Rising costs and pressure from foreign and domestic competitors are putting the squeeze on California's mushroom community.
"A stand-alone mushroom farm in California does have external pressures that other places don't have," said Chris Krebs, general manager at Farmers Fresh Mushrooms California, which recently bought Premier Mushrooms in Colusa. Krebs' farm grows agaricus mushrooms, the familiar white and brown varieties, with the output going to Northern California customers as far south as Modesto.
California had 2.3 million square feet of agaricus mushrooms in production in 2018, a nearly 25% drop from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with mushroom sales totaling $195.5 million. By contrast, Pennsylvania—the top mushroom-growing state in the U.S.—had 17.7 million square feet of agaricus production in 2018, with sales totaling $557 million.
Pennsylvania also has a lower minimum wage: $7.25, compared to California's $13 for employees of larger employers, which will rise to $14 next year and $15 in 2022.
"For the California mushroom business, it's pretty tough right now to try to stay up, because we're competing against lower wages in Canada and back east," said Don Hordness, who runs Countryside Mushrooms in Gilroy. In addition, he said, shipping mushrooms into California is cheaper than shipping out. "We're kind of a backhaul state," Hordness said. "If you bring in a truck from, let's say, Pennsylvania, it will cost you about $2,500, maybe $3,000. And to ship out, it'll cost you about $7,000."
Hordness said he's nearly maxed out on production, with his mushrooms going to food service, retail and private-label uses in California.
Mushroom farmers, unlike many of their counterparts, work indoors, but Krebs said he's perpetually shorthanded even though his farm offers steady, year-round work with good pay and benefits.