Maraylya - John Cox - Part 2


Interviewee: John Cox, born 1943

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for Baulkham Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 31 Oct 2007

Transcription: Glenys Murray, Nov 2007

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

So you really went inside in 1969 when you built the first shed?

That’s when we built the first modern sheds, but we’d been growing some mushrooms in just tin rough sheds, not in the summer. But when you went into the insulated air conditioned ones you could grow all year round.

Now you told me before that at the end of Boundary Road you turn right there’d be John Cox on the left, that’s you, Harvey Cox on the right, then your father on the left, then Jack Cox senior, who was he?

He was my grandfather, actually when you turned right at the end of Boundary Road there was my father’s brother Alf on the left first, then the second on the left was my father Jack Cox, opposite Jack Cox was Harvey Cox which was his cousin, then you kept on going down the next place you came to on the right was my father’s father which was Jack Cox senior and that was where St John’s Road ducked off to the left.

A lot of Cox’s and Whitmores?

Yeah a lot of Cox’s and Whitmores in that particular area.

Now what about irrigation, that’s probably very important for a farmer to have? Were you on the low or high ground?

We were on the high ground.

So you weren’t subject to any flooding?

No flooding, and because my father’s sister married a chap called Jack Johnston he applied to the Water Resources and had an easement down through the Church of England church property that was headed at Pitt Town and got a water licence on Cattai Creek. He then would bring up the water to St John’s Road in turn he would then sell some water to my father and my uncle. He had invited them to go in the water proposal but they decided no. If he was prepared to do it they’d just like to buy some water off him... so much a day, the pump might have produced three or four thousand gallons. I’m not sure just what the capacity of that original pump was but it was a force pump, seven horse power electric motor down on the creek. They’d have pipe work that went to all the dams. So if it was going to go to the second or third place all the other taps would have to be turned off to the other dams. It would put it into the dams and then re pump it out using stationary diesel motors and pumps and eventually everyone got onto electric motors.

Cattai Creek 2007

Now the soil at Maraylya you told me was very shallow?

Yes it’s fairly shallow.

Did that give you problems for growing mushrooms out in the open when you were still doing it?

It didn’t give us any problems for growing mushrooms because the mushrooms were not growing out of the soil. We would make the straw and manure mulch compost and we would shovel it into timber forms. They were like a frame that formed a bed. We would fill these beds up with compost and put the spawn into those. Cover them with bags and then eventually put soil up over the bed and then eventually put straw and bags on to protect it. So we were really only using the Maraylya ground as a place to locate the mushrooms. Whereas in some other areas where the soil was more suitable for casing soil for growing mushrooms you’d find that if the rows were six feet apart some people would rotary hoe between the rows. Put some lime and formalin in that ground and just scoop it up and put it on the beds where it was. We’d generally buy in the soil from somewhere else and wheel barrow it and put it on by hand.

Now as the mushrooms were starting to get more popular, and people were growing them more, were the citrus fruits crops on the way down were they on the way out then?

Yes citrus seemed as though it didn’t appear to be viable in the district anymore. Everyone would say most of the citrus is grown in the Riverina areas and in the larger more suitable irrigation areas. Not very many people had irrigation in Maraylya. It was just lucky that my family had access to Cattai Creek to bring some water up. There was a period there when one of the orchards that Dad had. I think it was Valencia oranges and some mandarins. He actually knocked down the orchard and at one stage one year grew a bit of trellised grown tomatoes. They were superb. Dad and I made more money out of that bit of tomatoes in one crop than we’d made out of the oranges several years in a row before. Because it was a very good crop and the price was selling pretty good and we done well.

Now there’s some legendary figures in the mushroom world. There are people like Ray Mackenzie and Col Muffett. Tell me who these people were?

Well Ray Mackenzie was a neighbour he lived in Fisher Road originally when he came to the district. Then he bought off my father’s brother one of those thirteen acre blocks that my grandfather had given my uncle. He built a home and he built a couple of sheds there and he was the local then carrier to take the Edgell mushrooms to Bathurst. Edgell mushrooms were being canned at Bathurst. He also had a BP fuel depot there. He also had these they could have been 1955 model Ford trucks. When the Royal Easter Show was on in Sydney we would sometimes ask him to take us fellows down to the show and we’d bring back stable bedding from underneath horses and cows from the Royal Easter Show. We’d call that straw bedding to grow mushrooms with. Then we’d leave Maraylya about four o’clock in the morning and get down to Sydney we’d have to pitch fork it on by hand and bring it home. But Ray Mackenzie was a neighbour a friend and the local carrier so he was a very well liked and respected citizen.

Front end loader picking up fresh compost at Maraylya with Cox's early sheds in distance

Then Col Muffett was the chap that married my sister. He’d been in the RAAF Base at Richmond and married my sister. Then when they got married they went up the central coast and decided to get into a health food store that they’d bought as a growing concern. But being in the family he could see the potential for being an opening for selling fresh mushrooms. He started off to sell some in the back of a Holden one ton ute and he ended up expanding, expanding. My father loaned him one of his sheds on the property of Dad’s which was just next door to Ray Mackenzie’s on the other thirteen acres that my father had received off his father years ago. That was like a shed that my father used to use for stabling his draught horse and a packing shed for the fruit. Because the fruit was no longer there the shed was empty. So Dad said to his son-in-law “well if you want to use that as a mushroom selling depot, you can”. So eventually Col Muffett started there and after that became too small, he went down the road and rented one of Ray Mackenzie’s big sheds. Ray Mackenzie had a built a big shed on Boundary Road in the Baulkham Hills Shire and it was vacant. So Col Muffett put big cool rooms in there and got pretty fair dinkum with the selling and buying of mushrooms off growers. To then sell to the supermarkets. Then he grew and grew and as you know my sister passed away and he still kept on with the business. Then he ended up getting a lot of semi trailers and he started to buy mushrooms in Melbourne and NSW and send them by road to Western Australia. He had a company called Easy Ride as well as Col Muffett Mushrooms. They had special springs on the truck that would cart the mushrooms by road to Western Australia and keep them in good condition with these special springs. That business went OK for a while and then the company was buying many tons of mushrooms per week. Which was Melbourne Mushrooms who had a staff of three hundred people, they decided to sell out to Campbell Soups a big American company. Campbell Soups said to my brother-in-law “sorry from now on we’re doing our own marketing, we’re not going to sell to you”. So he actually had to withdraw from all of that and he lost quite a lot of money.

Men filling compost into mushroom growing trays at Maraylya 2000

What are some of the problems encountered in growing mushrooms? Do you have any problems with pests or fungus or diseases and things like that?

Well there’s always been pests and diseases and insects and everything. But in the early days we no doubt would have had help by an extension officer from the Agricultural Department would try and assist our mushroom association. In turn the growers would try to go along to meetings. When we changed from rough growing in tin sheds there was this mat mould disease which was devastatingly bad. If you happened to get mat mould in your bed in a rough shed it would be like a cream layer of fungus would come to your bed. On the interface of the compost and the inside of the soil layer that you grew in and seal off and stop the growth going out to produce mushrooms. So you may have got one flush and the disease set in and that was the end no more. So people were very, very shocked to say “what are we going to do”? That’s when the implementation of peak heating came in and growers were taught that if you could box your compost into a closed in room and go through certain temperature cycles with blowers and fans to aerate. Take up the temperature to a certain thing and hold it for what they call a peak heat, an air kill. You would kill any possibility of mat mould. So from that point on, which I guess was in the sixties all of us growers were so much surer of making a living. We knew that by doing a modern technique we could get away from that nasty mat mould. But no doubt there were other diseases that came from time to time. Most of us went to conferences where our Australian Mushroom Growers Association would bring in experts from America, Switzerland, England, Holland. We’d attend, we’d learn and we’d have some of these experts come to our various farms and all the other growers would come to our farm while that man was there. We all learnt, we all learnt a lot.

Air conditioning plant at Maraylya mushroom shed 2000

Now you’ve been in the mushroom growing business since 1958 that’s a long time isn’t it? Almost fifty years. How did you expand the business when you joined it, you must have had some ideas on what to do. What kind of innovation did you bring in?

When we went into the modern farm my father gave me the land where the new farm was on. He and my mother also helped me there. We started building a peak heat room and three growing rooms. Then we built some more growing rooms and some more pre-growing rooms. We eventually after ten years filled the whole site up to where it is today. We were lucky we were far more successful in the modern way. My father and myself growing in opposition to some of the locals in the outside ridge beds we were only average. With the education courses that I attended and learning the new way and with help from fellow growers, we just seemed to be a pretty good success at the new way of growing in a modern way. Because it was a new ball game locking them into a room sixty foot long by thirty foot wide by ten foot high. We were growing as many mushrooms in two or three small rooms as we were in an acre and a half in the previous years.

I believe there were quite a lot of snakes in the area? Did you ever have any snakes among the mushrooms?

Yeah we might hear a scream from one of the lady pickers and there would be a black snake. They’d be pulling back the straw to look for the mushrooms and the next minute there’s a snake wriggles away. There were a few snakes that would get in the beds in the cool under the damp straw and be there. It wasn’t too bad really.

Picking trolleys on left beside mushroom growing boxes in air conditioned room 2000

Well we’ve covered the mushroom growing story quite well now. You sold the business in 2002 did you?

That’s right we sold the business in 2002 to a fellow called Mike Hill who calls himself Hillcrest Mushrooms. Him and his family are very successfully running the farm and growing some beautiful mushrooms. Which I’m very pleased to see, I called there the other day and I’d bought some for a barbeque and a friend and they were lovely really lovely. I hear from talking to other growers that the farm of ours is producing quite nicely, which is nice to see that’s the case.

Now did your wife Daphne help you in the mushroom growing business?

She did, she did because previously she’d worked in a bank. She had very good skills with paperwork and ledgers. So therefore when our tax time came my wife would have a beautiful set of green ledgers to take to our accountant. She was very efficient. I suppose every day I came home from work I’d have someone to talk about the days happenings about what happened at the farm. Two heads are always better than one and we’d talk about it and make decisions. She’d generally travel with me when we went to overseas learning conferences. My parents and the staff that we had on the farm would be looking after the day to day things whilst we were away. I guess without such terrific parents that I had. Wherever I’ve got today it’s thanks to my parents and my wife and my self. It’s a family effort.

L to R: John Daley, John Baker, Errol Fletcher and Peter Jones at a mushroom conference in 1970s

Now looking at Maraylya today are there still many people growing mushrooms? There were quite a lot of little establishments when you were growing up?


What does it look like today in terms of what they are growing now?

There’s very few. There’s the farm that we had which we sold is going. The Power family up on Boundary Road, the Daley farm has been closed for some time which is at Maguire’s Road which was also a very good farm. A lot of the small ones are gone so it seems like it’s the bigger players are actually getting bigger and doing a brilliant job. They’re really going well. I think quality assurance…we became quality assured before we sold the farm. I panicked about that a little bit, we went through that with flying colours. But every six months you had to take all your equipment and have it checked to see that it was telling the truth. Then you’d be audited by the quality assurance people and a lot of smaller farms I think they thought “oh this is it, I don’t want to do all that, because I haven’t had that in the past”. And fortunately the younger people don’t have a problem with that. The younger people know that that’s how life is in Australia today and you’ve got to document what you are doing.

So when the smaller mushroom farms closed down what replaced them? Were people saying we’ll grow other crops or not producing anything at all? How is it today?

In my opinion most of the people that I firstly think of that had been in it for a fair few years like myself and either semi-retired….There doesn’t seem as though around the Maraylya area apart from a couple of market garden with some Maltese people. There is very little farming done in Maraylya, very little. It seems as though it’s more of a place where people have rural living on acreage. I’m running cows myself but its not big enough acreage to do as well as I’d like. I know in the Baulkham Hills Shire there’s a place called Horse World in Maguire Road. They’ve just started the new dancing horses called El Caballo Blanco have just moved in.

Are people waiting to see if it is subdivided to see if they can sell their land?

I know a lot of people that would like to if they could have their land subdivided. They would like to sell some of their land or have some subdivided off for some of their children. In the Windsor side of Boundary Road its five acre zone and on the Baulkham Hills side its one hundred acre minimum. Apart from some of the smaller lots that were created when the rules were different. I don’t know what is going to happen. There is quite a few people live around the area, but I guess most of the population increase would be from the Hawkesbury side of Boundary Road. Boundary Road is the boundary between Baulkham Hills and The Hawkesbury. I think there is some subdivision going on that’s been a release area down Boundary Road towards the Windsor Road. There’s going to be something happening in the coming years. But it’s a few years away I think.

Has the population increased a lot in Maraylya in the last forty or fifty years would you say? Or is it still very small?

I think it has increased a bit. A lot of the people coming to the Maraylya School are probably coming from the Hawkesbury side as well. If you’re talking the Baulkham Hills side as well there wouldn’t be the amount of increase compared to when you throw in the people that live on the Windsor side.

Aerial view of Cox's mushroom farm Cattai Ridge Road Maraylya

So it’s still a very rural area?


But are people actually caring for the land like they used to in the olden days?

I think a lot of people do a fair job with their land. They’re not grooming it like they were when they were farming it and keeping it nice. You know that was their living it was more viable when they were farming.

How have the life styles changed for the people living there now? From when you’re looking back towards the fifties and sixties what are the big differences now?

I’d say that most of the people that live in the area are going away to work. They’re getting in the car and driving somewhere else to work. The ones that have to have a living because I don’t think there’s too many making a living out of their land.

Now when you were growing up you said there was a post office and a general store and that was about it. Is it still like that now or is there a shopping centre?

It’s really still like that now, still like that now. Only that the general store now is on Boundary Road which is a hundred metres or so from where it was on the corner of Boundary and Neich Road it was up there. But it’s more service station and a larger general store. There’s no post office anymore, it’s not needed. So there is the school which is a bit bigger. The school is there and the larger service station and general store.

So you can’t say that it has really grown that much?

Hasn’t really grown that much in my book, no.

Now if there was a threat to the existence of Maraylya in the future what would that threat be now do you think?

I don’t think there’d be any threat because it’s a lovely area. It’s very closely located to Sydney. Anyone that lives in Maraylya can hop in a car and head down and be in Sydney within less than an hour. Especially if they take the M2 whereas people who live on the west of the Hawkesbury River they’re another twenty or thirty minutes away from the city. It is a good living area.

A good place to live?

Yes, yes.

Cattai Creek fish passage 2007

Talking about improvements in Maraylya what would you say were the big improvements over that period?

The roads, there’s good electricity supplies pretty well all around. I guess it’s mainly roads I think because there were always roads, but the roads were fairly rugged in the old days when there was no tar.

Could you get isolated in a flood or if it rained a lot?

If there were floods you could nearly always find a way out. There was a road that you’d go that was nearly a flood free road. You’d come up Boundary Road and turn off Old Pitt Town Road and head down Box Hill. The locals all knew their way around a few little tracks that would get you out of the place.