Fungus Farewell : Mushroom Growers Are Leaving L.A. County Behind

June 01, 1986|CARMEN VALENCIA | Times Staff Writer

Mushrooms, especially the brown variety, just weren't selling the way they used to.

So owners of the California Mushroom Farm in Santa Fe Springs, the only farm that grew brown mushrooms in Los Angeles County, decided to pack their fleshy fungus and move to a smaller operation in Ventura County.

Since January, owners of the seven-acre farm have been liquidating assets and getting ready to move to a smaller site in Camarillo where white mushrooms--the kind consumers seem to prefer--will be grown.

Besides the slump in sales, other changes in Santa Fe Springs led to the demise of the farm that had been operating since the 1920s.

As one of the last remaining agricultural businesses in the largely industrial city, the mushroom farm found itself dwarfed by surrounding residential, commercial and industrial developments

Also, nearby merchants and residents complained that the horse- and chicken-manure compost in which the mushrooms thrive gave off a foul and decidedly unneighborly smell.

Too Valuable for Mushrooms

Finally, said Yogi Bhakta, one of the partners of the farm, it was decided that the property was just too valuable for agriculture.

And city officials agree.

The acreage is one of three key areas targeted for redevelopment along the Washington Boulevard corridor in the city's proposed Washington Boulevard Redevelopment Project, expected to be adopted in late June. The project aims to revitalize several commercial areas along the boulevard, which has the highest traffic volume in the city.

"The corridor is really deteriorating," said Richard Weaver, Santa Fe Springs director of planning and development. The proposed redevelopment project should "improve the appearance and commercial viability of the area." In addition to the mushroom farm, the other two key areas in the project are the Whittier Downs Mall and a Southern California Edison Co. plant, which has offices and a storage yard.

The city--which authorized a market study in May to determine potential uses of the three key areas--would like to see the long, narrow strip of farmland developed as a shopping center by acquiring adjoining properties and combining them into a single parcel.

Owners Have Own Plan

Bhakta counters that the farm owners, who have planned to develop the property themselves, have looked at different plans and had a rough draft drawn up to develop the lot with small industrial warehouses and a small store in front. The lot is 1,250 feet deep with frontage of 290 feet. However, Bhakta said, the farm owners are willing to work with the city in coming up with a suitable development for the parcel.

Bhakta said he did not want to disclose how much the site is worth because the farm owners plan to develop it themselves, but he did estimate that the site would be worth $5 million to $5.5 million once it is developed.

Three years ago, sales of brown mushrooms "really took a dip," turning them into "poor moneymakers," said John Peterson, head grower and general manager. "The profit margin was low, if any."

While the farm tried to switch to growing white mushrooms, Bhakta said, it proved a formidable task. The existing facilities were not built to grow white mushrooms and production dropped off. Peterson said brown mushrooms "require less environmental control" than white mushrooms, making them easier to grow. Brown mushrooms can grow at 52 to 55 degrees, while white mushrooms have to be kept at a steady 60 degrees. The compost and water also have to be closely monitored, Peterson said.

Opted for Development

Rather than investing almost $400,000 in facilities to grow white mushrooms, the owners decided to "put the property to better use by developing it," Bhakta said.

The Santa Fe Springs mushroom farm joins a number of farms that have closed in recent months, said Charles R. Harris, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based American Mushroom Institute, a trade association. Small operations, Harris said, have a hard time surviving. There are fewer than 400 mushroom farms in the United States.

Rows of buildings at the California Mushroom Farm, which Bhakta said grossed about $2.4 million annually, now stand empty. Wooden trays, which were used to hold the compost before planting, are stacked in the yard. Whatever can be salvaged will be taken to Ventura County and the rest will be junked, Peterson said.

Peterson, whose father owned the mushroom farm for 30 years before retiring in 1984, said he will go into a partnership with the farm owners to operate the smaller farm in Camarillo, which will mostly do walk-in business and direct sales.

Residents Glad for Change

Bhakta said the Santa Fe Springs farm is still selling fresh mushrooms to longtime customers. Compost is also sold in small quantities. Two houses in the front, one with a mushroom-shaped swimming pool, will be razed to make room for development.

While longtime customers may be sorry to see the farm go, surrounding residents are not.

Weaver, who lives three blocks away from the farm, said: "It's nice to have a convenient place to buy fresh mushrooms and compost for your garden. But it's not very pleasant to live nearby."

He said the smell was very pungent at times, and when the wind shifted toward residential areas south of the farm, the smell was obnoxious.

The farm installed a line around the property that piped perfume into the air in an attempt to eradicate odors, Bhakta said.

But Weaver said the result was an odor that smelled like "perfumed manure."

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