Rona Denque of Corella, Bohol never thought that one day she would be handling pots and bags instead of papers and pens. When Rona switched from career to another, she found that the new venture was not fulfilling its potential.

But instead of giving up on it and returning to her lending business, she pushed on and continued to improve until she reached the peak of the mushroom industry. Our Mushroom Queen managed through some tough times by improving every aspect of her new business; which eventually led her to become a leading figure within this blooming industry!

A Gloomy History

Initially, Rona saw farming as a way to de-stress from her lending business. At first, she would harvest her organically grown vegetables for personal consumption while selling surplus to her friends.

But out of curiosity, Rona decided to farm oyster mushrooms. To ensure a healthy harvest, she did her research by interviewing mushroom farmers who were knowledgeable about the

process. Even though the public held a negative impression on mushrooms, Rona believed it had huge potential in the market.

That was when the Green Thumb Farm was born.

But shifting from lending to farming proved to be a challenge for Rona. As a budding entrepreneur who was just learning the ins and outs of the trade, she had difficulty selling her mushrooms.

While she had an impressive harvest at one point, most of them ended up as hog food. Desperate to make a profit, she decided to

sell the mushrooms to the public market. However, the consumers were still not interested.

How the DTI Opened Up an Opportunity

Rona was eager to turn things around, so she took a Food Safety Seminar from the Negosyo Center-BOSS (Business One Stop Shop) of Bohol. She learned how to test the shelf life of her products and how to handle and store processed food correctly.

From that point, she continued to learn new things that could help her business succeed. She attended seminars and trainings, such as the Kapatid Mentor ME Program. She also attended product development courses, with further help from DTI and Negosyo Center.

Rona learned about other aspects such as product improvement through packaging and labeling designs, food taste and shelf life recommendations from a DTI resident Food Technologist, and free assistance through Negosyo Center.

With the help of these trainings, Rona began to turn things around. She processed her mushrooms into chicharon, chili sauce, pickled mushrooms, and tocino. On top of these, she inked deals with major wholesalers that led to the popularity of her mushroom products in Cebu and Mindanao.

Pandemic Produces a Spore of Hope

Just as Rona began to reap the benefits of her mushroom business venture, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. When the national lockdown was announced, she had difficulty transporting her harvest intended for the National Food Fair.

“A substantial number of products expired due non-movement of inventory,” she remembers.

But she had to do something, or the pandemic would severely affect her employees. Rona participated in barter events and exchanged mushroom products for rice and groceries to ease her employee’s difficult economic situation.

Rona’s desire to help her employees inspired her to look for ways to rise above the effects of the pandemic. She noted that visitors who come for training in her farm often look for a place to eat after visiting.

Since the quarantine regulations have been easing up, people wanted to try new things such as eating in restaurants. Diners now prefer open areas for health and safety reasons. Seeing a golden opportunity, Rona and her husband came up with Al Fresco dining.

In a short time, the couple’s vacant and lifeless lot in Green Thumb Farm was transformed to a stress-free and peaceful outdoor dining facility. The al fresco restaurant serves mushroom- based meals harvested from Rona’s farm — providing a true farm to table experience.

To help her fellow KMME graduates, Rona decided to source hot drinks and desserts from them and added them to her menu.

They even sold artisanal soaps for souvenirs. “Collaboration was a key factor in the positive response to our restaurant,” expressed Rona.

“It’s being single minded and innovative that gave me the strength to survive the challenges today.”

Towards a Blooming Future

Rona’s Al Fresco restaurant has since expanded its business hours from appointment-only weekends to week-long operations. The expanded operations have resulted in demand for new jobs.

Because of this development, Rona has decided to hire displaced workers and a PWD in Bohol. Now, the overwhelming demand for her mushrooms has resulted in job security for her employees and the farmers around Corella.

Looking back, Rona Denque said that her learnings from DTI helped her navigate the new normal. “The lessons from the trainings especially from Kapatid Mentor Micro Enterprise (KMME) Program struck me the most,” she said. Without those seminars and trainings, Rona added that she would not have thought about adjusting to the current situation and would instead simply close her business.

“It’s being singled minded and innovative that gave me the strength to survive the challenges today,” quipped Rona.

Indeed, Rona has found an innovative way to make mushrooms one of the blooming industries in Bohol. Through her continuous research and innovation, she developed a way to sustain a unique business amidst the challenges brought by the pandemic. ♦