Rakhra Mushroom Farm
Issue Spring 11
Rakhra Mushroom Farm in Alamosa, Colo., exemplifies the phrase “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Mushrooms love low-altitude and high-humidity climates – attributes typically found in mushroom-growing states like Pennsylvania, not in a little valley tucked in the Colorado Rockies at 7,500 feet above sea level. But since the 1980s, Alamosa has been home to a now-thriving mushroom operation.
The farm started in 1981, but after incurring million-dollar losses in its first years, the facility changed hands from the original owner to the bank. In 1984, Baljit Nanda purchased it along with friends who all happened to be engineers with specialties in agriculture, structural and heating and cooling. With their combined brainpower, the group knew exactly what type of environment the mushrooms needed. And, more importantly, they knew how to provide it.
The operation got a major boost in 2004 when, to compensate for the mountain’s thin air, the company began incorporating a system of tunnels and bunkers into its composting. The mushrooms now flourish in a 10-acre enclosed farm pumped with enough heat and moisture to create an ideal mushroom incubator.
“This is not a great place to have a farm,” notes Don Clair, Rakhra’s controller. “It’s way too dry and we only get about an inch of rain a year, so we try to adopt a lot of technology that comes from Europe, and find ways to make compost that maximizes the capabilities of the raw materials and better control the process.” The air Rakhra injects into the compost elevates the growing area’s oxygen level to mimic that of a lower altitude.
In perfecting this system, Rakhra achieved a milestone in 2008 when it reached its highest productivity rates. Each mushroom tray is approximately six feet long, four feet wide and 18 inches tall. The company grew six pounds of mushrooms per square foot of growing bed area, which amounts to 15 million pounds annually. It set that number as its benchmark and has maintained it for the past two years.
The company also has added to its product lines in the last two years. Before, the company produced only white mushrooms. Also known as button mushrooms, these are white or beige with a smooth texture. They are popular in recipes, but Clair says Rakhra’s customers demanded variety.
“We added portabella and crimini mushrooms two years ago out of necessity,” Clair says. “Our customers wanted them, but we had trouble purchasing from other farms, so we began growing them ourselves.”
The portabellas and criminis are grown similarly to the white mushrooms, so the company easily integrated the new products. The farm was simply divided into rooms according to type for two reasons. The portabellas and criminis are brown mushrooms that grow better in a slightly warmer temperature than the white mushrooms. Also, mushrooms tend to crossbreed easily.
It’s one of the many ways Rakhra controls product quality to keep its clients – and the government, in this case – happy. Clair says with recent scares of contaminated spinach, tomatoes and eggs, the FDA has tightened safety regulations.
The company hired additional staff just to handle the paperwork associated with the new rules and maintains compliance with the FDA’s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points. Rakhra’s 144,000-square-foot facility is audited twice yearly, once by the U.S. Army’s procurement department, and once by a third-party auditor.
In addition to housing the mushroom farm, the site holds equipment for slicing and packaging, a metal detector, 10 composting tunnels and coolers set at 34 degrees F. With 270 employees, Rakhra is the second-largest employer in the valley. It’s an all-year, all-day operation.
Trucks are dispatched at 6 p.m. sharp to a customer base that is roughly 40 percent grocery stores, 40 percent food distributors and 20 percent small produce companies. Because of Rakhra’s proximity to its major markets in Denver and Albuquerque, N.M., customers can change orders up to the last minute.
“Whatever we pick today will be in the grocery store tomorrow,” Clair explains. “We are only about four hours away from our main markets so the mushrooms are not in trucks for days coming from California or being shipped from China.”