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Thursday, May 30, 2024
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Business Mushrooming at Escondido Fungi Farm

SMALL BUSINESS: Mountain Meadow Mushroom Dives into Delivery

A friendship forged by an Escondido farmer and a high school student in the 1990s has morphed into a mushrooming business that is changing with the times.

Roberto and Olga Ramirez’s 17-acre Mountain Meadow Mushroom Farm – for decades the main source of organic, locally grown mushrooms for wholesalers and distributors around San Diego County – have updated their business model, opened their doors to the public and now residents are able to enjoy fresh fungi delivered to their doors.

The husband-and-wife team who have run the farm since 2019 started a new online subscription service in mid-March called BringMyMushrooms.com that allows for delivery of mushrooms more than 30 ZIP codes in the region.

Roberto Ramirez
Owner
Mountain Meadow Mushroom Farm

“We’re only in the first few weeks of doing it but holy smokes a lot of orders have come in,” said Roberto Ramirez. “It’s been unexpected, but it’s something that we hopefully will keep improving on and developing more and more and see how it goes. There seems to be a huge community of people in San Diego who are concerned about their health and eating more mushrooms.”

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s National Library of Medicine (NCBI), there are more than 2,000 species of mushrooms existing in nature but only about 25 are widely accepted as food, with fewer commercially cultivated.

Santa Clara County is the largest grower of mushrooms in the state, which ranked 49th in the state for commodities by gross value of agricultural production in 2021.

Mountain Meadow has been the place for mushrooms in San Diego County since the farm was first established in 1952. For decades it was the largest white mushroom grower in Southern California, producing 120,000 lbs. of mushrooms every week in more than two dozen growing houses.

The pandemic brought the farm major distress due to closures of many businesses that previously bought their produce.

“Our farm is old school, more labor intense than other farms,” Roberto Ramirez said. “When restaurants closed down during the pandemic and had limited menus, mushrooms were not in the Top 10 of most of those menus, and our orders dried up. We started doing Farmers Markets and opened our facility looking for other ways to get our products out.”

Ramirez actually gave away thousands of fungi during the pandemic, even sitting near one of Mountain Meadow’s delivery vans at Grape Day Park in Escondido with a sign offering free mushrooms. The San Diego County Food Bank, Feeding San Diego, a Buddhist monastery, interfaith groups and several other nonprofits were also given crops.

Olga Ramirez
Manager of Human Resources
Mountain Meadow Mushroom Farm

The farm that originally had just a handful of employees, but blossomed to about 100 workers over the decades, has dropped to about 22, Olga Ramirez said.

“When COVID happened, and we got news about the shutdown in March 2020, we lost about 80 percent of our customers,” she said. “We had to figure out what to do. It was pretty bad. At that point we had to switch hats. We tried our best to retain our workers, some of them had been with the farm 20 or 25 years. We were losing about $100,000 a month.”

It was then that customer Darian Wilson, a Rancho Santa Fe resident with a serious appetite for mushrooms and a fan of Mountain Meadow’s offerings, approached Ramirez with an idea Olga Ramirez called “a blessing.”

Darian Wilson
Online Facilitator
Mountain Meadow Mushroom Farm

Wilson asked her if she thought that growing and selling different types of mushrooms – including exotics like shiitake, portobello, maitake, king trumpet, lion’s mane, cremini and oyster – and offering them to the public with deliveries might be a way to help the farm stay firmly rooted.

“I knew from previous experience that there are platforms to build a subscription service,” he said. “I told Olga I didn’t think it would be a difficult or expensive project. We are delivering in kind of a controlled area, but we are hoping to bring the mushrooms to more people in the near future. We are also looking into the possibility of creating mushroom meal kits. Ultimately our goal is to see if we can reach about 1,000 subscribers a week.”

Roberto Ramirez said “never in a million years” did he ever imagine he would own a mushroom farm. He said he had never even tried a mushroom until he started working at the farm. “My notion of mushrooms was from The Smurfs,” he said, laughing. “Growing up, we heard about them on pizzas but I had a fear that mushrooms were poisonous.”

Ramirez’s foray into the fungi world has a moving backstory.

Back in 1996, longtime North County farmer Bob Crouch was moved by a speech given by Ramirez at an Orange Glen High ROTC event. In a bold move, Ramirez asked for a sponsor to help him with college finances.

Crouch, whose family in 1987 purchased the then 35-year-old mushroom farm for $600,000, heard his cry and helped finance Ramirez’s college needs at Cal State San Marcos. Crouch also worked with government entities to allow Ramirez to obtain documented U.S. citizenship.

Ramirez went on to study computer science and math at CSUSM and Crouch hired him to help develop a payroll system for employees at his farm. In 2008, Crouch’s son, Gary Crouch, and Ramirez partnered to buy the farm and carry on the farm’s legacy, and the junior Crouch retired from farming 11 years later, leaving it in the Ramirezes’ cultivating hands.

Mountain Meadow Mushroom Farm

FOUNDED: 1952
OWNER: Roberto Ramirez
HEADQUARTERS: Escondido
BUSINESS: Agriculture
EMPLOYEES: 22
WEBSITE: mmmushroom.com and bringmymushrooms.com
CONTACT: 760-749-1201 or office@mmmushroom.com
SOCIAL IMPACT: Mountain Meadow gives out compost for free to the community.
NOTABLE: Farm owner Roberto Ramirez says that when cooked/roasted/fried, his favorite pink oyster mushroom takes on the flavors and looks of ham or bacon and can make a great substitute for either.

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