health rather than just filling their bellies with mushrooms," he said.

"So here we are now really romping along with the medicinals."

Although the production has only been up and running for three years, the groundwork to get to this stage has been long, not wanting to be premature.

"We didn't want to jump in and say well this one does this and that one does that, without actually having some scientific papers behind and there now there are papers," Mr Upson said.

Everything they produce at Touchwood Mushrooms is organic, and Mr Upson says it's complementary medicine, he and the team are not doctors offering medical advice.

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"Obviously we can't cure people," he said.

"We're not talking about diagnosing and curing, that's the doctors' area.

"But if we can provide some relief in a natural way, help put off the inevitable, in a natural way that's not going to upset your body, let's explore it."

And help people they already have, from tales of people who no longer have stiff and swollen joints to the more extreme, it seems there may be a little magic in these medicinal mushrooms.

"I think it's the case that you shouldn't park up your knowledge when you can help people," he said.

"When you see the testimonials on our webpage and hear the people who ring up and 'what you have given me is fantastic, don't ever stop making your products, it's special."

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As research develops the opportunities for mushrooms to help in other ways are endless.

From varieties that can "eat" and clean up an oil spill, to mushrooms that eat plastic, the answer to many of humanity's problems, according to Mr Upson, may be found in the humble mushroom.

"I don't want to come to the end of this subject, if this has an end I'm probably not that interested," he said.

"It's probably a bit like fly fishing, a hobby of mine, you never get the hang of it, trout are the most unpredictable things ever.

"One minute they are taking this fly, the next they are taking that fly, and what's the difference between that and 15 minutes ago.

"That's a never-ending subject for me, and mushrooms are a never-ending subject.

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With only six percent of mushroom varieties investigated and millions more not even identified, it seems there will be plenty to keep Mr Upson busy.

Through it all however, it is the human connection, the ability to help people, that keeps him coming back.

Mr Upson still takes his mushrooms to the Albany farmers' market most weekends just so he can connect with the community.

Loving the chance to change a sceptic's mind as to the benefits of his products.

"The ones that come looking are the open minded ones, but the ones you convince are the ones I enjoy," he said.

"They are the ones who are saying, no I need a pill for that or it's got to be surgery.

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"But when you're at the end of your tether and pills are not doing you any good and you turn up to me quite late in the piece and suddenly we have some success, it's a wonderful thing."

So what is next for the man who would "rather wear out than rust out".

Currently he is working on growing an interesting mushroom known as a Cordycep.

The Cordycep is an orange mushroom that grows from the brain of an insect, and is known to give a natural energy boost.

"We've developed a way of growing it on a rice base," he said.

"We're still trialling it at the moment.

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"Nothing's fast, it's a rice base, basically spiked with various carbohydrates and we've sorted out what the nutrition is but it hasn't happened overnight, none of it does, to work out the various acids, proteins, nitrogens etc."

Recently he was headhunted by medicinal cannabis company Little Green Pharma, to plan a class 100 laboratory and research psilocybin.

Psilocybin is the naturally-occurring psychedelic compound found in some mushrooms, and it is said to help with anxiety, depression, PTSD and potentially other mental health diagnoses.

"We want to develop a legal product in micro-dosing amounts," he said.

"I really like that they are a big company, already doing medicinal cannabis, and are dedicated to getting it right for Australia."

As far as if society is ready to embrace the wonderful world of medicinal mushrooms, Mr Upson is optimistic.

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"It's not too far off because the writing is on the wall, we've got some oncologists who send people to us but it's not common," he said.

"There are public trials, with results, and those who know are ringing us up.

"The western world is a bit slow in adapting to these approaches, eastern medicine has been using them for 2000 years.

"So we've got to wait till all of these interested people realise, hang on, have you read these trials, have you seen the results and there are no chemicals involved and it's a natural mushroom.

"So I think we're probably 10 years away."

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