Mushrooms IDel Stewart

Gary Crouch’s father called him up one day in 1981 and told him that he wanted to buy a mushroom farm. To this, Crouch had two basic questions: "Why?" and, "What do you know about growing mushrooms?"

From a purely rational point of view, the answers were anything but satisfactory. But that day, Crouch—anything if not a rational person—took a leap of faith. A developer at the time, his life also took a turn. He might have felt he was part of a Monty Python sketch: Now for something completely different.

Fast forward to 2011 and he is the owner of Mountain Meadow Mushrooms in Escondido. A relatively large operation north of the city, it’s still small enough that it is imprinted with the personality of its owner. There, financial success and efficiency coexist with a sustainable approach to agriculture. The whole operation is obviously run by someone who absolutely loves what he’s doing, and who takes the role of farmer—food provider to those of us who would otherwise starve—very seriously.

Back in 1981, though, the farm was very much a work in progress. It sold a couple of hundred pounds of white mushrooms a week, produced in six little growing rooms by five or six employees.

In 1981, it took 90 days to grow a mushroom. Now, that growing period has been reduced to 63 days.

Crouch’s father saw the potential, and he had pretty good vision. 27 years later the farm is shipping around 100,000 pounds a week, and 70 employees keep it running smoothly.

The path between 1981 and 2011 was an entrepreneurial one. They bootstrapped it, which is basically funding the business with its own income, and which requires squeezing every dime out of every thing. If you decide you need x, figure out how to live with y. This growth strategy is also subject to the First Maxim of Potential Wealth: The owner gets paid last.

But the First Corollary of the First Maxim is that sacrifice, efficiency and careful planning result in success. This discipline allows organizations like Mountain Meadow to weather hard times and to adapt to changing markets. Indeed, Crouch and his father proved once again that farming is a business.

The farm now consists of twenty six growing rooms, each at least twice as big as the original six. This scaling up in size would be the most obvious change to an outsider, but increasing production to 100,000 pounds per week was not all due to expanded facilities.

When Crouch and his father arrived at Mountain Meadow, the whole mushroom growth cycle was something that was begging for a basic business productivity review.

In 1981, it took 90 days to grow a mushroom. Now, that growing period has been reduced to 63 days. Crouch gained this extra growing efficiency by looking at each phase of the mushroom’s growth cycle and making it more efficient. Some phases were shortened by a day, some more than that.  All in all, the effort reduced the time it takes to produce a mushroom by almost 30 days, which means that, in the same space, Mountain Meadow can harvest more than two extra crops per year.

Mountain Meadow’s biggest crop is white mushrooms, that ubiquitous variety that we all think of when we think of mushrooms. Other types grown there are criminis, which is a different strain of white mushroom that takes a little longer to grow, and portobellos, which are actually mature criminis. Crouch also grows a variety called Agaricus blazei, or almond mushroom, well known for its medicinal qualities as well as its wonderful taste.

If something goes wrong in that period, it's about twenty more days before the farmer realizes that his “pants are on fire...”

“When you’re growing inside a room where you’ve got your own air conditioning and your own heat,” Crouch says, “you would think that you basically control your own destiny.” Indeed, 70% of the mushroom growth cycle is inside and highly controlled and controllable. The rest of the cycle, however, is mostly outside. It’s during this first part of the cycle that a mushroom farmer realizes that he has a lot in common with the first guy who planted a seed and waited for it to grow, who first prayed for rain and then prayed for the rain to stop, and then prayed for other things that he either had too much of, or too little of, and had no real control over. “Thirty percent of what we make is outside,” Crouch says, “and it’s subject to nature and what it wants to throw at you.”

Those first phases, taking about 20 days, are associated with preparing the growth medium. If something goes wrong in that period, it's about 20 more days before the farmer realizes that his “pants are on fire” as Crouch puts it.

“If you make good compost, then you’re going to get good mushrooms,” Crouch says. “If you’re in the process of making that compost and something happens meteorologically and your compost is compromised, you fill the growing room with this material and at the end of the 43 day growing period you’re going to have no mushrooms.”

Two major weather events can impact the composting phase: rain and heat.

Right before Christmas 2010, it rained almost a foot in Escondido. “During the first two inches of rain we don’t panic,” Crouch explains. “To get a little bit of natural rainwater in the compost is good. But after two inches, it ceases to be good.” Besides covering the compost piles with tarps, the mixture can also be changed in order to deal with excess moisture. “We tripled up on the cottonseed hulls, which soaked up water. We added more gypsum, obviously didn’t add any more water and increased the pasteurization time.” The crop affected by the winter rain matures in early to mid February, but Crouch is confident. “We did all these things in order to have good mushrooms in February, and we think we will. The crops so far look good, but I know that the industry as a whole today is short, and it’s short because of what happened in December.”

Cold isn’t usually a problem because the biological process inside a compost pile creates its own heat. But a really hot day, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, is a problem. It changes the chemistry of the compost in such a way that it grows lots of things but not edible mushrooms. “It’s not mycelium friendly,” Crouch says. “If the ambient temperature is too hot, you don’t get the convection and the compost goes anaerobic. We put tubes under the ricks [compost piles] that blow air up into them and keep the convection going. Even in normal weather, the core of a compost rick can reach 180 degrees Farenheight, but on a 100+ degree day, almost the entire rick can reach that temperature, which causes it to go anaerobic and ruins it. You can tell by the smell. “When you smell good compost,” Crouch explains, “it smells like the earth. It’s a good smell.”

As much as Crouch is an efficient businessperson, statements like that also make it clear that he is a farmer to the core. Any business requires vision and intuition and other qualities that don’t show up on spreadsheets, farming especially. It’s the proper mixture of mind and heart that makes Crouch and his operation a success.

The biggest future project for Mountain Meadow Mushrooms is a biomass boiler system. “We are in a two-year process of building a biomass boiler. The heat for the growing rooms is currently provided by steam, which is created by two broilers that burn a lot of fuel.” The biomass boiler will burn wood chips, it will burn wood pallets, it will burn compost, it will burn the trees that SDGE trims. “It’s green waste, it’s sustainable, it’ll keep all that from going into the landfills, and it will produce all the electricity and all the heat that the farm needs. We will then be the first truly 100% sustainable agricultural enterprise,” Crouch says. “We will live off of ourselves. The waste that we generate will be used to grow our mushrooms.”

“We want to be San Diego’s source for fresh, sustainable mushrooms,” Crouch says with the clarity that entrepreneurs have when they pronounce their mission statement. As with all good mission statements, it’s simple and to the point.