Shroomin’ it up
August 30, 2010
By Sheila Julson
At the end of a dusty road in Burlington, Wis., lined with wood-slat homes and people seated on wraparound porches enjoying the summer breeze, sits a country store reminiscent of days gone by. In the lush fields and farm structures behind the store grow the products that end up on its shelves-tomatoes for homemade pasta sauces, corn for corn relish, and garlic and beans to be pickled and canned.
And mushrooms. Lots and lots of mushrooms, to be sold fresh at the store and at various farmers markets, as well as for the farm’s specialty products including pickled mushrooms, Portabella chili, and Portabella salsa.
Eric Rose, owner of River Valley Ranch & Kitchens, said his father started growing mushrooms in 1972. His family is originally from Chicago, and Rose said they owned several different restaurants throughout the Windy City in the 1950s and 1960s.
When Rose was in his early 20s, after “doing the Woodstock thing and listening to rock and roll,” he helped his father when he was shorthanded and became intrigued by the growing process. River Valley Ranch & Kitchens now grows five varieties of mushrooms and assorted produce on 37 acres. Rose sells to farmers markets in the Milwaukee area and throughout Chicago, and also sells produce and canned products at the store and to restaurants. River Valley Ranch & Kitchens is in its fifth year at the South Shore Farmers Market.
Rose said he has noticed an increased awareness in recent years on the part of consumers about where their food comes from, plus an increasing focus on healthful food. This has led to an uptick in business, Rose said, even after business dipped when varieties of mushrooms became more readily available in grocery stores.
“It’s not easy to grow good food,” Rose said. River Valley Ranch & Kitchens uses no pesticides or chemicals on its mushrooms or produce.
While mushrooms have nutritional value, Rose said their flavor is more the selling point. Some people enjoy the meaty taste of a Portabella mushroom on its own, as a vegetarian substitute for a hamburger patty, while others use mushrooms to enhance a meal.
Portabella, Crimini (known more commonly as Baby Bella), White Button, Oyster, and Shiitake mushrooms are grown year-round in five cool, dim growing houses, each with a crop in a different stage of development. Rose said rotating the crop yields 8,000 pounds of mushrooms per week.
Nestled in eight-inch-deep wood trays, Portabella and Crimini mushrooms pop their domed tops through a combination of 80-percent compost and a mixture of peat moss and limestone. Portabella and Crimini mushrooms are actually the same mushroom, Rose said, just harvested at different stages.
Growing methods vary slightly for the other varieties. Rose displayed a sawdust block approximately the size of a cinderblock. Shiitake mushrooms of assorted sizes sprouted in all directions from the block.
On separate shelves, clear plastic bags slightly larger than grocery store bags were stuffed with pasteurized straw and calcium. This mixture provided the developing environment for Oyster mushrooms, which emerged through slits in the clear plastic.
For all varieties, the growing cycle is quick, Rose said, with Oyster mushrooms maturing within five days. Others mature in about one week.
Rose said some challenges with mushroom cultivation are mushroom flies and fungal viruses that attack the mushrooms, reducing the pounds yielded. He’s nearly completed three years’ worth of upgrades to improve sanitation and efficiency, and recently purchased a new ventilation system.
As for a favorite mushroom, Rose joked that it’s “whatever one we have too many of.”
More Than Mushrooms
Outside of the mushroom growing houses, fields of asparagus, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and squash blend into the rural landscape. Rose said the produce is both to sell fresh and for use in the products they offer at the store and the farmers markets. Most of the pickled vegetables, sauces, and salsas they sell are their own recipes. Rose said they also have worked with chefs, including Rick Bayless of Chicago’s Frontera Grill, to create recipes.
Much of the weeding is done by hand. Rose said the number of employees fluctuates, but is usually “30-something” among the farm, the store, and the kitchen. As for the produce, Rose said he doesn’t do his own seed starts, but orders plants from local businesses.
Rose paused to pluck a Japanese beetle from an asparagus fern. “These are menacing. There’s not many natural methods to get rid of them.” Rose crushed the dime-sized pest and flicked it into the distance, and said they’ve been a problem for farmers this season, and will lead to a lower plant yield next year.
Rose, like most small farmers, must constantly be creative with ways to protect his livelihood given the challenges of Wisconsin’s drastic climate swings. While checking the rows of Anaheim chili peppers, basil, and eggplant, Rose said they’ve expanded crops this season to make up for losses last year due to the cool weather. Warm temperatures this summer have led to a more bountiful harvest.
River Valley Ranch & Kitchens also offers mushroom kits for sale for those interested in growing their own mushrooms.
Despite the challenges of producing quality pesticide-free food, and the long hours involved with farming, Rose said it’s rewarding to hear feedback from customers who notice a difference in the quality of sustainable agriculture versus commercially grown food. He hopes the interest in good food stays strong.
More info: rivervalleykitchens.com.
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