Date: Dec 04, 2014
Magazine:
December 2014: Immigration Effort Top Story of 2014
The gang at Monterey Mushrooms

Shah Kazemi

Monterey Mushooms

Watsonville, CA

Member Since 1987

Shah Kazemi didn’t start Monterey Mushrooms, but the current owner, president/CEO and his family are responsible for making the company what it is today.  The “only” national marketer of fresh mushrooms in North America, Monterey Mushrooms, according to its website, also considers itself the “largest” national marketer of mushrooms in North America.  That might seem obvious given the “only” designation, but the scope and breadth of the company would put it in the running as one of the largest operations in just about any category.

 

OPERATIONS:  A fully vertically-integrated, international grower/shipper of several varieties of mushrooms, Monterey Mushrooms has created a niche in the specialty crop industry as special as the product it grows.  Since the Kazemi family purchased it in 1983, the second generation, family-owned and operated company has expanded its operations to include 10 strategically placed mushroom growing farms throughout North America.  Besides having operations in four California locations (not including its corporate headquarters in Watsonville), the company has one farm each in Madisonville, TX; Orlando, FL; Loudon, TN; Temple, PA; Princeton, IL; and in San Miguel, Mexico.  Having farms in several locations gives the company the ability to ship and deliver fresher product that has a longer shelf life, as compared to shipping it from just one central location.

Kazemi thinks the “locally grown” label even trumps “organic” in some of the research he has seen.  He said people buy organic because of the perception of the many benefits that buying organic offers, such as providing an environmentally-friendly product with a smaller carbon footprint — in addition to it being considered a fresher product with a longer shelf life.  But locally grown has its own rewards too.

“Mushrooms don’t have a long shelf life.  They are very perishable.  So if you want to ship a product from California to the East Coast, for instance, you have expended about three days of shelf life, or 30 percent of the product’s usability.  By being locally grown, we offer a fresher product than product that travels across the country.”

Being fully vertically integrated means the company of approximately 4,000 employees controls just about every facet of their business — from producing spawn (seed) to growing, harvesting and packaging their products  They even control most of their distribution.

To help reduce their overhead margins and improve service to their customers, Monterey Mushrooms developed its own transportation program.  “Based on the scale of our operations, we felt we could do a better job with our customer base if we carried most of our own product ourselves,” Kazemi said.  The service has been in place since the early 1980s at its Texas operation and has subsequently expanded to Tennessee, Illinois, Florida and California.

Today, Monterey Mushrooms markets and sells their white, Portabella and specialty (Shiitake, Baby Bellas/Brown, Oyster, Enoki, Woodear, Maitake, Brown Beech, White Beech and King Trumpet) mushrooms to many major buyers across the country, including giants like Kroger, Walmart, Safeway, Costco, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Sysco and US Food Service.  The firm is also an industry leader with its organic mushroom line.

 

HISTORY: Most of the expansion that Monterey Mushrooms has experienced has come under the Kazemi family’s ownership.  Prior to purchasing the company, Shah Kazemi learned about agriculture working in his family’s farming business as a plant manager and from working for Monterey Mushrooms under its previous owners.  AMFAC purchased Monterey Mushrooms in 1975, two years after the same corporation purchased Kazemi’s family’s business.  The new owners asked him to stay on at his current position.  He did so until 1983 when AMFAC was being courted by corporate raiders for a takeover.  Rather than being part of that, the board decided to sell the company to Kazemi and his family, where it has flourished ever since.

 

WESTERN GROWERS CONNECITON: Monterey Mushrooms’ direct connection to Western Growers dates back to 1987 when the company first joined the association.  Kazemi has been impressed with the services WG provides and has a deep respect for the organization. “I think it is a great organization.  The association represents the ag industry extremely well and you have great programs.  We are proud to be a member,” he said during a recent interview.

His company takes advantage of several services offered by Western Growers, including using Western Growers Insurance Services (WGIS) for farming operations and also for Arbinger training.  WG Senior Vice President of Human Resources Karen Timmins has provided training to Monterey Mushrooms employees.   “It has been a tremendous training program for us and we have continued to use that (Arbinger) program, and now have two certified trainers in our own company,” Kazemi said.

But of all of the services Western Growers offers, he said the legislative representation is key for them and for the industry.  “The legislative part, that’s really the most important part to us, as an ag industry, not just mushrooms.”

When speaking of the different legislative issues that WG represents them on in Congress and in state legislatures, there’s no hesitation as to the issue that most concerns Kazemi. “Immigration by far is our biggest issue,” he said.  “We are struggling to secure employees and basically we have to either import our food or import our labor.  It’s just a simple fact.  There is no other way we can provide healthy, wholesome, nutritious food to the public.  And I don’t mean just mushrooms. But the food the entire ag industry produces.”

Responding to the rhetorical statement, you would, of course, rather import the labor than the food, Kazemi’s response was a resounding, “Amen!  When we produce the food here, we know we have control over food safety and all aspects of production.  When it comes from offshore, you have no idea what’s going on.”

WG Staff Contact

Jeff Janas
Manager, Communications
949-885-2318

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Western Growers members care deeply for the food they grow, the land they sustain, the people they employ, and the community in which they live. 

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