Room to Grow
Huge Ostrom farms operation thrives despite challenges of finding, training workers
SUNNYSIDE — The size of an individual mushroom is the only thing that's small about Ostrom Mushroom Farms in the Port of Sunnyside business area. Built in 2019, the $60 million indoor facility uses state of the art technology to grow, harvest, package and ship between 8 million to 9 million pounds of mushrooms each year, Ostrom CEO Travis Wood said. And with the popularity of mushrooms soaring as a cooking-at-home ingredient during the past two years of the COVID pandemic, the 43-acre Sunnyside site could potentially double that production if enough workers can be hired and trained, Wood said. "The New York Times recently called mushrooms the ingredient of the year," Wood added. "The industry itself is in hyper-growth mode due to surging consumer demand, and we're struggling to keep up. "The labor aspect is really a challenge. It was an issue before the pandemic as well; COVID just exacerbated the issue." Ostrom moved from Olympia to the Port of Sunnyside after purchasing 43 acres of property at Midvale and Duffy roads. At the time, the company said the port property was ideal due to its proximity to a wastewater plant and the region's agricultural labor force.
Mushrooms grow quickly
The growing rooms are 110-feet long, with four levels of mushrooms in 10-inch deep growing bins, with the top one about 8 feet off the ground. Harvesters use platforms to reach the top level, stand for the middle levels and are seated on carts with a large, flat grid tray on the front to harvest the lower levels. "At 6 in the morning these (mushrooms) were medium sized," Garcia said as he examined 5-pound boxes of whole white mushrooms. "Now (around 2 p.m.) they're large." Because of that rapid growth once they mature, mushrooms must be harvested quickly when they reach their desired size. About 70% of the Ostrom farms mushrooms are picked at a medium size, and 20% at a large size, Garcia said. "Mushrooms are unique — it takes a lot of effort to grow mushrooms," he said. "Operations cannot stop — the mushrooms keep growing. They double their size every 24 hours, so every day you have to harvest. What we don't harvest today becomes trash tomorrow. "We can control the environment, but not enough to stop them from growing. It's like fruit — if you have the right conditions, temperature and water, they will grow," he added. In the processing area, which is kept at 34 degrees, 40% of the mushrooms are sliced. There are two lines for wrapping packages, and two slicers — one for white mushrooms and another for browns, also known as cremini mushrooms. The facility also produces portabella mushrooms, which Wood said are "basically cremini mushrooms that are allowed to grow a couple extra days." A small amount of exotic varieties, such as shiitake mushrooms, are grown at local farms and distributed by Ostrom, he added. After they are processed and packaged, Ostrom farms ships millions and millions of mushrooms each year to retailers and food service companies throughout the Pacific Northwest. Mushrooms are good to eat fresh for up to 14 days, Garcia said. They can be frozen, and then last for three months. "Most of our customers are in Western Washington and Alaska, with a few in Oregon and Hawaii," Wood said. "As we ramp up toward full production, we may add customers in California and western Canada."
The search for workers
If all 48 of the existing growing rooms were filled, Ostrom farms could harvest about 14 million pounds of mushrooms a year, Garcia said. And there is room on the property for another building housing 48 more growing rooms. Wood said the company employs about 300 workers during its peak harvest times, as demand for mushrooms increases during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. "As we move through this year, we could use another 60 pickers in the farm operation,"' Wood said. "Most of the mushroom farms would say they're short about 20% in their work force, and we're no different." Finding workers can be increasingly difficult during harvest seasons for other Yakima Valley crops — during summer and early fall, Wood said. He believes Ostrom farms has the advantage of consistent, year-round work; controlled climate conditions as opposed to the extreme heat of a Central Washington summer; and strict worker safety standards that are especially important amid the COVID- 19 pandemic. The facility has stateof- the-art air circulation, provides gloves, smocks and hairnets for workers, and addresses COVID through rapid test kits, N95 masks and social distancing, he said. "From an environmental perspective, I think our farm is one of the safest places to work," Wood added. "Sanitation and hygiene are paramount on a mushroom farm." Garcia and Wood said it takes time to train mushroom harvesters, and a more stable workforce would lead to improved productivity and harvests. "To have a good performance, it takes 90 days to train a harvester," Garcia said. "You've got to be fast. We pay about 25 cents per pound. Some pickers can harvest 90 pounds an hour, so they earn close to $20 an hour." For the first time since it opened in 2019, Ostrom Mushroom Farms is working with the U.S. Department of Labor to apply for H-2A workers, Wood said. "We're going 365 days a year, so we don't qualify for seasonality," Wood said of the H-2A process. "So you have to prove either temporary need or peak demand (for workers). Those criteria are a bit more challenging … it's just a very long, cumbersome, laborious process." Despite challenges such as finding more workers and recent surges in COVID cases throughout the community, Wood believes Ostrom Mushroom Farms has been successful so far and has tremendous potential for growth. "We are the only vertically integrated mushroom facility in the U.S., and the only one that makes its own compost through Stage 3 of the growing process," he said. "We're set up well for success and increased production — we just need some of the macro (economic) factors to start going our way."