I’m here in the greater North County of San Diego with Roberto Ramirez, the owner of Mountain Meadow Mushrooms Farms Inc. Nestled in the heart of the rural area of Escondido, MMMushrooms, a PrimusGFS, USDA Organic certified farm, is loved by surrounding neighbors. This 17-acre family-run business has provided the freshest mushrooms in the SoCal market since 1952. And we are getting an exclusive tour with Roberto himself!
Roberto: Okay, well, good morning. Our process really begins with the straw that comes from the racetrack. And that’s our baler where we bale all the straw. Obviously, we’re not doing any right now. But the straw that comes during the summer, they’ll bring it here from the racetrack. As soon as they dump it, we bale it into these 2000-pound bales at about 2000 psi, so the straw doesn’t decompose. Then we’re able to utilize it throughout the year. The bales you see in the back are covered because we don’t want them to get wet and start decomposing. This is where the process begins! It is the biggest raw material that we use to grow the white mushrooms, portabellas, and cremini mushrooms. Now let’s go to the wharf area where we process the compost.
This is one of the areas that we’re currently not using because of COVID. As you can see, all the mushrooms are empty. But each room has its own air conditioner. And each air conditioner is about 25-30,000 units. One of the essential aspects of what we do with air conditioners is that when they release water, all the AC units have to exchange taking the hot air and squeezing it out. So water comes out, which is warm water. All of our water gets collected, and we pump it to our warfare area, where we make our compost. That’s where we’re going.
Danielle: You said that you started here at this farm in 1986?
Correct 1986. I started at the bottom cleaning positions, you know taking wheats out. Then I moved into the packing facility packing mushroom. When I graduated from the university, I got the role of assistant general manager. Within three to six months, I became the general manager. In 2008, I had the opportunity to buy into the farm.
Moving along, one of the things that we do is break the bales apart, and that’s the big pile you see over there. We then get them wet with the water that I showed you we recycled from around the farm. We bring it in, add the water, and start breaking it down. Now the bacteria, it’s good bacteria that starts heating up the compost. It’s called thermal fields, and they’re the ones that break it down. It uses the nutrients, breaks it down, and releases heat. And then you put more water and more heat, and it just keeps on going and going and going. That pile doesn’t have anything underneath because we simply put water on it, and that’s it. We put it over here, and then you’ll see a pipe underneath with a bunch of holes with a timer that injects air into it. Then you will see how hot it gets. It’s about 160 degrees now and steamy. You can tell by the color. It’s a little bit darker than the one over there. It continues to get darker and darker because it’s just breaking it down, hence the darker color.
We’re not even composting yet! Once this process is completed, it’s about two days or so. And then we bring it to this side and put it on the floor. The floor here has air underneath, which is the same concept that we have over there with the pipe holes to break it down even further. Now the reason we do it this way is because the wind blows naturally, air comes from the sides, and it’s like a shifting effect. And it will break it down a little bit further, more even than the pile. Right now, it’s very small piles, but we used to have 175-foot-long piles here; we call them Rick’s. There’d be six of the longer piles.
This pile’s temperatures will reach about 196, which is the highest we’ve seen. The compost again starts breaking down even further and further. And it gets to the point where it’s ready to go. Then we take it inside the house. At that point, we do the pasteurization. So here, we’re just breaking down the compost very fast way. We check pH levels; we check nitrogen content. We check the moisture content. On days like today that are windy, you can see that it’s nice and dry from the outside, so we get it wet to avoid losing the moisture content that we want in the compost. For the most part, we have around 68% moisture. Every farm seems to have different raw materials; they use about 70 to 72% moisture. Our formula, obviously for us, works at 68% moisture.
Do you think also maybe it’s the environmental conditions here that might be the reason why your temperature differs from other farms?
No, because it’s how you control the air, okay, then the relationship between air and moisture is what allows you to remain at whatever temperature you want.
Has your property always been this large?
No, it started about 10 acres, and now, we grew to about 17 acres over the years. This place started off at around 10 or 11 acres in 1952. Throughout the years, the previous owner started buying acres around the farm. The original family, I think, was Italian. From there, they sold it fairly quickly. I believe it was the De Stefano family. And from there, the Crouch family bought it. And then we did in 2008 when we had the opportunity to invest.
One of the scientific methods that we discovered to grow happy mushrooms is to utilize some sort of music in order for them to be nice and healthy. I’m just joking. I think music is great, though. This type of mushroom likes more than Hispanic music (laughing).
This is not a very sequential tour, but here we are at the end of the process. This is what we’re currently doing on the drying of the mushrooms. This is a king trumpet mushroom. This is part of our tincture program. Again, it’s a very small scale, and we’re trying to expand it very soon. So, here are the cordyceps. Do you see why it takes so long to get to the extraction? The darker it is, it tells you that it’s working. We like to let it rest for at least 30 days.
One part of the composting process is splitting the mixture into two different composts. The first one used for the white mushrooms requires more process, unlike oyster mushrooms that don’t need as much. And here’s one thing that we can check out right now, it’s just perfect timing, waiting for it to cool down to 80 degrees. Now we’re ready to put the compost in bags and grow the oyster mushrooms.
We do this to sterilize at 240 degrees, and that pasteurizes the straw. Then we can go from there into the inoculation room. The compost is pasteurized at about 140 degrees for 5 to 6 hours for the other mushrooms. With this temperature difference, obviously, a lot of the bad bacteria is killed while leaving some of the good bacteria, whereas, the sterilization, you’re pretty much killing everything. We’re growing the oyster mushrooms in buckets, so that’s where the straw goes. This is the fruiting process, the last stage of growing mushrooms. This is the second break, so it doesn’t have as many mushrooms as the first time around.
How many rounds do you do?
We do three what we call “breaks” in each house (shipping container), and then we get rid of the compost because it doesn’t have enough nutrients for mushrooms to grow.
This is the second step of how we pasteurize the compost. The concept of it is just in a very small scale of the blower on the backside. There’s a blower that injects the air from the bottom, and then all the air gets forced up through the holes. Then on the top, you see the hole over there in the middle. That’s where it extracts all the heat and then recycles it back into the container. It’s forcing air into the compost. The compost is about four times hotter because the compost itself generates heat. All we’re doing is extracting the heat and sending it back in. And it gets hotter and hotter, maintaining a good temperature.
So, you’re speeding up nature basically, in a way?
We’re allowing it the necessary conditions it needs to give us what we want, which is good compost. Remember, this is the second step of composting. From there, it goes into the room where you saw the mushrooms. Okay, so like I said, I’m going back and forth, so try not to get too confused. These are the bags that I showed you after the sterilization process where we add the spawn. This is your oyster mushroom spawn, and it starts colonizing the compost. By colonizing, I mean the fussy white stuff that you see. That’s the mycelium that is growing.
This is our Lion’s Mane and it’s barely growing on its second break. But this is a mushroom that many people rave about because it has properties to fight off Alzheimer’s and dementia. It helps people to remain focused. So it’s a good mushroom that a lot of people want to want to eat fresh, in powder form and obviously also in tincture form, which we are currently offering.
I’ll show you one more area, and this empty mushroom house is about 5,000 sf. We will grow different types of mushrooms in bags and have some serious equipment here. Oh yeah, this is the oyster mushrooms. You can go in. These are the oyster mushrooms. This is what they look like after they fruit. This is pink, and golden oyster, and these blue oyster mushrooms here. The pink oysters taste like bacon if you fry them.
And out of one of those containers, how many pounds do you think?
Well, typically, you get by efficiency about 80%. We want to get to 80% by efficiency, but that’s not always the case.
That’s the goal. Yes, realistically, we get about 50 to 60%. Once you get over 50, you’re in a good space.