April, Wilhelm Meya announced that his Franklin Farm was
closing its huge mushroom growing operation in North Franklin in
order to move operations to Georgio Fresh Farms, a large
Pennsylvania mushroom grower.
Meya was interviewed for WORKING THE LAND last summer. During
that interview, he emphasized how difficult it was sustaining a
profit for his $42 million a year business.
Mushroom love leads to
I love agriculture, I always did. And, I think in mushroom
business you can see what you put in, you get out. And, itís a
very challenging business. And, itís also very interesting to
grow all these new species and try a new challenge always, and
it is fascinating what mushrooms can do and how they behave.
And, I think the other part is the specialty mushroom and the
medicinal value. Itís a very healthy
I was trained as an agricultural specialist in Germany, and I
came to United States and started working for Ralston
Purina in the microbiology division. And, this is how I
got started in the mushroom division.
Franklin Farm is a large interior growing operation where we
produce a variety of different mushrooms. I think Franklin
Farm is the largest indoor mushroom growing facility in the
Ralston Purina started the company in 1978. I took over the
company in 1983. At that time we were producing about 7 million
pounds and at this point we are producing approximately 28 to 30
million pounds a year.
Our gross revenue is approximately $42 million. I would assume
in dollar value we are pretty much the largest agricultural
enterprise in Connecticut, and perhaps even in New England. We
have about 560 associates with a $15 million annual payroll.
We have about 45 growing rooms and we have eight separate
holding rooms, eight spawn running rooms, and four phase two
The facility itself is about 440,000 square foot under one
roof. But, all the mushrooms are grown in wooden trays and if
you would lay them out on an open space, it would cover
approximately 38 acres of growing space.
The main mushroom is the White Button mushroom. But, we also
produce a lot of specialty mushrooms like Portabella, maitake, shiitake and other varieties.
of doing business
This is a very challenging business like all agriculture.
Especially mushroom farming is very challenging to raw
ingredients, supply ingredients, and we are very energy
dependent. And, Connecticut, as we all know, is a very
expensive state to do business. And, thatís our biggest challenge.
Well, I think the major cost and big challenge that weíre
seeing is the energy right now. We are very energy dependent
and just recently with the spike in oil prices and electricity,
itís very challenging to be profitable in this condition. And,
we donít know where weíre going when energy prices or what
alternative uses, weíre looking in a different way and try to
run very energy efficient whenever we can.
But, unfortunately mushrooms need, in the winter months, a lot
of heat, and in the summer months lot of cooling. So, itís a
major impact. Our oil usage is 20,000 gallons monthly in summer
and 30,000 gallons in winter. All our energy costs for oil, electricity
and diesel is about $4 million a year.
And, also the raw material supply along with the trucking cost
and the distribution cost is skyrocketing. And, this is the
biggest challenge. Another problem is that there isnít a big
supporting infrastructure in Connecticut for agriculture like
they have in Pennsylvania and China. Thereís no room for
Also, as we all know, in all other industries, another
challenge is the health insurance. And those are the biggest
items that we have really no control over.
issues one of many challenges
Weíre seeing also challenges on the labor side from the
casinos, competing with a similar skill or laborers. That is a
big challenge that weíre seeing.
Mushroom growing is a very labor-intensive business. There
were many attempts made in Europe and other countries to
mechanical harvesting, but itís never worked, really. That
satisfaction and the mushroom itself is a very delicate food
item that is very easily bruised. And, the only alternative is
actually harvesting every individual mushroom by hand.
Mostly our labor force is pretty much local now. 20 years, 15
years ago there was a strong influx from Mexican labor, coming
from and settling down here. And, most of them are having
houses today now, have families and have brought families.
Recruiting is actually from word of mouth and is mostly Mexican,
Spanish, and Puerto Rican. And from the surrounding areas,
difficult work, itís hard work, and it takes a long time to
train people. But, at this point we have a very stable work
force. About 50 percent of the workforce is dedicated to packing
and harvesting. The other 50 percent is for support,
maintenance, distribution and growing.
The competition gets tough
competition comes really from Pennsylvania. Approximately 50
percent of the total mushroom production in the United States is
grown in Pennsylvania. And, they are mostly family farmers and
a few larger operators. And, itís a very challenging thing,
processing an industrial product line.
Weíre seeing another big
challenge coming from China, India, from third-world countries.
The Chinese are overtaking the market for frozen mushrooms.
The shipping cost is cheaper from China to the East Coast than
shipping from California to the East Coast.
always try to improve our buy efficiency and productivity. But,
there are limits to how many quality mushrooms can be grown per
square foot. And, I think the facility itself has some
We have a diversified customer group from large supermarket to
wholesalers, to smaller wholesalers. The mushrooms go mainly
New England, New York, New Jersey and the value added product
line is going all to the eastern seaboard, Texas, and also
We have a tremendous advantage to be able to give the consumer
and our customers the freshest product that is out there. We
are picking in the morning and the product is shipped in the
Branding is very important. But, most of the supermarkets,
everybody went to private labeling. So, mushroom is very
difficult to do branding. But, weíve been very successful with
our meat alternative lines to have a very strong brand out in
But, today the supermarkets, they have all central buying and
certain supermarkets are more inclined to buy local, support
local growers. Some other supermarkets, they shy away and they
buy wherever is the best price.
Weíre always very conscious about producing a very good
product. And, we feel that the combination between mushroom and
soy is a very healthy product, and we developed a very leading
brand today in the United States. And, the customer in major
tasting competition is always favoring Franklin Farm, veggie
burger, or veggie products lines.
There is a lot of work going on for new strains and new
development for better mushroom. And, the taste is also
changing with time. Weíre seeing right now the Portabella
became very, very popular, so we are shifting more and more to
this category of mushrooms.
I think we will see more and more tendency for the mushroom, to
be used not just as a culinary enjoyment, but also a more
medicinal value, a health value.
to grow mushrooms
It takes, actually, from the beginning to the end approximately
45 days. Our main ingredient is straw, most of the straw is
coming in from Canada. We also receive horse stable bedding from
Belmont and Saratoga, New York.
The straw is mixed in with
cottonseed meal and also with some potrelita. The process takes
approximately five days. Then it goes in what we cal ricks,
then it is turned. What we are tying to do is to achieve in 14
days a very rapid composting to make selective compost for the
After the composting is completed itís put in wooden
trays, itís pasteurized in seven-day intervals so that we only
produce Agaricus and no other competitive molds can grow on.
And, after the process is completed we have a very selective
media. We have whatís called seeding or spawning where we
inoculate the compost with the spawn. Then, the spawn run takes
approximately two weeks, when the whole compost is caramelized,
grown through with mycelium.
After that we put peat moss and sugar pit lime on as a water
holding reservoir. And, actually seven days later we change the
environment where we get the fruiting, where we drop the
temperature. With this drop in the temperature we are signaling
the mushroom that it should behave differently from a vegetative
growing stage to a reproductive growing stage. And the term
ďmushroomingĒ comes in.
Soon the pins are formed, the mushroom
is doubling actually every 24 hours size. And, after the casing
we are going to harvest 15 to 16 days.
And, the whole thing begins from the beginning on again. We
start filling again, and itís a seven days cycle constantly, and
52 times a week itís always the same cycle.