By John L. Braese
VALE – A Canadian mushroom supplier looking to expand is interested in locating a plant in the Vale area that would employ up to 160 workers.
Malheur Economic Development Director Greg Smith recently returned from a visit to British Columbia, Canada with a glowing recommendation of the company.
“We had a fabulous visit,” said Smith in a briefing to the Vale City Council on Tuesday, Nov. 8 “Farmers Fresh Mushroom is a very successful company with over $30 million in sales last year, and they want to come to Vale.”
The company currently is the sole supplier to Sysco Food Services and several major grocery chains, according to Smith. To meet demand, the company is purchasing half of its mushrooms from other farms and then repackaging them under its name.
In addition to selling mushrooms in the Northwest, the company also purchases 16,000 tons of straw from the region and ships the straw to Canada. A new facility would need approximately 35,000 tons of straw, according to the company’s estimates.
“A significant amount of this straw already comes from Malheur County,” said Smith. “The shipping costs are very expensive and the company believes that by eliminating this expense alone, it would cover a large amount of the debt in their envisioned expansion.”
The mushrooms grow in the straw, which is then composted and resold in bags to Home Depot.
Famers Fresh Mushroom is looking for two locations. The first, a 5-acre facility, would be used for the farm and packing location. The second, a 30-acre plot, would be used for the composting.
“The 30 acres needs to be outside the city because the company is concerned about the public’s perception of odor issues, and they would like to be a good neighbor,” Smith said.
The company anticipates the investment costs of the new facility at between $15-$25 million.
As the process is still in its infant stages, a few problems have been identified.
Farmers Fresh Mushroom anticipates needing 140 to 160 workers at some point. Many of these positions would not be considered family-wage, according to Smith.
In addition, the company is foreign-based and may have a difficult time obtaining financing due to banks not preferring to loan to “singular-use” facilities.
Even with the issues facing a relocation, Smith has identified this prospect as a “top priority” for his office.
The possible expansion to the Vale area is also assisted by a current plant manager for the company. In the mid-1990s, the manager worked at the former Oregon Trail Mushroom facility in Vale.
The history of mushroom growing in the area dates back to 1986. Using federal energy financing, Oregon Trail Mushrooms opened its doors and produced 4,000 tons of assorted mushrooms annually. It employed 130.
In December 2007, the plant closed and laid off employees, citing a bad shipment of compost that made growing impossible. At the time, it was announced a cleanup of the facility would occur and the plant would reopen. The cleanup never occurred and equipment inside the plant was later sold at auction.
The plant is owned by Rakhra Mushroom Farm Corp., which has put it up for sale several times. Attempts to reach the current owners were unsuccessful.
For now, Smith is looking for sites with geothermal capacity and has invited Farmers Fresh officials to Vale and Malheur County for a visit.
“It was a heck of a long drive, but well worth every mile,” Smith said. “This is an opportunity we need to pursue.”