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Morgan Hill
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May 22, 2022

The myths of mushrooms

Inside the dimly lit room, No. 13, the air is a chilling 50-something degrees. The slightly damp air makes no difference to the tiny flies that are attracted to the purple fly zapper in the entrance, with the occasional “zzzz” sound. Rows and rows of about 10-foot-high boxed containers of a brown compost are sprouting something white on one side of the room, something slightly brown and large on the other. These are one of Morgan Hill’s most prized commodities: mushrooms.

The Royal Oaks Mushrooms farm has been in Morgan Hill since 1983. The farm itself previously was Alpine Mushrooms, owned by the Vigilanti brothers of Connecticut since 1953.

Owner Don Hordness took over the farm in the ’80s after working at what is now Monterey Mushroom. When asked why he made the move to owning his own farm instead of working for one, he put it simply: “I needed work and a job.”

The farm produces 4 million pounds of mushrooms in a year, about 75,000 mushrooms a week.

“Every pound you sell is a thank you,” said Hordness.

Prices per pound are fairly low, ranging from $1 to $2 depending on the variety. Their prices have only been raised once in the past 15 years, said Robert Vantassel, operations manager. The farm focuses on three types: the common Agaricus bisporus, known to most as the white button mushroom, cremini and a ‘baby’ portabella.

Vantassel gave the Times an exclusive tour around the facility to dispel some of the myths surrounding mushrooms.

Myth buster: Mushrooms smell

Mushroom farms have been known in Morgan Hill to carry a certain, well, stench.

Hordness said there’s no denying that the smell of mushroom farms can cause a disturbance with nearby neighbors.

“If you can imagine having messages on your message machine everyday, complaining about the smell,” said Hordness of the many phone calls. “This place has been here since 1953. I just said, ‘I don’t want the hassle. I don’t want to listen to these people complain.’ ”

So tired of those phone calls, Hordness took things into his own hands and moved a vital part of the mushroom farming business offsite: the compost.

Busting another myth, mushrooms need compost, not dirt to grow and prosper.

Most mushroom compost is made using horse manure, which can cause that potent smell. It’s not the mushrooms themselves that have the stench, it’s the smell of the compost being created.

So Hordness purchased a piece of property far away from the farm itself, near Fraiser Lake in Hollister, for one purpose: to make compost. Each week a load of compost is shipped in to Royal Oaks.

The compost the farm uses is made synthetically, said Vantassel, the term used for compost not made with horse manure. Royal Oaks uses straw, nearly 2,000 pounds of wheat bale, millet, cotton seed mill, soy bean, bird seed and dried chicken manure instead of horse manure.

It’s a 30-day process to make the compost: every other day the mixture is moved around for three weeks. At the end of that time, it’s put into a compost machine that makes long, square piles of compost called ricks. Then, it’s turned again every other day for 10 days until it’s ready to be shipped to the farm and filled into trays.

“During that whole process, you take this nice bright colored straw and turn it into a caramel-colored compost that hopefully has the right amount of nutrition to support the bacteria growth,” said Vantassel.  

The compost, and that essential bacterium, becomes the feeding source for the mushrooms once they start growing. After the compost is filled into trays using a filling machine, it is mixed with the spawn, or simply put the “seeds” of mushrooms. Eventually the spawn attach themselves to the compost in the early stages of growth, becoming one plant and root system in each tray.

Myth buster: Mushrooms are grown in the dark

When one thinks of the word “farm” one might imagine the typical fields of agriculture: fields of caramel colored wheat, rows of yellow corn with leafy green husks or bushels of bright red cherry tomatoes bursting from the ground.

Mushrooms, on the other hand, are a little different.

Mushrooms aren’t grown outside like a typical farm. They’re grown inside. For Royal Oaks, they use wooden ‘houses’ of sorts, or large rooms filled with containers. Each room, says Vantassel, contains a different stage of the 12-week process.

“Its kind of a myth that mushrooms need to be kept under the dark. Mostly because nobody needs to be going in: there’s humidity and electricity and lights along the wall,” said Vantassel. “There are varieties that do, that require some type of ultraviolet light. Some of the reasons why we keep it in the dark are for some of the insects. There’s a mushroom fly, they use light to breed.”

The rooms for the more infant stages, about three on the farm, contain what just looks like trays of dirt, some covered with plastic. Actually inside is that 30-day compost, mixed with the mushroom spawn and peat moss which acts like a reservoir, said Vantassel.

All are carefully monitored for moisture and kept at certain temperatures, depending on the stage. Those more infant stages are about 70 to 80 degrees. Any temperature higher than 90 degrees, the root temperature would start to die.

“It even smells like mushroom already,” said Vantassel, grabbing a handful of compost and sniffing it.

In later stages, the rooms are at a more cool temperature, ranging from 50 to 60 degrees. As one makes their way down the hallway of rooms, different stages of mushroom growth can be seen. Some of those last rooms chronologically contain the second or third harvest. Once the 18 or so pickers gather the first harvest, spawn can regenerate for those second and third times, said Vantassel.

The rooms are still dimly lit, but more active: pickers place themselves between two rows of sturdy trays, about five trays high, 10 or so feet off the ground. Up top, picking mushrooms from the tray, they look like trained acrobats, but with work boots on.

Outside of every numbered room is rock salt, which kills anything potentially hazardous on the feet of workers and mushroom farmers walking in.

Royal Oaks, along with other farms in the area, however has been subject to the woes of contamination. One particular mold, trichoderma, that started in Ireland, made its way to Canada, and eventually California. It caused the farm to lose 42 kilos of production one year, or 92 pounds.

“A lot of times it will pop its head up when it rains because the spores are sticky. It’s very hard to control but it is preventable,” said Vantassel.

Before each picking, mushrooms are kept under close eye to watch out for any possible contamination and signs of harmful molds or the disease simply called ‘Bubble.’

After the mushrooms are picked, they are transported to the main building of the farm. There, a team packs them into trays, weighs them and organizes them depending on where they will be shipped.

Royal Oaks mushrooms are used in many restaurants in Morgan Hill and Gilroy and the rest are mostly sold as wholesale throughout California. Hordness said their mushrooms are sold to different companies and can be found even as far as Oregon, Nevada, Arizona or in the case of one exporter, Guam.

Royal Oaks Mushrooms are sold locally to Trader Joes. Customers can also drive right into the farm, walk up to the sales window and grab some fresh Morgan Hill grown mushrooms straight from the farm.

Customer Susanna Young and her daughter Aubrey, of Gilroy, stopped by the farm one rainy afternoon to purchase some mushrooms.

“I made chicken last night and thought, with mushrooms this would be good!” said Susanna, who said she saw the sign “fresh mushrooms” outside the farm and decided to walk in.

Royal Oaks Mushrooms will also be at this year’s Mushroom Mardi Gras celebration with their own booth to educate the general public about the shrooms and keeping Morgan Hill’s self-proclaimed “Mushroom Capitol of the World” title afloat.

Robert Vantassel, operations manager for Royal Oaks Mushrooms has a never-ending supply of mushrooms, yet says he never tires of the fungi.
His favorite way to eat them: he grabs about five pounds of cremini’s and slices them, cooks them with a cover with some salt and pepper light seasoning.
“Then I cook the water out of them, take the lid off and cook them on high heat, add some olive oil and then garlic and cook them until they’re browned,” he said.
His favorite is to add them to chicken or steak.
Don Hordness, Royal Oaks owner says portabella’s are a good replacement for meat, especially when grilled. He adds fine-chopped mushrooms to his spaghetti sauce, or tosses them in salads.  
He wants to remind Morgan Hill that “mushrooms are the only vegetable that have vitamin D in them.”

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