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US: San Marcos' new mushroom factory

Situated along one of the back roads of San Marcos near a series of hothouses is a huge new building at the top of a winding driveway. Marked only by a small sign with the name Hokto Kinoko, the imposing structure is this country's first mushroom production facility.

Now I've been to factories of all kind in the United States, Japan and China that build notebooks, phones, cameras, circuit boards, chips and other technology products, but never to anything like this facility.

It's designed from the ground up to grow mushrooms under highly controlled and sterile conditions. They're not artificial or mushroom-like products, but four kinds of real mushrooms: maitake, king trumpet, brown beech and white beech.

Although no soil is used, the company uses an entirely organic process, which means no chemicals are employed. The process is completely sustainable, meaning the resources consumed during the growing are replaceable or reusable. The company emphasized that it's a facility to grow mushrooms, making it an agriculture facility or farm, not a factory.

Hokto has been involved in technology-advanced production of mushrooms at its Japanese headquarters, and has been perfecting its bottle cultivation process over the past three decades. It has become the world's leading grower of cultivated "wild" mushrooms, and has built nine of these facilities in Japan and another in Taiwan.

Japanese and other Asian cultures consume about seven times per person the number of mushrooms that Americans do; however, because of California's large Asian population, Hokto selected our area for its first facility. The 250,000 square-foot "plant," employing about 90, has a capacity to produce six million pounds per year, and is now harvesting its first crop.

I had a chance to tour the site, focused on the beginning and the end of the process. The first step consists of creating a sterilized culture medium comprising sawdust, corncob pellets, vegetable proteins and other nutrients. The materials are mixed using big hoppers, and then sterilized in a room-size autoclave for seven hours.

Next the medium is packed into plastic bottles, a hole is drilled down the center and mushroom spores are inserted. This is all done with automated machinery that moves the bottles over a conveyer system from one station to the next.
Next, they move into huge growing rooms, where they remain for 30 to 70 days, depending on the mushroom type. These rooms were off limits on my tour as the rooms need to remain sterile and disease free.

Once their time has passed in these rooms, the bottles emerge, each containing fully-grown mushrooms that look like a small bouquet of flowers. The bottles are fed into a machine that slices the mushrooms at the bottom of their stems and immediately seals them into clear packaging. Harvest to package takes just a few seconds.

Once packaged, the workers inspect them and pack them into shipping crates. This is the first time since the sterilization of the growth medium that the mushrooms have been handled by live people. This prevents any insects or bacteria molds from contaminating the mushrooms, completely eliminating the need for any pesticides, and greatly increasing their shelf life.

The mushrooms are primarily sold to restaurants and specialty food stores, such as Jimbo's, Whole Foods, Henry's, Asian markets and Ranch 99 in our area. But as production increases, the company expects its product to be available in major super market chains across the country.

Why go through all of this to grow mushrooms when you could just forage them in the wild or grow them on traditional, soil based mushroom farms? First, many mushroom species that grow in forests attached to trees or other living or dead material are highly poisonous; only the most trained and informed foragers can tell the difference between the safe and the poisonous ones. Second, mushrooms ingest many harmful materials from the soil in which they grow. Many imported mushrooms come from areas of Asia where the soil has high levels of metal, which mushrooms easily absorb, presenting a risk of contamination.

Hokto touts the superiority of its cultivated mushrooms because they are clean and have no contaminants in the product itself, and are "in season" year round. But many types of mushrooms cannot be grown by this cultivation process, in particular, those varieties, which need to grow in close proximity to certain kinds of tree roots or other plants.

Having just finished reading Michael Pollan's "Omivore's Dilemma," one of the most significant books about agribusiness and its effect upon our food supply and diet, I wondered if the mass production of these mushrooms was a good thing or not. I spoke with a well-known chef who specializes in using sustainable and organic ingredients, and he told me that he has used Hokto's products and that they're very good, but also noted that he typically uses foraged product because of the wider varieties available.

On the other hand, Hokto's products provide a healthy alternative to wild foraged mushrooms. Furthermore, these cultivated fresh mushrooms know no season, and are grown organically with no chemicals, a positive result of combining technology with agriculture.


Publication date: 6/2/2009


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