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Ancient and modern come together at Far West Fungi

Issue Date: March 18, 2009
Bob Johnson

John and Toby Garrone have the near perfect location in Moss Landing for their 60,000 square-foot mushroom growing facility.

From the highest spots on their eight-acre Far West Fungi farm, on a clear day a person can see both Santa Cruz at the northern edge of the Monterey Bay and the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove at the southern edge.

John Garrone of Far West Fungi farm near Watsonville points out some of the attributes of mushrooms that are produced in his facility near Monterey Bay.

But because the farm is just a quarter mile from the bay, most days are not clear, which is why this foggy coastal location near Moss Landing provides the perfect climate for growing mushrooms.

Nearly 150 organic farmers from around the country toured the Far West Fungi facilities in Moss Landing in January as part of the Ecological Farming Conference tour. Far West Fungus grows exclusively organic mushrooms, and mostly specialty varieties that can be hard to find anywhere like Shiitake, Tree Oyster, Lions Mane, Maitake and King Oyster. In total Far West produces more than 40 types of mushrooms.

"One of the great things about living here is that farmers are doing great things even in hard times," said Amigo Bob Cantisano, the organic crop advisor who has led the farm tour for more than a decade.

The Garrones sell their high end product at their specialty store in the San Francisco Ferry Building, over the Internet, through Whole Foods stores from Monterey to Seattle and at numerous Northern California farmers markets, where the Garrone family has sold for more than 50 years.

They are able to sell their harvest but they still feel the pressure from the low cost competition that is flooding the mushroom market.

"The biggest problem is low cost product coming in from China," John Garrone said. "People don't know that the Shiitake mushrooms they see in the market are from China."

Growing the mushrooms is an exacting process that begins with a tissue culture taken from a mushroom and transferred to a petri dish in a clean room. Trained lab technicians inspect the spawn to insure purity of the mushroom culture.

The fungi grow on the petri dish for two weeks before they are ready for transfer to the growing medium of red oak sawdust, organic rice bran and crushed oysters.

Garrone uses sawdust as his medium because all the mushrooms on the farm would naturally grow on trees. Logs are not a practical alternative because the farm would need an endless supply of fresh green logs to grow its crop.

He uses red oak sawdust almost exclusively. Redwood has anti-fungal properties that make it a poor culture for mushrooms. And both pine and walnut have oils that could interfere with the process.

It is particularly difficult to find enough sawdust that meets organic standards.

"To be organic we have to have a supply of fresh sawdust; there can be no plywood or chemicals," John Garrone said.

Before the sawdust is used to grow mushrooms, sprinklers are set up on the piles of sawdust to break down the lignums.

Once the sawdust is ready it is mixed by hand with organic rice bran and just a pinch of crushed oysters that supply the calcium.

The bags that hold the sawdust, rice bran and oyster medium can literally breathe through a filter. These bags are the best for growing mushrooms, but they cost 20 cents each. And Far West uses 2,700 of them a day.

The bags or blocks of mushrooms are stored in climate-controlled rooms with moderate temperatures and high humidity.

Each bag can only be harvested two times, or with a little luck three times.

"After a second crop it usually isn't worth keeping the block," Garrone said. "To remain sustainable we need to find a way to supplement the sawdust, or to get more mushrooms from a block."

Small rooms with even higher humidity are used for growing some of the specialty mushrooms, including Maitake, which is Japanese for "Dancing Mushroom." This variety is treasured in Japan for its medicinal as well as culinary qualities.

The Garrones are experimenting with the more familiar white mushrooms.

White mushrooms are grown in straw. In order to grow organic white mushrooms Far West can only use organic straw. They also need to find organic cotton seed oil.

"We'd like to bring straw in from stables but if you bring in straw and manure you're bringing flies to the farm," Garrone said. Flies are already naturally attracted to the mycelium in white mushrooms.

Organic farmers have fewer materials to control the flies that can be a particular problem for production of the common white mushrooms.

"There are very few organic white-mushroom growers in California," Garrone said.

(Bob Johnson is a reporter in Magalia. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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