The class started even before we opened the door to the first mushroom house. “See these fly carcasses?” Eric asked pointing to the tiny specks stuck on the door frame of the mushroom house. “We use Tree Tanglefoot around the outside of our doors to keep the flies out. They land there hoping to get in as soon as the door opens. This stops them without any chemicals. These are from a couple of years ago.” Time at River Valley Ranch can be marked by the age of the fly carcasses stuck to the door frames. Eric doesn’t use chemicals or sprays to battle the pests that come with farming. Ingenuity and experience prevail.
With the unassuming performance of an accidental professor, Eric explained that flies can destroy a mushroom crop only at a certain stage of the mushroom growth period, but that they can get so thick if not controlled that it is unbearable trying to harvest the crop. Hence a farm remedy of slathering the sticky stuff at the places where they land awaiting entry.
The mushroom house we entered looked familiar but different. The layout had changed since the last time I visited. The rows of shelves ran the length of the building instead of across. Eric made the change when he worked out how to raise the level of production without building more houses. “We now have more square feet of production without the cost of constructing additional buildings.” This Saturday the rows were filled with white button mushrooms that were being harvested while we walked the house. “These guys are two days early,” he said pointing to the overflowing trays that stood before us. “We like to pick starting on Mondays for deliveries during the week.” Everyone was picking today. Farm crops don’t wait on convenience or employee schedules. The shelves, which are called trays, are stacked four high, creating a need for a ladder to plant and harvest the top trays.
Eric explained how long the planting to harvest cycle is, how changing the moisture content and temperature in the houses affects the crops and how many pounds of mushrooms can be harvested in an hour. When describing the reproductive processes of a mushroom, he spoke in percentages of moisture content and Latin interspersed with terms like spores and pinheads. It is a mixture of obstetrics, botany, and farmer intelligence learned from 37 years of experience.
Composting is now a backyard phenomenon courtesy of the catalogs from the likes of Plow and Hearth and House and Garden. There are no such niceties at River Valley Ranch. It all starts with tons on straw and horse manure that is transformed into a perfect mushroom growing platform in a matter of gallons of water, heat, and days. The current pile is about 100 feet long, 4 feet high and 8 feet wide. On this cold day, the steam rises from the 150 degree heat of the pile as it meets the 15 degrees outside temperature. By grabbing a handful of the steaming mixture, Eric is able to tell within a few points that the moisture content is higher than the desired 65% at the pile’s core and slightly drier at the edges.
Clearly the pursuit of the perfect process for growing mushrooms is what drives Eric. And because he thinks in terms of improving every day, the pursuit is endless. The road is not without its detours though. The garlic crop planted last year did not materialize in ground that failed to drain. He found that Tomatoes are too labor intensive to plant and grow to be a major segment of the product line at the River Valley Ranch store on Highway 50. On the other hand, last spring his asparagus was exquisite. However, the crop for which Eric Rose is known, are five varieties of mushrooms; portabella, crimini, white button, shiitake, and oyster. At simple café and Simple Bakery and Market we cook with three different varieties of the mushrooms that Eric grows: Shiitake, Portobello, and Oyster. A customer once asked “How do you make the mushroom omelet taste so good? What is the secret ingredient?” It is simple. We use Lynn’s fresh eggs and Eric’s fresh mushrooms. Mushroom omelets made with fresh ingredients have always tasted like this. Using Eric’s mushrooms, Simple Bakery and Market bakes mushroom baguettes for River Valley Ranch.