Ventura County's Support-Local Program

Splendid Fungus Among Us

The California Mushroom Farm is Ventura’s largest employer and, contrary to popular belief, isn’t very stinky at all.

The California Mushroom Farm

The buildings are enormous utilitarian bricks, ranked with evenly-spaced, plain green doors, in vertical pairs, twenty-plus feet apart. Pick any of the nondescript green doors, each bearing a single white number; inside, just to the right, a wooden staircase ascends to a second level and another room identical to this one. In all there are eighty-seven such rooms, each hundreds of feet long, nearly ten thousand square feet per, reserved for the single purpose of Ventura’s The California Mushroom Farm; in the dim light a vast array of wooden soil beds, stacked four tiers high, stretches into the distance. The soil beds are filled with compost; the smell is earthy, not in the least unpleasant.

The rooms have been planted in succession – in the first, the beds reveal only steaming compost; when the door is opened a bank of moist, hot air issues like a sustained breath. A few doors down, the rooms are quiet and cool; the compost has been “spawned,” and is speckled with countless white dots. Farther down the line, the soil has sprouted countless “pins,” the tiny heads of what will become harvested mushrooms. Still father down, and the beds are festooned with a superabundance of clustered mushrooms, scores of thousands of pounds per harvest, an astounding testament to fertility and abundance.

In the final rooms of the cycle, only a few weeks from the time the raw compost was “spawned,” a flurry of activity has commenced. Tents have been set up outside the door; beneath the tents, boxes of cut mushrooms are stacked on pallets, awaiting collection. Workers move from the room with still more boxes, and within, they swarm among the soil beds at all four levels, efficiently harvesting the dusky crop.

Such is the modus operandi of The California Mushroom Farm; all mushrooms, all the time — that, and the cultivation of the compost that catalyzes and supports all that growth. The compost ferments on the expansive grounds adjacent to the growing houses, acres of it, weathering the elements in long, tall rows, periodically wetted and turned by specialized machines. Massive yellow front-end loaders fussily tend the rows, moving along and between them like great mechanical nannies, hefting great buckets of the steaming mix from here only to deposit it there, according to a protocol that’s entirely mysterious to the casual viewer. If not for the obvious industry of the place, they could simply be playing at Tonka Trucks; the work does look like fun.

Totally Local VC’s Kat Merrick recently visited the Farm, hosted by their own Russ Stoltz, who offered a guided tour and fielded a few of her questions:

TLVC: Help me understand how distribution works: the mushrooms go from here to LA, and come back with a distributor?

RS: It depends on who’s buying them. We’re a major grower/seller, we don’t typically ship to end users, like Jimmy’s Slice or Winchester’s. Usually a restaurant is going to buy from a food service company like Sysco, or The Berry Man – they’re a big local produce distributor…

TLVC: So The Berry Man carries your mushrooms?

RS: The Berry Man is our customer, yes. Many times when people think they might not be buying local — from someone like The Berry Man, for example, they actually are. There are really only two places you’re going to get mushrooms in California, you’re going to get them from us, or from Monterey Mushroom.

TLVC: Isn’t there a grower in Carpinteria?

RS: If so, maybe they’re doing exotics, shitakes or oysters or something like that; we don’t do a lot of that trade. We sell maybe two hundred pounds of oyster mushrooms per week — and we sell something like five hundred thousand pounds of everything else.

TLVC: What are your primary varieties?

RS: There are two basic kinds, your white and your brown: the white is what you’ll find on pizza, or in those little packages in the supermarket. Then there’s brown – that’s your crimini and your portobello (and the only difference between them are size); we do a mix, about 85% white and 15% brown.

TLVC: How long have you been here?

RS: About sixty years – longer than I’ve been here, and I was born in Ventura. I’m Totally Local. (laughs) We were built in 1959, and they expanded in the sixties and seventies. We employ about 460 people, and it’s year-round growing, so the work isn’t seasonal.

TLVC: You’re the largest privately owned employer in Ventura. All the growing is indoor?

RS: Yes, and that’s has to do with temperature and humidity control.

TLVC: Everyone we’ve met who’ve been here has said ‘You’ve got to check out the mushroom place, it’s so cool. Smelly, but very cool.’

RS: It’s really not very smelly, in truth. The growing rooms don’t smell at all – some smell comes from the compost, that’s outside, fermenting. Every now and then if the wind shifts you might catch it. But these days that’s rare; we haven’t had an odor complaint in over a year.

TLVC: Funny, the impression persists.

RS: People don’t really know much about us – they either remember the big fire a couple of years ago, or that they have the idea that it stinks here.

TLVC: That’s the first comment – “P.U.”

RS: Despite the impression, it’s really not bad. What happens is that if the compost gets anaerobic out there, when it doesn’t have proper airflow through it, it can get stinky. But they’ve corrected the airflow problem out there, and it hasn’t been a problem since.

The other thing is that there’s a sewage treatment plant just down the street; people in the Keys will smell the sewage treatment plant and assume it’s the mushroom farm. We’re not growing – or using – sewage here! Ninety-eight percent of the compost is just decomposing hay – straw from racetracks. People seem to think that mushrooms grow from poop, but really that’s not the case at all.

TLVC: The owners are in Pennsylvania, yes?

RS: Half the mushrooms grown in the country come from within one hundred miles of Philadelphia, yes. It’s the mushroom capital of America.

TLVC: How long does it take from planting to harvest?

RS: From the day we fill a room with compost until we’re able to pick mushrooms it’s about 45 days.

TLVC: Do you have any plans to distribute locally direct to the public?

RS: Oh, we have a store here on the premises, open to the public. It’s small, the foyer to our sales office. Many locals know it’s there, they come right to us to get fresh mushrooms.

TLVC: I know where we’re going next!

 

The California Mushroom Farm, 4440 Olivas Park Drive, Ventura. Store hours, M-F 7:30 to 3:00, Saturday 8:00 to Noon. For more information call (805) 642-3253.
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Learn more about author James Scolari

James Scolari

About the author

James Scolari is a writer and photographer. Though his seedling sprouted in other soil, after transplanting to the Gold Coast it has flourished and bears fruit in Ventura throughout the seasons. Late of local print journalism, Scolari edits TLVC content for publication and offers odds and ends from his own pen. He's also a staffer and advocate for Ventura's Rubicon Theatre, and teaches his own brand of image-making in the ongoing Mind's Eye photo workshops. Check out his website at www.JamesScolari.com.

 

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2 Comments

  1. What a wonderful and informative piece and such a surprise! I didn’t know that Ventura had such a treasure and I can’t wait to visit and buy “fresh” mushrooms. Thank you, Jim, I really enjoyed reading this and learning about our hidden treasures.

  2. Great article Jim, I have lived in Ventura for many years and did not know this business existed!

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