Bay Meadow closure will thwart mushroom farmers

The probable closure of Bay Meadows Race Course this fall could not only end a storied era in horse racing, but also stunt the growth of mushrooms, one of the county’s largest agricultural crops, local farmers said.

It is not well-known outside the mushroom industry that growers depend on a steady supply of hay from horse stalls at racetracks such as Bay Meadows for compost. Mushroom farmers load it up by the trailer full, taking hay, droppings and whatever else is in the horse stalls, said Bernie Thurman, vice president and general manager of Bay Meadows.

Farmers gather approximately 3,200 to 3,700 cubic yards of hay a week at Bay Meadows when the ponies are running, Thurman said.

Hay from horse stalls is preferred for its lower nitrogen content, said Linda Tichenor, a partner and sales manager for the county’s largest grower Pacific Coast Mushrooms in Pescadero.

Taking hay from racetrack stalls not only saves mushroom growers money — 50 percent or more compared to buying baled hay — but it adds to the nutrients of the compost, Tichenor said.

A grower such as Tichenor can have two or three football-field-size plots dedicated to producing compost. “Compost is a huge issue for mushrooms,” said Tichenor, who called it “step one” in the growing process.

Believed to be the plant of immortality by ancient Egyptians, the small, white-capped fungi now rank among the top three revenue-producing crops in San Mateo County, bringing in more than $17 million in sales in 2004, Farm Bureau Executive Administer Jack Olsen said.

Following a drop off in mushroom production in 2005 — when the county’s major grower underwent an ownership shake-up and essentially shut down for several months — mushroom sales have again returned, exceeding $8 million in 2006, Tichenor said.

While the Bay Meadows closure isn’t expected to directly affect Pacific Coast or other smaller growers in San Mateo County, locals have been following the news of the racetrack’s closure closely due to concerns about possible higher prices, Tichenor said.

As the current recipient of Bay Meadows’ hay, the nation’s largest mushroom grower, Monterey Mushrooms, in Watsonville, could soon be on the hunt for other resources, which would create a local shortage of hay and drive up demand, Tichenor said.

“If we don’t have enough hay we could have to scale down our sales,” Tichenor said.

Olsen, on the other hand, is more optimistic. “We have several things that are in the works right now that may provide [mushroom growers] with more growing material than they know what to do with,” said Olsen, who declined to elaborate until agreements have been finalized.

If those options fail, mushroom growers could look to Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley and the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton for straw, Olsen said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com  


Put a cap on it

Mushroom sales revenue

2006: $8,500,000

2005: $560,000

2004: $17,000,000

Source: San Mateo County Agricultural Crop Report 2005 and Pacific Coast Mushrooms

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