Mushroom company impressed with Vale

By John L. Braese

The Enterprise

Since starting up Farmers Fresh Mushrooms in 1995, CEO Tan Truong’s firm has grown from shipping 18,000 pounds out weekly to today’s capacity of 260,000. Now, looking to increase its market share in the U.S., Farmers Fresh is looking at Vale.

More than 25 people representing state agencies and the county court members, Vale officials and three representatives from Farmers Fresh met for two days last week to consider opening a new plant in Vale.

They toured one property considered as a possible construction site, met to discuss possible state incentives and gathered for an informal dinner.

“Within 1,000 mile radius of Vale, we have identified sales of 13 million pounds of fresh mushroom sales available to us,” Troung said in a presentation to the group. “We would expect to produce 200,000 pounds a week from the facility in Vale,” he said.

Currently, the company ships mushrooms into the U.S. from a large facility in British Columbia. The company is considering expanding in the U.S. for a number of reasons: delivery time, trucking costs, border issues and currency fluctuations.

The company uses other growers to meet current orders. Mushrooms are shipped to British Columbia, repackaged and then shipped out to customers.

“We need another facility to grow more of our own. In addition, straw costs are cheaper in Oregon and we want to establish a line of organic mushrooms in the United States,” said Andrew Troung, project manager.

Plans show little similarity to memories of a former mushroom plant, now rusting away at the edge of town. Farmers Fresh plans to build a state-of-the-art facility using stainless steel, a metal that doesn’t rust under the corrosion of water and compost. Company officials toured a piece of property outside Vale three miles east of the city’s lagoons.

“It all has to work financially,” said Andrew Troung when questioned concerning the feasibility of a Vale site. “We were looking at building at a site in Washington when we were approached by Greg (Smith, executive director of the Malheur Economic Development). He has made our decision harder.”

Troung said the facility would employ more than 200 people and the company would pay a living wage to new employees.

“Once initial training is completed, an employee’s wage rises very quickly,” he said. “We invest a tremendous amount of money in the training of our people and to lose someone means we have to start over. If they make minimum wage, they are likely to just jump to another minimum wage job. Over 80 percent of our current employees own homes and have been with the company for a number of years.”

The third member of the company looking at Vale knows the town and ran into some old friends during last week’s visit.

Pradhdeep Gill currently works for Farmers Fresh, but spent a considerable amount of time in Vale, working for Oregon Trail Mushroom.

“When Farmers talked about expanding, I mentioned Vale as a possibility,” Gill said. “This area has a fine tradition of growing and selling mushrooms and I am hoping would be a good fit.”

Many hurdles still exist before a decision.

One is the resources the company needs for production. According to Bill Buhrug, Malheur County extension agent, approximately 18,000 acres of winter wheat is raised in the area.

“The current strain of wheat grown here produces more straw so that is a good thing,” he said in a presentation to Farmers Fresh.

Commercial mushrooms are grown in compost made of straw and chicken manure. The company currently buys straw from the local area and then transports it to its facility in British Columbia.

“There are no broiler chicken producers I know of. The chicken manure would need to be brought in from the Willamette Valley,” Buhrug said.

Buhrig said he had also spoke with farmers from the time Oregon Trail Mushroom was running and the compost from the facility was an excellent additive for land with alkaline soil.

“I think your company would be a great fit for the area,” Buhrig told the company founder.

“We need to be able to make this a win for the company and the community,” Smith said as the first day came to a close. “For Malheur Economic Development, this is our first priority. We are working on problems identified during this site visit and solutions with the multiple state agencies present and the company.”

Smith said the work on enticing the company to the area is just beginning even with all the meetings already held. Further work on financing is in process with a number of lenders. State agencies are reviewing regulations that will apply to the new facility. The state employment agency is looking at numbers needed to staff the company.

“This is a huge endeavor for a number of people,” Smith said.