COLUSA, Calif. — John Ashbaugh readily admits that running a large mushroom company is a huge leap from his previous job — as an electrical engineer in the Silicon Valley.

“I grew up Rockwell City, Iowa, where my father was a large animal veterinarian so I was exposed to the farming community,” he said. “I got my degree from Iowa State and spent 20 years working in hardware and software in the San Francisco Bay Area before locating to Northern California with my family.”

Premier Mushrooms Inc. in Colusa started as an investment in 2007 with Ashbaugh involved with the daily operations.

“Although seemingly mushrooms will grow anywhere, they are an extremely sensitive product to grow consistent quality and yields,” he said. “Mushrooms are grown in environmentally controlled dark rooms and are very sensitive to temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide. These parameters change during the eight-week growing cycle.”

The soil is referred to as mushroom substrate, made from wheat straw, chicken litter, cottonseed meal and gypsum. Chicken litter and cottonseed meal provide nitrogen and the gypsum is used to adjust the acidity. The mixture is composted over 15 days, resulting in conditions that are specific to growing mycelium and not any other molds or fungus.

The company began 9 years ago with 16 growing rooms producing 60,000 pounds of mushrooms per week and now has 64 rooms producing 300,000 pounds per week.

The company currently grows agaricus, white button and cremini mushrooms. Portabella is a large version of the cremini that is allowed to grow for an additional two days.

“We sell mostly to local retail stores and food service companies in California,” Ashbaugh said. “We have been on the Inc. Magazine’s fastest-growing companies list four out of the last five years. Locally grown and healthier eating choices are attributed to the growth of the market.”

There are some issues sprouting with the state’s mushroom industry.

“The fresh market mushroom industry is very labor-intensive; every mushroom is picked by hand,” he said. “Because all wages are relative to the minimum wage, the changes in California labor laws for minimum wage and agriculture overtime will be the biggest challenge in the coming years. Imports from other states and countries (Canada and Mexico) with lower cost structures are a concern.”

Melodie Johnson, executive manager of the Colusa County Farm Bureau had praise for Ashbaugh’s contributions to the region’s agriculture.

“Premier Mushroom donates product to our annual fundraiser every year,” she said. “In addition, Mr. Ashbaugh provided guided tours for Colusa County Farm Bureau’s ‘Dirt Days.’”

These events include two full days of ag tours throughout the county to educate teachers about the food they eat and where it comes from.

The company also provides grants to local nonprofits, she said.

Ashbaugh stresses the company’s respect for the land and reducing its carbon footprint.

“Since we environmentally control our growing process, it is both capital- and energy-intensive,” he said. “About five years ago, we got serious about our sustainability program. Over that time we have reduced our energy usage by over 1.4 million kilowatt-hours and now produce about a third of our energy by burning walnut shells from the local area.

The company also has zero water discharge and sells biochar and spent compost to local farms as a soil amendment.

John Ashbaugh

Occupation: CEO, Premier Mushrooms

Location: Colusa, Calif.

Education: Bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Iowa State University

Quote: “It would be much more productive if everyone focused on reducing the waste of our natural resources versus debating the cause of global warning,”

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