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South Bay Mushroom Farmers Struggle To Fill Jobs

GILROY (KPIX 5) – While the handful of farmers in the South Bay still in the business of growing mushrooms are producing tons of the edible fungi, they're faced with the problem of not having enough people to pick the crops.

Don Hordness is one of the last of Santa Clara County's mushroom growers. His Del Fresh farm near Gilroy produces 70,000 pounds of mushrooms a week.

Darkened trays are filled with compost, peat moss and spores that blossom into the meaty, ready-to-eat white button mushrooms you find in the supermarket.

"Just pop 'em into your mouth. And they're beautiful," said Hordness. "They're good fresh, they're good on your steaks."

Only six growers are still producing in the southern part of the county. Even so, mushrooms have grown into Santa Clara County's number two cash crop, far outpacing garlic.

"We produce a crop worth about $90 million a year. We're second only to container crops," said Hordness.

But while the market is booming, the labor force shrinking away.

Right now, all of agriculture is facing a labor shortage, said Emily Bettencourt, with Del Fresh sales and marketing.

Growers say the problem isn't the pay. Laborers who belong to the United Farm Workers Union can make upwards of $80,000 a year with full benefits, overtime, paid days off, holidays and 401K plans.

And even then, the farm can't keep its new hires.

"People come here and they say, 'Wow, we have to work ten hours a day!' and 'Oh, this is hard!' and 'This is heavy and I'm standing up all day.' It's hard and it's hard to find people," said Bettencourt.

California growers are also competing against mushroom farms in Pennsylvania and Canada, where the cost of doing business is lower.

Growers wonder how long they can keep going.

"We're doing more jobs and odd jobs to fill in. I've been packing mushrooms on days that we need to, I've been outside washing machines because we just don't have people to fill the positions," said Bettencourt.

Despite those troubles, Santa Clara County mushroom growers will be celebrating their crop this Memorial Day weekend with an event called "Mushroom Mardi Gras" in the city of Morgan Hill with food booths and entertainment.

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