Tangipahoa farm deals with moody mushrooms

Mushrooms are finicky. Just ask the Santangelo family of Red Hill Creole Mushroom Farm.

Through most stages of their 18- to 21-day growing cycle, the white and brown mushrooms produced at the family’s Tangipahoa Parish farm want no light at all. The mushrooms double their size in 24 hours and grow best at a 60-degree temperature.

They are particular about their growing medium, require lots of water and then none at all. Mushrooms are susceptible to molds, but chemicals can’t be used to check diseases or pests. Mushrooms also are delicate and easily bruised.

The farm produces about 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of mushrooms per week, but that isn’t much compared to the almost 2 million pounds picked each week at one Pennsylvania facility owned by Basciani Foods, said Johnnie “Little Man” Santangelo III, 27. He manages the Louisiana farm for Mike Basciani, who has entered into a lease-own agreement with Santangelo’s parents, Cheryl and Johnnie Santangelo Jr., who began operating Red Hill Creole Mushroom Farm in 2005.

Louisiana’s humidity is a major factor in determining how much water to give mushrooms, “Little Man” Santangelo said.

The Pennsylvania farm “puts 4,000 gallons of water and we’re lucky to put 2,000” on the beds in each 5,000-square-foot growing room, he said.

“Our mushrooms also like it warmer than in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Mushrooms “breathe like a human, breathing in oxygen and letting off carbon dioxide,” he said as he showed off a room ready for picking. “If I didn’t have fresh air (pumped) in here, you couldn’t breathe.”

They plant one room a week so they can pick mushrooms every day, said Johnnie Santangelo Jr.

“We stagger the planting out. That’s the purpose of 12 rooms for a 12-week cycle. We’re now on a 101/2-week cycle. Once we put the compost into a room, in about 21 days we’re picking mushrooms,” he said.

He continued, “About Day 20 we will put lights in the room,” but before that, they wear ‘pick lights’ on their heads to check the room, moisture and humidity. The least amount of time handled gets the higher quality mushrooms. They are easily bruised and you can see the indention of fingerprints, so we use gloves when picking to keep any bacteria or dirt from our fingers off the mushrooms.”

They grow more white mushrooms than the brown, or portobello, mushrooms because the white button is their best seller in Louisiana, he said. “Mushrooms sell differently. Brown mushrooms and portobellos and exotics are used more by higher-end restaurants.”

In the packing room, mushrooms are weighed by hand, still in the 8- and 16-ounce containers known as tills they were placed into by the farm’s 11 pickers. The mushrooms are then sent to a wrapping machine and then to a machine that checks for metals.

“It’s very labor intensive,” Johnnie Santangelo Jr. said. “We have to go into the rooms two or three times a day. You can look and watch the mushrooms change overnight. We have to predict what they will look like tomorrow” to decide if they are ready for picking.