From VCStar.com, The Ventura County Star, Stephanie Hoops, 23 Apr 2011.
Business preserves jobs, adds jobs, and boosts production as well
The stench. The union battles. The fire.
Mention Ventura County’s only mushroom farm to a local resident and these are the things that immediately come to mind.
Nobody knows that better than the new owners of the California Mushroom Farm. They spent the past few years figuring out how to bring the operation up to speed, and they’re still tackling the stigma.
“That farm is iconic,” said owner James Ciarrocchi. “It’s a shame it got that reputation. All that preceded us.”
The smell that so many people speak of came from a fire in 2001 that burned the giant compost piles that feed the mushrooms. It lasted for three weeks and created a stinky cloud that winds carried across Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo.
On a recent afternoon, the smell of the steaming piles of compost — a mixture of hay, horse bedding from Southland race tracks, cottonseed meal, grape pomace, gypsum and almond hulls — was noticeable, but only when standing a few yards away.
Since Jan. 1, 2009, Ventura County Air Pollution Control Officer Michael Villegas said he has had three odor complaints about the farm, just east of Ventura Harbor.
“The complaints have dwindled down,” he said.
As for the bitter conflicts that once existed between managers and the union, those too have calmed.
“It’s a good relationship that we have with them,” said Lauro Barajas, regional director for the United Farm Workers in Santa Maria, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. “We helped them build a good relationship, little by little.”
Second-largest farm in state
Mushrooms have never been a big-money crop locally, with the California Mushroom Farm being the only grower in Ventura County. That said, it is one of California’s largest mushroom farms, second only to Monterey Mushrooms in Watsonville. It also is one of just eight nationwide that sells in excess of 20 million pounds annually.
It began in a converted chicken house in 1937 and changed hands many times over the past 75 years. Owners included West Foods Inc., Castle & Cooke, Mushroom King Inc. and PictSweet Mushroom Farms, a division of United Foods Inc.
The full history is difficult to track, but newspaper clippings indicate it was a successful operation in 1967 when West Foods owned it. At the time, there were 110 employees and annual sales were $4.6 million.
In 1981, owner Castle & Cooke was fighting with the union. A lockout of union members before their contract expired resulted in litigation and a lost appeal for Castle & Cooke. UFW members received a $1 million settlement for lost wages, bad faith bargaining and back pay.
Castle & Cooke sold the farm to Mushroom King of Santa Rosa in April 1985. But financial struggles ensued, with the farm losing money after a new UFW contract was negotiated and production prices rose.
In early 1987, more than 350 workers’ paychecks bounced. Then they were locked out when the farm fell into foreclosure. The bank let them reopen for a few days to harvest the fragile produce but the farm manager estimated the setback cost the farm $400,000.
The bank allowed an Oregon farm manager named John Stout, who set up Oak Grove Mushroom Inc., to run the farm until a permanent buyer could be found.
Ten months later, in October 1987, PictSweet was running the show, and for 17 years the union was unable to get a contract for PictSweet workers.
In 2001, the fire erupted in a 3.2-acre compost pile that stood 15- to 20-feet high — three times its normal size because labor disputes had slowed production. The fire tarnished the farm’s name and the county threatened it with fines of up to $75,000 a day.
In September 2004, shortly after the union finally got a contract in place, hundreds of workers were given their notice: At the end of the year, PictSweet would close the farm.
Pickers who had worked there for decades and seen the farm’s ups and downs, found it hard to believe. They’d also heard rumors that new owners might be coming.
Ciarrocchi family ushers in a new era
As PictSweet readied to close the doors, word of the farm’s predicament traveled to a mushroom-growing family in southeastern Pennsylvania, the nation’s “mushroom capital.” Ciarrocchi and his brother headed west to investigate.
Despite the farm’s problems, they were impressed to learn it was the largest mushroom farm in Southern California, capable of producing 25 million pounds annually. They saw it as an opportunity to expand and decided to buy.
The deal was completed and the operation was renamed the California Mushroom Farm. The brothers promised to preserve jobs and work with the union and, by all accounts, they’ve held true to their word.
Between 350-380 of the farm’s employees are union members, according to the UFW.
The farm just hired 40 new employees, according to General Manager Jack Reitnauer, who said they have a total of about 487.
“You’ve got to be fair with people and you’ve got to be honest,” Reitnauer said. “If you like what they’re doing, be honest. If you don’t like what they’re doing, be honest.”
Salvador Aguayo will have worked at the farm 40 years in June. Taking a moment to step down from a tractor used to turn the compost, he spoke through a translator, saying the work and production has stabilized in recent years.
“I work 60 hours and it’s steady work,” he said. “It’s not up and down like it was before.”
Trudy Seymour has worked at the farm for 27 years, now in the accounting department. She said the Ciarrocchis had new ideas.
One was to fix what was stopping the farm from producing to capacity. Why were they only cranking out 16 to 18 million pounds annually? It took six years to figure it out.
Mushrooms feed off compost that is aerobic — requiring oxygen to decompose — and the compost they were using wasn’t always so.
“We had this constant struggle for six years of up and down production,” Ciarrocchi said. “Then we finally found our best production was when we had the Santa Ana winds.”
So they began rotating the compost piles toward the prevailing wind. That was the solution.
Now they are up to 25 to 26 million pounds annually, and the first quarter of 2011 was the best quarter the Ciarrocchis have had in Ventura. The company declined to provide annual sales figures.
Their customers include Safeway, Whole Foods, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s Pizza, Sysco Food Service and 99¢ Only stores.
“We have a lot of catching up to do to make up for a lot of lost time,” Ciarrocchi said. “We stuck with it and put a lot of our own money back into the farm because there was a lot of potential and you’ve got a lot of good people out there. We didn’t want to abandon the business. We knew we could make it work.”
See photo slide show at source: VCStar.com, The Ventura County Star, “A new era for Ventura County’s only mushroom farm” by Stephanie Hoops, 23 Apr 2011.