Eric Rose and his family have made a huge impact sustainably farming for over 40 years at River Valley Ranch. In the 80s and 90s. In Chicago, Illinois, Bill Rose, Eric’s father, originally owned and operated a high-end French-based cuisine restaurant. “At the time, it was nearly impossible to get fresh mushrooms in the Midwest; most restaurants were using canned mushrooms that weren’t very good. One mushroom farmer seemed like a good supplier for Bill, but after the farmer inherited a huge plot of land and sold it off for a big chunk of money, his mushroom business became an afterthought,” i
Consequently, Bill sold the restaurant and launched River Vally Ranch to become a mushroom farmer in Southeast Wisconsin. Eric joined him on this trying venture where the government ended up seizing the land, forcing them to relocate. Upon that relocation, Eric’s father, Bill, perished in a horrific car accident, so he inherited the farm.
Danielle: How was it growing up with a Chicago-based food entrepreneur like your father, Bill Rose? How was it? You know, having him as a mentor?
Eric: Yeah, that he was. I would call it a good opportunity to tap into it. He was a great guy—so restless-minded, curious-minded. He was constantly rolling the rock around. He got interested in the mushroom business in his mid-50s. After 40 years in the restaurant business, he started with another fellow, Mitch, who had sold a restaurant about 15 years earlier. And this fellow had grown up in the mushroom business himself. So, my dad and Mitch put their heads together and came up with a plan. They got started on a shoestring. At that time, I was actually looking at starting up a beansprout growing operation; this was back in 77. Mitch and my father had an outbuilding that they weren’t using, so I plan to convert that building into a small grow operation. But they were short-handed on the farm, and they asked me to help them out. Since that moment, I kind of wandered in and got lost in the mushroom house, and I’m still trying to find my way out! From the very beginning, I became fascinated by the process of growing mushrooms and the whole business.
When you initially started working and mushroom farming, what varietals of mushrooms were you cultivating?
Only the white buttons. Shiitakes weren’t commercially produced at all during that time and didn’t even start to happen here in the States until the 80s. Then, the industry in the Americas was for the white button mushrooms. A few big corporate players had just jumped into the business, and the industry had gone into somewhat of a growth spurt. Some modern technologies were being introduced to what had been an extremely laborious, challenging work environment. It’s still challenging, but it’s now having some modernization in the growing houses. The grow houses were pretty nonexistent for most farms in the 70s. When I started, mushroom farmers were using miners’ lights with hard hats, and some still do.
In 78 or 79, I quickly got involved with mushroom production. My dad was kind of the business side, and I was on the production side of things. About a year and a half or two years in, we planted some brown mushrooms, just a few, to see what they looked like. I pretty much fell in love with them at first sight. And we started planting more, but they were hard to sell back then because most people thought white was right like eggs, white bread, and white mushrooms. I persevered, always planting a few ( brown mushrooms) and buying spawn at one point. So, we bought both white and brown spawn. I was buying more brown mushroom spawn for my little farm than the Campbell Soup Company planted in their 16 million pounds a year growing operation. We developed a little niche market in our area.
In the late 80s and early 90s, growers in other parts of the country cleverly started marketing them as creminis when the fully matured mushrooms were portabellas, and that was the late 80s, early 90s. And that really opened up the marketplace by opening up people’s minds to something other than the white mushroom. The appearance and then the flavor of the portabellas really got people’s attention.
Also, in the 80s, we dabbled a little bit with shiitakes when, I guess you could say, the first technology or the first methodology for producing them commercially was developed. Shiitakes had been grown in Japan in large numbers for years, but it was nonexistent here in the States. There was a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who I think was one of the first people to import the commercial strains of shiitake from Japan back in the early 80s as part of his research. By the end of that time, the industry had about 100 commercial farms nationwide as a reference point. Today, I think there are about 100, maybe fewer commercials.
So, you’re saying that in the United States, we only produced 20% of our mushrooms?
That’s pretty true. It’s true in the Netherlands as well. The cost of production, labor, and people’s willingness to do the work and make a living was not there. The big guys got bigger and improved any efficiencies. Most small guys hung it out or closed up. When things got really dicey for us, I started looking at what else I could do with mushrooms. There were times when I couldn’t even sell them for my production costs because the conditions were not for the fresh market. Being a small producer, we didn’t have market muscles, so I built a small kitchen on the farm which, in a year’s time, pickling mushrooms turned the business’s finances around (which was hanging by a thread). During the mid-late 90s, we started at the same time looking at the marketplace, and it was hungry for getting more involved in learning about growing oyster and shiitake mushrooms.
Is that when you evolved into manufacturing more finished products and when your business turned around?
Yes, you know, in the world of food production, I think it’s relatively easy to produce something, not as easy to sell it, and even more difficult to sell it at a profit, especially for commodities such as white and brown mushrooms. The bigger producers drive the pricing. So rather than being able to survive producing a commodity product and not having the kind of ease of scale that left us not much margin for profit, we were just trying to be a wholesale producer. So I found another way forward – the value-added products. What can I do with this mushroom (I thought to myself)? We have a pretty ambitious chemical-free garden. We grew too many tomatoes a couple of years and had a bunch of leftover portabella mushrooms in the cooler. I thought: “Why don’t we make salsa?” Our portabella salsa became kind of a runaway hit for us, and we were on the Food Network at one point, a program called Food Find, where we had our six minutes of fame TV.
Now, that’s what you call a happy accident, right?
Yeah, it was. It was wild seeing the power of television. The phone rang and rang and rang. We did a whale of a lot of business from that six-minute segment.
I was recently in your Chicago store, overwhelmed with the heart and thought behind your product productions. Not only do you have a wide variety of mushroom product options, but your store also offers a wide range of edible delights. How do you come up with your finished product lines?
I would say most of them are collaborative events at this point. The pickled mushrooms started that piece of business, or that was my entry into the processing business. It was kind of a happy accident in its own right because I’ve been trying to just promote people buying more mushrooms in our shop, and then I came up with a recipe for pickling them. I purchased some half-gallon jars and used a garlic pickled mushroom recipe. I placed the finished jars on display with a ‘Pickle Your Own Mushrooms’ sign. Wouldn’t you know it, we were selling two pounds of mushrooms to people instead of one pound. When they buy mushrooms, most people usually prepare the mushrooms the same way every time. So we discovered a new way to sell mushrooms.