When Te’Lario Watkins II was 7 years old, he came home from his first Cub Scouts project, a first look at the magical world of gardening, inspired to grow something of his own. His parents bought a few kits for him to start his first mushroom crops, a venture that what would become Tiger Mushroom Farms as his skills—and his harvests—grew.
“Eventually we had too many mushrooms to eat, so instead of letting them go to waste, we decided to sell at farmers’ markets, and that snowballed into having my own mushroom farm business,” Te’Lario recalls. “Right now, I’m working on my seasoning, so I don’t have any mushrooms, but before COVID, I had about 100 pounds per week.”
Te’Lario’s parents retired from teaching to help in the early stages as things began to take off. It was at a farmers’ market when they met Ava Johnson, a fellow gardener and health department administrator by day, who became one of his mentors when they decided to expand beyond mushrooms.
“I grow a lot of brassicas or greens. They were interested in the type of kale that I was growing and sustainable agricultural practices. His mother calls me the ‘fairy garden mother,’ teaching him things like watering from the base, making sure that you’re fertilizing—that sort of thing,” Ava says.
It was also at the farmers’ market where Te’Lario found his second source of inspiration. Among the patrons, he noticed some people using wooden coins with the dollar sign on them as currency.
“When I asked my parents, they explained to me that some people don’t have enough money to buy food or fresh produce for their family or for themselves,” he recounts. “I wanted to help somehow, so I applied for a grant, and I grew carrots and cucumbers. Then, I donated them to a local food bank. That’s how that’s how I started rolling produce and donating to local food banks in my community.”
What was once a small plot in the backyard became two large community gardens—one acre donated by a supporter and the rest rented from a church—that continue to feed people facing food insecurity. It was March of 2020, and The Garden Club Project had begun.
“He is persistent and he’s consistent. And with farming, or even gardening, you have to be able to be resilient. If things don’t work out, you have to be able to say, ‘Okay, what else can I do?’ You have to be a problem-solver,” Ava expounds.
Te’Lario’s main roles include recruiting and coordinating volunteers and tending to the crops: picking up litter, watering, weeding, seeding, planting, harvesting and preparing produce for donation or sale. But he’s not alone.
“They do things as a family. It’s not just Te’Lario,” Ava adds. “He has his partners, which are his parents and his sister, right along with him.”
With strong family support, Te’Lario has made it his mission to give back to the food system and teach others about it in the process. He educates kids about healthy eating and how to grow produce, and he was asked to help a local school create a school garden.
“Gardening can be kind of tedious, but it’s also really rewarding. We only started with a small garden bed or two, and then we expanded. I would say start small, be patient and make sure that you have everything that you need before you start,” he advises anyone looking to start a garden of their own.
In his spare time, Te’Lario has also published a children’s book about gardening and his experiences as an entrepreneur called Amazing Mushroom Farm to teach kids to be determined and kind. He does readings at schools and speaks about setting goals, encouraging them to dream big. As a panelist with the OSU School of Business and the local Center of Science and Industry, he has shared his knowledge with business leaders as well.
“I’m hoping to create a place where there are fewer food deserts. I’m going to be an advocate for food justice, and I want people in and around my community to be able to get fresh produce easily and safely,” the young speaker emphasizes.
He’s well on his way. Since the beginning, Te’Lario’s community gardens have produced more than 2,000lbs of produce serving hundreds of families through local food pantries. Eight years after he started, his mushroom business provides food to local stores, restaurants and community groups. He has inspired others with his story and by supplying hundreds of seed kits to schools and community groups.
“Te’Lario doesn’t let anything stop him. If he puts his mind to something, he’s going to definitely see it through,” Ava states.
He has also raised money to combat childhood hunger and worked with Food Rescue retrieving food from restaurants for those in need that would otherwise go to waste. At the farm, he recently hosted at-risk teen groups to talk about gardening and what he’s learned about perseverance and staying positive.
“Sometimes you have to be patient. Sometimes things don’t work out. And that sometimes you have to reach for your goals with more than you think you have to and work a lot harder than you might have expected to,” Te’Lario says. “Don’t give up.”
Aside from being a gardener, Te’Lario is a sprinter on his school’s track team, a Boy Scouts senior patrol leader and an aspiring food scientist, all before he’s gotten his driver’s license. With growing expertise and resources, compassion for others and strong initiative, he is already making a big impact on his community.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Te’Lario? Find local volunteer opportunities.