Mushroom farm calls it quits
27 workers to lose jobs as business closes over financial, compost woes

February 3, 2006

Sonoma County's largest commercial mushroom farm is closing, its owner said Thursday, citing financial problems and a lack of compost for its operation.

After three decades of growth - putting out more than 5 million pounds of mushrooms a year and employing more than 100 people at its peak - the Petaluma Mushroom Farm will pick its last harvest Feb. 17, shut its doors and go up for sale, co-owner David Cerini said.

He said the company's current 27 employees "are heartbroken about it."

The mushroom farm had a colorful and sometimes rocky 28-year history on Thompson Lane west of Petaluma.

Ultimately, after moving its composting operation out of the county under pressure, it ran into odor and financing problems that left it without a reliable and affordable source of compost, Cerini said.

The company, which trucks its well-known mushrooms to Northern California groceries and distributors, grew from a one-room operation to a seven-acre complex with a dozen growing rooms, computer-controlled temperature monitors and annual sales of almost $8 million.

But it drew the ire of neighbors who fought the mushroom farm's composting operation, which created an odor some critics described as the smell of rotting carcasses.

In 2003, after years of missed deadlines and threats of fines from the county, the company passed up a controversial move of its composting operation to Bloomfield and shifted it to Colusa, where it also launched the Colusa Mushroom Farm.

But it also ran into odor trouble there because it couldn't get financing to complete technological upgrades that would have controlled the smell, Cerini said.

The Colusa composting operation shut in December, and the business is being sold, he said.

It is changing to an indoor, automated composting system that will eliminate odors, Cerini said.

But as a result, the compost no longer will work for the Petaluma farm, he said. It also is becoming prohibitively expensive to truck it so far, he said.

Petaluma Mushroom had 83 employees until January, and its numbers are slowly dwindling as the final crops are harvested.

A native of Petaluma, Cerini, 70, is a former stockbroker and mortgage broker. Half of the business is owned by four Flores brothers, who are longtime employees.

He said he hopes someone will buy the business and keep it operating as a mushroom farm, using the buildings, the fleet of trucks and equipment. The company has $400,000 worth of mushroom crates alone, he said.

"Some good may come of this," he said. "If we get someone to come in here (and buy it), I'll give them all the support I can."

If he can find the right location for a Sonoma County composting operation, he said the company could be reopened without major technological renovations.

Cerini said compost can be grown with new technology in a rural area of Sonoma County without being the nuisance it was on Thompson Lane.

But after 30 years in the business, Cerini said he's burned out on running the operation.

"I just want to get out of the business," he said. He's planning a return to the private mortgage industry.

The business and farm was sold in the mid-1980s to Sid Shah, a Sonoma County real estate developer and savings and loan executive who was jailed on drug charges.

Cerini and a partner bought the farm back in bankruptcy court for $1.5 million.

If the company isn't sold as a mushroom farm and a local source of compost can't be found, Cerini said he's going to ask that the property be incorporated into the new general plan to be used for equipment and RV storage.

Otherwise Cerini would have to tear down what he said is $2 million worth of buildings to subdivide the property into three residential lots.

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