Colorado grower delivers mushrooms just-in-time

Aug. 1, 2004
Want mushrooms in Colorado? Easy, go to the store. Want to know where the mushrooms came from? Read the label. It may say Alamosa, Colorado. What? Everyone

Want mushrooms in Colorado? Easy, go to the store. Want to know where the mushrooms came from? Read the label. It may say Alamosa, Colorado. What? Everyone knows that mushrooms grow in the dark, not in the mountains. Not so. In Alamosa at Rakhra Mushroom Farm Corp, mushrooms do in fact grow at high altitude with the lights on.

“We try to simulate a cave-like environment with slow-moving air, but the reason for turning the lights out when we're not picking is simply to save on the electric bill,” says Don Clair, controller at Rakhra. “The other part of conventional wisdom is true; most mushrooms are grown at or near sea level.”

Alamosa, most certainly, is not at sea level. It is just inside the front range of the Rockies in south central Colorado, almost due north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and only slightly more than 30 miles north of the New Mexico state line. The little town of about 8,000 people sits at an altitude of more than 7,500 ft, and it has mountain passes at elevations of almost 11,000 ft on both its western and eastern sides.

Most mushroom farms are found in Pennsylvania, Oregon, or Texas — all places near sea level with mostly warm, damp climates. Why, then, would anyone try to grow commercial quantities of mushrooms in what is essentially an arid high mountain desert? Clair says he doesn't know, but that the original founder of the operation was able to go broke in only three years.

New processes boost production

The company was formed in 1981 and was purchased by its present owners in 1984. Apparently the first owner did not sufficiently understand the processes needed to grow mushrooms commercially. The new owners are a group of East Indians who live and work in Denver. They understand the technical aspects of airflow and humidity needed to grow the product. As soon as they changed the processes the company was using, it became profitable almost immediately, Clair says.

The owners work in Denver. Rakhra is managed day to day by Lynn Mortensen, president and general manager, and by Clair.

Altitude remains a challenge. At sea level, mushroom farmers can count on harvesting seven to eight pounds of product per sq ft of growing medium per day, Clair says. In its eight-acre concrete, tilt-wall building, Rakhra averages a harvest of five pounds per sq ft. Mushrooms grow in compost held in four- by eight-ft wooden trays. The trays are stacked five high in wooden frames in 20 separate growing rooms.

The company has recently completed construction of a tunnel complex that it hopes will allow yields to approach seven pounds per sq ft. The first crops have been started in the tunnels, and the new growing area should be in use 100% by the end of September 2004, he says.

Must pick daily

Although Rakhra may have to worry about having enough product to fill orders, it never has to worry about whether it will have mushrooms to pick. Once they come up out of the growing medium, mushrooms must be picked every day. From start to finish, growing mushrooms is a 90-day process that divides into three equal periods. It takes 30 days to generate the compost the mushrooms grow in. Compost develops best at a stable temperature; so workers keep it cool in summer and warm in winter. “We actually make the best compost in winter, because the heat generated in the middle of the pile creates a chimney effect that draws air through the compost,” Clair says. “We use a machine to turn the piles so that the edges don't freeze. When the entire process is moved into our new tunnels, the composting process should be reduced to 20 days.”

Once the compost is ready and spread in the growing trays, it takes 30 days for the mushrooms to spawn. Before the trays are inoculated with certified mushroom stock, the compost must be pasteurized to guard against weeds, mold, or other competitors to the mushrooms. Rakhra grows only one variety of mushroom, the white Agaricus, also known as white button mushrooms. The single variety is a quality control measure, Clair says. Mushrooms crossbreed easily and trying to grow more than one variety in a single facility can result in mushrooms that are called zebras in the trade — perfectly good mushrooms with an appearance that does not sell well at retail.

With spawning complete, the compost trays are moved into the growing halls. Once a tray begins producing mushrooms, it will provide a new crop every three days. Rakhra keeps 10 developing crops in the grow halls at any given time for a total of 122 separate crops a year. As pickers work the trays, they leave some mushrooms in the trays every day. After three days, a given tray will be picked again. When a tray has been picked three times, it is removed from the grow hall, and the compost is processed for sale by garden stores. After growing mushrooms in the compost, it's only good for garden soil, because the mushroom crop removes all the nutrients, Clair says.

Production must be monitored carefully and the size of the crops controlled to meet demand. Sales peak sharply around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Clair says.

Close to major markets

In one critically important way, Rakhra is in an ideal location. Alamosa is almost equidistant from Denver and Albuquerque, the largest population centers along the Rocky Mountain Front Range. A five-hour drive to Denver or a four-hour trip to Albuquerque allows Rakhra to deliver freshly picked product to supermarket chains and foodservice distributors on a daily basis.

This proximity to its main markets allows Rakhra to deliver the very freshest product possible. Everything the company grows is shipped on the same day it is harvested. Workers start picking mushrooms at 7 am and usually end the day by 2 pm. Retailers specify the size mushrooms they want in their orders, anything from small button caps up to extremely large mushrooms for stuffing with other food. Workers are given this information and size the product as they pick to fit the orders.

Rakhra is under constant pressure to have enough product of every size to match orders for the day. At present, the company sells everything it can grow. Having enough mushrooms every day is the most pressing situation even though the company shows solid growth. In 2003, Rakhra delivered 12 million pounds of mushrooms, up 50% from the eight million pounds it delivered five years earlier.

Multiple package sizes

Once picking gets underway, packaging begins almost immediately. Within an hour workers have enough mushrooms harvested to allow the packing line to begin work. Packaging goes on until 4:30 pm on most days. The product is packaged as either whole or sliced mushrooms in four-, eight-, 16-, 24-, and 40-ounce foam plastic trays for retail sale. Rakhra also has bulk packages for retail and 10-lb bags for the foodservice market.

More than one might think, packaging, especially for retail, is a fairly labor-intensive process. For instance, the package has to weigh eight ounces, not nine and not seven, Clair says. Making sure that each package contains the correct weight requires some trial and error as different mushrooms are substituted in the tray to reach the right weight, he says.

The final step in processing involves cooling. Mushrooms cannot be washed prior to packaging or cooled with a hydro-cooler, because, like a sponge, they absorb water. They are already more than 70% water. To get the product ready for shipment, it is put into a vacuum cooler to reduce the temperature from an average of 68° F to 34° F.

Short cycle shipping

Packaging is just barely finished when the first truck rolls off the lot. The first one, loaded with as many as 10 stops for foodservice distributors in Denver, leaves at 6 pm. The second nightly truck heads to Denver at midnight with two to six deliveries for supermarket chains such as King Sooper or Safeway. Roughly 60% of total production sells to retail outlets; the rest goes to foodservice distributors. Everything ships on the same day it is picked.

“If one of the supermarket chains is running a sale and needs a full trailer load on a given night, we send a third trailer with the other grocery chain orders and fill out the load with four to five foodservice stops,” Clair says. “Without special promotions by retailers, sales average about 32,000 pounds a day.”

The first truck gets to Denver around midnight after stopping for a delivery in Colorado Springs. The chain store deliveries reach the warehouses beginning around 5 am. The last load out on a daily basis leaves Alamosa for stops in Albuquerque at 2 am and starts making deliveries at 6 am. With these short trip times, Rakhra mushrooms can be on store shelves ready for consumers within 36 to 48 hours after harvest. That sequence includes time spent in handling and distribution from the supermarket chain warehouse. In addition to sales in Denver, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Albuquerque, Rakhra delivers to Safeway in Phoenix three times a week.

Reliable fleet required

Picking and delivering on a daily basis is critical for Rakhra. The fleet must operate reliably so that orders fall into their assigned delivery windows. Alamosa is a small town a long way from the truck dealerships in the large metropolitan areas. As a result, Rakhra leases its fleet to assure its ability to meet delivery requirements.

MHC Truck Leasing supplies the trucks on a five-year, full-service lease. MHC is headquartered in Denver and has branches in Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Alamosa is far enough away from the population centers that the trucks stop in Pueblo twice a week on the way back home for inspection and service. If MHC has to take a truck out of service for maintenance, the tractor stays in Pueblo for a whole day. To maintain customer service, Rakhra picks up a substitute truck and returns it to the leasing location following the next day's deliveries.

MHC provides six Kenworth W900 longnose conventional tractors; Rakhra also still owns three tractors. When time comes to trade those three, they probably will be replaced with leased equipment, Clair says. Rakhra owns its trailer fleet of 15 refrigerated vans. The Utility trailers are a mix of 48 and 53/102 reefers purchased used from truckload carriers. Several trailers came out of the Leprino Transportation fleet that Isaias Gallardo, director of transportation at Rakhra, says was a well-maintained trailer fleet. The company keeps trailers five years, because they are already four to six years old when purchased.

For a fleet that is home almost every night, Rakhra runs up relatively high mileage with its deliveries of 250 miles to Albuquerque and 300 miles to Denver. On average Rakhra's tractors log 130,000 miles a year.

The longnose tractors are built to owner-operator specifications with high horsepower and a 72-inch high-rise sleeper berth. The W900 may not be the most aerodynamically clean tractor on the highway, but it projects the image Rakhra wants, and it is easy for MHC to sell at the end of the lease term, Gallardo says. Tractors are powered by Caterpillar C15 engines rated at 475 hp driving through Eaton Fuller 13-speed overdrive transmissions and Dana Spicer DSP40 tandem rear axles. Final drive ratio of the drive tandem is 3.55:1.

Tractor specifications are a collaborative effort between Rakhra and MHC. For instance, Rakhra wanted plenty of horsepower to handle the terrain. High horsepower doesn't come into play much on the outbound routes; a full load of mushrooms in retail packages might weigh as much as 20,000 pounds. Return loads of soft drinks delivered in Durango, Colorado, and Santa Fe scale at maximum gross weight. Returns from Phoenix can be extremely heavy or remarkably light. The beer loads scale out; potato chips just take up space. In fact, as the trucks cross the mountain passes, potato chips take up more space than they did when the trailer was loaded. To make trucks more saleable at the end of the lease, MHC recommended the 13-speed transmissions instead of the nine-speeds that Rakhra had been using.

About the Author

Gary Macklin

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