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HIGH TECH : Tiny Mushrooms, Big Business

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just below the snow line of Japan’s major mountain range in the Nagano prefecture, where the early winter weather is cold and misty but not quite freezing, one of the world’s most delicate fungi pokes through the sod. Wispy and not much larger than a sewing needle with a tiny cap, the slow-growing enoki is prized for its ivory color and intricate flavor.

The distinctive mushrooms grow in clusters resembling miniature forests, usually reaching only about four inches above their earthen base.

Weather patterns being uncertain, the Japanese learned to cultivate the enoki, like other varieties before it, in greenhouses 40 years ago. Supplies, once limited to late fall and early winter, were extended throughout the year. Mushroom gatherers who roamed the mountainside moved on to other wild varieties.

The cultivation process intrigued Nick Connor as a young boy born and raised in Japan after World War II. His father was stationed in Tokyo as part of the U.S. military occupation but decided to settle permanently in the area and become involved in international trade.

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Thirty years later, as a successful entrepreneur and owner of his family’s W.E. Connor Trading Co. in Tokyo, Connor was seeking investment opportunities in California. He recalled the enoki greenhouses of his youth and all the other exotic mushroom varieties available in Japanese produce markets--both fresh and dried.

Connor and a partner, Craig Anderson, commissioned an architect to create a modern version of the Japanese mushroom farms on a hill overlooking Twin Oaks Valley near San Marcos, Calif., a handsome area of avocado groves, expensive weekend ranches and hothouses for tropical plants.

The pair settled on the property, about 90 minutes south of Los Angeles, to be close to a major market with a diverse population receptive to something different. The concept was to grow and market gourmet-quality exotic mushrooms at a time when American consumers’ interest in new and different foods was insatiable.

The farm, actually an 80,000-square-foot windowless enclosed maze, began production as Golden Gourmet, growing three varieties: oyster, shiitake and enoki.

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But the science of cultivating, processing and shipping expensive and highly perishable mushrooms requires a staff with technical expertise as well as expensive designs. Before the building was completed, Rod Sorensen was hired to sort out the state-of-the-art farm and to build a retail market for these less traditional varieties.

Connor and Anderson, secure in the knowledge that Sorensen would ensure that their vision came to life, left the daily workings of the project and pursued other business ventures throughout Asia. They left Sorensen with an enormous task.

The United States grows a massive mushroom crop, but production is primarily limited to the humble button mushroom, whose silhouette has been a pizza topping staple for generations. Virtually all of the buttons are grown indoors in facilities that total 139 million square feet, according to federal statistics. In 1986, the industry was producing about 470 million pounds, about 70% of which was sold fresh.

Consumer resistance to new, weird-looking mushrooms was also a factor that needed to be addressed, especially with tales of wild mushrooms occasionally causing illness and death when not correctly identified as poisonous by amateur gatherers.

Golden Gourmet tackled the issue with attractive plastic packaging that included cooking and handling information. The silky threads of enoki, for instance, were touted as delicacy to be eaten fresh in salads or just slightly cooked as a garnish for soup or stir-fried dishes.

After a few years, juggling the production and marketing of three completely different varieties was more headache than prestige for the company. So Sorensen decided to specialize in enoki about five years ago and began transforming the factory into the world’s largest enoki farm.

At about the same time, the mushroom industry began blossoming around the country. In addition to the giants--Monterey, Campbell--there was also a proliferation of mom-and-pop operations whose proprietors slapped together greenhouses and became mushroom farmers.

Most of these small producers concentrated on the lucrative specialty mushrooms, and traffic in shiitake and oyster varieties got heavy and competitive.

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“The oyster and shiitake are easier to grow and do not require the precise cold environment of the enoki,” Sorensen says. “One of the reasons we elected to go with the enoki is that it is a capital-intensive variety and we have the market fairly exclusively to ourselves. . . . It was wise to be focused on something with a lot of growth potential and a wide-open arena that others could not easily jump into.”

“Capital-intensive” doesn’t begin to describe the high technology of the Golden Gourmet farm and the work of its 25 employees. Sorensen is at a loss to come up with an apt description, alternately calling it “weird,” “odd,” “unique” and “a widget factory.”

The building is sectioned into dozens of rooms, each individually pressurized, humidified and air-conditioned to facilitate the enoki’s growth.

The building’s computer ensures that each stage in the process is optimal; it’s a system that works so well that no chemicals or pesticides are needed. “We keep the place as clean as possible,” Sorensen says. “This is a clean mushroom.”

The growth cycle, which is complete in 60 days, starts when custom-made polypropylene bottles, the size of soft drink containers, are machine-filled with ground corncob, wheat bran and soy meal. This growth medium looks more like wet sawdust than garden soil.

A hole is punched through the middle of the mixture, where the enoki spawn will be placed. The bottles are then capped and sent to a giant oven, where the containers are sterilized at 255 degrees to remove any fungal or bacterial competitors.

From the oven, the bottles enter a highly pressurized clean room, where a worker in surgical gear adds the enoki tissue culture to the hole in the growth medium. Thereafter, the containers of fungus are moved into rooms that vary in humidity from 85% to 100%. They are regularly misted with cold water to “fool the mushroom into thinking that winter is coming on,” as Sorensen puts it.

The enoki fungus grows from the inside of the bottle outward and turns the brown growth medium completely white. Soon tiny enoki pins emerge at uneven intervals. Workers scrape about an inch off the tops of the sprouts, the so-called parent tissue, to level the size of the mushrooms in each container and again trick the mushrooms--this time tricking them into growing evenly.

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When they reach a height of between 4 and 4 1/2 inches, the enokis are removed from their container, weighed for uniformity and then vacuum-packed. Golden Gourmet is producing 12,000 3 1/2-ounce packages of the mushrooms daily. The product is air-freighted twice a day in Styrofoam coolers, and the company claims most of the nation’s major supermarket chains as customers. The enokis are sold under a variety of labels, but most are found with the Monterey Mushroom brand.

“Golden Gourmet is only a small part of the overall mushroom market, and not many others grow enoki. But they do it well and this is a good niche for them,” says Wade Whitfield, president of the Roseville, Calif.-based Mushroom Council.

In a recent analysis of the domestic mushroom market, the Packer, a produce industry publication, singled out the enoki as one of the varieties most likely to become the next “hot new exotic.”

Golden Gourmet is considering expanding its Twin Oaks Valley farm as well as constructing an enoki facility on the East Coast.

“It took a long time, but enoki are finally starting to catch on. Years ago only a real gourmet could access enoki mushrooms, but now the prices are down and it is much more consistently available,” Sorensen says. “Nothing happens in the produce business until you are on the store shelf every day. And now we are.”


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