Farming in the dark

ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Roberto Ramirez admits he doesn’t care to eat mushrooms, but he loves the business of growing them.

He and business partner Gary Crouch own Mountain Meadows Mushrooms near Escondido, California. The company was established in 1952, and they are the third owners.

The operation is smaller than the huge mushroom farms in Pennsylvania, where the U.S. industry is centred, but Ramirez and Crouch have built a strong company that sells 95 percent of their production to food service outlets in Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson and Las Vegas.

“We’re a little less sophisticated than most of the big guys, but we think we do a better job than most of them,” said Crouch, who handles sales.

They employ 100 people and annually grow five to six million pounds of white button mushrooms and 1,000 lb. of oyster mushrooms.

The button mushrooms wholesale for about $1.60 per lb., and the oyster mushrooms wholesale for $4 per lb., although the demand is much less.

The oyster types are easier to grow and would be a good place to start for someone starting in the business.

However, Ramirez said there is a caveat.

“The market is not really there, and if you grow too many, you overflow the market,” he said.

Much of the work is manual labour because adding more mechanization is capital intensive.

The mushrooms are grown in compost made on the farm.

The partners obtain bedding straw from a local racetrack and turn it into compressed 1,500 lb. bales to force out oxygen and prevent fires. They also add almond shells, cottonseed meal and alfalfa screenings to the growing mix.

“Everything we grow our mushrooms on is a byproduct of somewhere else,” said farm manager David Barnes.

They bring in sterilized milo seeded with mushroom spores from a facility in New Mexico.

This mixture rototilled into the growing bed, and thread-like branches called mycelium soon appear. The mushrooms grow out of the fibres.

It takes 60 days from the time the spores are spread until harvest. The company gets 5.8 harvests a year.

The farm operates every day because growing in the darkened rooms does not pause. Mushrooms can double in size in 24 hours.

“On a mushroom farm, there is no stop button. We have to pick everyday,” Barnes said.

“If you don’t pick one day, all of a sudden those 15,000 pounds of mushrooms become number twos and you have cost yourself 30 cents a lb.”

The beds are picked three times every four days. The houses are then cleaned out and the compost given away to local gardeners and other farms. The beds receive new growing material and the process is repeated.

The farm is a large employer in the area, but labour is a major issue because it is intensive hand work.

The newest set of employees are Burmese. Many came from refugee camps and settled in San Diego.

Minimum wage is $10 per hour, but the state wants to increase it to $15, which agri-businesses see as a major cost.

California heavily regulates agricultural enterprises. Mountain Meadows Mushrooms does not dispose of any water, and the local creek must be tested regularly to make sure no farm effluent is present.

Barnes said strict regulations, increasing wages and a shrinking labour pool means the sector is not going to grow.

“You will probably never see another mushroom farm open in California,” he said.

The nearest farm from Mountain Meadows is almost 500 kilometres away.

Contact barbara.duckworth@producer.com

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