Mushroom Masters

An inside peek at growing mushrooms at Del Fresh

Mushroom factory weigh in Maria Lopez
WEIGH IN Maria Lopez has been working with Del Fresh at Countryside Farm in Gilroy for 11 years. She is featured above in the Del Fresh packing room. Photo: Debra Eskinazi
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So captivated by the mushroom, Egyptian pharaohs considered the famous fungi food for royalty and decreed that no commoner should touch them. The Egyptians were not alone in their reverence for the mushroom. Various civilizations in history have placed the mushroom central to religious ritual—many believing the cap produced superhuman strength. And today, even us plebeians can get our hands on the fleshy spore-bearing bodies of this oft celebrated food of immortality and prepare them at home—or indulge in all things mushroom at the annual Mushroom Mardi Gras this Memorial Day weekend.

As the local community readies itself for Morgan Hill’s 38th annual Mushroom Mardi Gras, I was invited to tour one of the Del Fresh mushroom farms to experience a day in the life of a mushroom.

Mushroom Production

Del Fresh, which owns Countryside Mushroom farm in Gilroy, and Royal Oaks in Morgan Hill, produces just a portion of the mushrooms grown in Santa Clara County. Owner Don Hordness says that between both sites they produce about 130,000-140,000 pounds a week under the Del Fresh label.

“We produce a biodegradable container of water,” Hordness says. “Mushrooms are 94-percent water. So you don’t have to recycle this—all you have to do is eat this.”

“All of the materials we start with are recycled. We’re the original recyclers. And composters. Everyone wants to compost things now—well we’ve been composting forever,” he says.

The gilled, fleshy fruit grows from an underground web of fungus in dark, moderately cool temperatures. But, they are not grown in ordinary soil, says Emily Bettencourt, Food Safety & Employee Safety Coordinator at Del Fresh Produce. “We make compost made up of a wheat straw, dried poultry meal, cottonseed meal, cottonseed hull, urea and gypsum, and so we compost that for 28 days.”

“It takes nine weeks from the start of compost to the first crop,” says Bettencourt. “We plant here one crop a week.”

Bettencourt says a few other local growers have greater yields, like Monterey Mushrooms in Morgan Hill, which plants one crop a day, producing a significant portion of the area’s 800,000 pounds of mushrooms weekly.

Because mushrooms are grown by spores, I was curious to learn how they were planted. Bettencourt says they buy “spawn” from a laboratory. “They take a piece of sterile grain, like wheat, and they are inoculated with the mushroom spores so it makes it like a plantable material for us,” she says. “Since we’re buying it from a certified laboratory, we know we’re not going to get a poisonous mushroom.”

“We’re kind of taking agricultural waste that by themselves wouldn’t be worth anything, but together we’re composting and we’re making another valuable crop,” says Bettencourt.

The temperatures have to reach 140 inside the compost piles to get the healthy bacteria that growers want. The compost is then placed into wooden growing trays and pasteurized at 160 degrees for one week.

After the initial four weeks of basic compost preparation, it takes another five to eight weeks to grow and collect the mushrooms. As a nine-to-12 week cycle, it’s a relatively quick process. Bettencourt says they grow essentially two types of mushrooms, including white button and crimini, which they thin to grow larger portobello—resulting in a third option for the consumer.

Bettencourt says they collect on average seven pounds per square foot and are able to harvest three cropping cycles from each planting.

“When we’re finished we call it spent compost,” says Bettencourt. “We empty out the trays and we have some nurseries that come to pick it up to reuse it in their potting soil. So we’re still recycling.”

Vitamin Boost

Not getting enough vitamin D from the sun? Reach for a mushroom instead. High in vitamin D, mushrooms also contain a wealth of minerals and B vitamins, from selenium to potassium, riboflavin and niacin, making them an immune-boosting, cancer-fighting powerhouse.

Organized by growers, the Mushroom Council has been looking for ways to get more mushrooms on dinner tables. For a third year in a row, the Mushroom Council has partnered with the James Beard Foundation to create the Blended Burger Project. Their goal is to create a delicious, more nutritious and sustainable burger by incorporating at least 25 percent freshly chopped mushrooms into the burger blend.

The Blended Burger Project invites top chefs around the country to add their original blended burgers to restaurant menus, and patrons can then cast their votes for the best-tasting burger.

At blenditarian.com, you can take a pledge to become a “Blenditarian”—with the chief benefits listed as: better flavor, better health, a healthier planet and a fatter wallet.

Bettencourt says they’ll be sampling blended meatballs at the Mushroom Mardi Gras education booth to encourage people to become Blenditarians and to cap off the end of National Burger Month, held each year in May.

 

Competing Forces

There are fewer than 200 mushroom growers in the United States and only a handful in Santa Clara County. But both Bettencourt and Hordness agree these growers face stiff competition with Canadian and Chinese growers.

“The demand has increased but it’s been filled in by foreign competition,” says Hordness. “We have a net loss of production because people have gone out of business. It’s very difficult to do business in California.”

Hordness says that steep regulations have made it harder for California growers to compete with growers in other states and outside of the U.S. as well.

“For every $1 I get, the Canadian grower gets $1.37,” he says. “It’s a huge disservice to ag in general.”

“Ag has always dealt in pennies,” says Hordness. “That’s how our business is and when someone comes in here and has a 37 cent benefit, it makes it very difficult.”

But how can a local consumer help?

Hordness and Bettencourt say the agriculture industry in general is having a hard time.

“If you can imagine in your own business and said, well let’s take your lowest employee and in the next five years we’re going to require you to increase their salary by 50 percent,” he says. “We’re gonna lose a lot of ag out of this state.”

“We’ll see if we’re here in a couple years,” Bettencourt says.

Simply trying to stay in business with all of the rules and regulations in California is challenging for farmers says Bettencourt.

“The higher minimum wage, the three-day sick pay, the family leave act, that all impacts a business,” she says. Bettencourt says all of the costs of business are rising from diesel and raw materials to wages and insurance.

“Our cardboard is going up for boxes,” she says. “The packaging material is going up. It’s hard to get the price and stay competitive with mushrooms coming in from Canada and even Pennsylvania.” Incidentally, Pennsylvania is the number one mushroom producing state in the U.S. Bettencourt adds that it’s hard to compete against a state where the minimum wage is $7.50 an hour.

Labor

But California growers are also facing a labor shortage.

“The problem with mushrooms is that you can grow them anywhere, because they are grown inside,” says Hordness.

But for a mushroom picker working at one of the Del Fresh farms, Bettencourt says it’s a pretty good gig. Del Fresh provides health insurance, a retirement package and a decent wage for the work.

“I think we pay well,” Hordness adds. “We have provided medical insurance to our employees since 1983. We have full time, all of our rooms are heated and air conditioned. We have guys that make $65,000-$70,000 a year picking mushrooms and they work about 40-50 hours a week.”

Buy Local

Hordness says that anything the public can do to support local agriculture would be wonderful.

“But, buying locally, that’s probably the best,” he says.

“The consumer’s going out there trying to feed their family and they are trying to do it as inexpensively a possible,” says Hordness. “But I encourage them to support their local labor. All these people in Gilroy and Morgan Hill that depend on them buying produce locally so that we can support them.”

“That’s why you should buy California Grown,” says Bettencourt, pointing to the little blue and yellow label that assures customers they’re buying a locally grown product.

“The safest mushroom you can pick is the one that you pick up at the grocery store,” says Bettencourt.

The 38th annual Morgan Hill Mushroom Mardi Gras takes place in downtown Morgan Hill on Saturday and Sunday, May 27-28. Admission is free. For more information, go to: mhmmg.org.

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