Business is Mushrooming

I recently had the great good fortune to interview Eric Rose of River Valley Ranch for Farmers’ Markets Today magazine. I had, in fact, been a fan of Rose’s products for some time (though only for a relatively small portion of his 34-year career), and I had suggested a story to the magazine, as it seemed like a great match. So late in February, I drove to Burlington, WI, to check out the farm, the store, and the tale behind Rose’s presence at so many of the area’s farmers’ markets.

When the article came out in print, there were loads of great photos, some of them ones I took. But, alas, the magazine has been shut down and the website to which I originally linked this post is also defunct, so I’ll post the original story below.

And just in case you want to visit the store, or would like to order some of their goodies online (everything is excellent, but I definitely recommend the 5-cheese garlic spread), here’s a link to River Valley Ranch—just in case you don’t live close to one of the many farmers’ markets here in the Midwest where Rose shows his wares each summer.

Business is Mushrooming

by Cynthia Clampitt

Eric Rose loves farmers’ markets-and with good reason. “Farmers’ markets turned my business around.” That business is growing mushrooms, something Rose began doing with his dad 34 years ago. Rose’s dad, Bill, a restaurant owner, had always been frustrated with how unreliable local sources of mushrooms were. When he sold the restaurant, he decided he could become the area’s one reliable supplier, and so was born River Valley Ranch in the Fox River Valley in Burlington, WI. “But dad didn’t want to just grow and supply mushrooms,” Rose notes. “He wanted to grow higher quality mushrooms than were generally available.”

Rose, who had also spent time in the restaurant business, “first got his hands in compost” in 1977. He was immediately hooked on the work, so he joined his dad in the venture. Rose says it was the beginning of a real education-and not just in farming. They originally sold to retailers. Their white mushrooms were better than anything else available, so they could charge a premium price. However, big commercial growers were discovering that preservatives and whiteners (because white mushrooms were pretty much the only mushrooms sold at the time) would let them get impressively handsome mushrooms to market, and at much lower prices than local growers.

Rose explains, “Back then, ‘local’ or ‘home-grown’ were red flags for wholesale buyers. The product must be inferior to things brought from far away, and so it should cost less. We couldn’t compete with the big commercial firms.”

Back then, the Evanston Farmers’ Market was the only one around, and Rose decided to give it a try. It completely changed his view of the business and of selling. People who went to farmers’ markets were concerned about what they were buying, they were looking for something special, and they generally understood that “local” was a good thing. “They also said, ‘Thank you’ when they bought stuff from you,” Rose enthuses. “Doing the farmers’ markets was a lot of work. They didn’t have those nice pop-up tents back then. You just stood out in the sun or the rain. But there was a real sense of camaraderie. Sure, there was competition, too, but it was fun. You met other farmers, as well as consumers.”

When the Skokie Farmers’ Market opened, Rose began selling there, too. “These two markets, Evanston and Skokie, kept our farm alive.”

Rose’s dad was killed in an accident in 1987, and Rose took over the entire business. He kept adding more farmers’ markets. He was still selling the popular white mushrooms, but he’d begun growing Italian brown mushrooms, as well, because he liked the flavor. Then, around 1990, an air conditioner failed, and in a few days, those nice brown mushrooms exploded into a surreal landscape of strange, giant mushrooms unlike anything Rose had seen before. In fact, the name of these giants had only been coined a few years earlier. The terms cremini (the name most commonly attached to the Italian brown mushroom) and portobello were first mentioned in the New York Times in the mid-1980s. As for portobello, it was not just mentioned for the first time in America, but anywhere, because while the roots of this impressive fungus stretch back to Italy, the portobello is an American invention. (Which is why one sees the name spelled so many different ways; it’s a marketing label of uncertain origins.)

Fortunately, Rose had heard of portobellos, so he knew they had value-if he could reach the right people. Park Ridge, IL, had a new farmers’ market, and Rose was one of the first vendors. He piled a mountain of the giant mushrooms on his booth. No one had ever seen them before, and they created such a sensation, the Chicago Tribune sent a reporter to photograph the monsters and do a story on Rose.

Rose developed recipes, and he began cooking the portobellos at the markets, so people could sample them. There were no grocery stores selling the portobellos. They could only be found at farmers’ markets, so every weekend found lines of customers waiting for Rose and the new mushrooms selling out.

In the mid-1990s, there were no indoor winter markets, which was a problem for Rose. He had to destroy product and selling came to a standstill, so he was losing money. He hit on the idea of pickling the mushrooms, so he went to school, got certified, and built a licensed facility on the farm. By December of 1997, he was ready to start production. Now he could spend the winter months preparing new products for the summer markets. He introduced the new pickled mushrooms at the farmers’ market in Madison, Wisconsin.

Rose eagerly anticipated the “instant feedback” he knew he could expect at a farmers’ market. “People appreciate what you’re doing,” Rose relates. “They tell you how they’re using your product, and they make suggestions. A free sample sometimes leads to a sale, and sometimes to a new idea. The first flavors of pickled mushrooms we offered were ‘garlic’ and ‘spicy.’ Someone told me there we good, but we needed one that was hotter, so now we have a flavor called ‘hotter.’ Direct sales offers such a positive experience. It’s heartwarming, but it also offers such practical input. It’s also good for the consumers, as it offers them an opportunity to talk to the growers.”

About this same time, Rose was becoming increasingly interested in finding ways to completely eliminate chemicals from his farm. “I was reading about how something I was considering spraying on mushrooms had to be kept away from children and pregnant women, and I found out it was not legal in Canada, and I began to wonder if I wanted my workers to be exposed to this stuff. If I wanted to be exposed to it. I’d never used bleach or growth enhancers, but I suddenly realized I didn’t want to use any of this stuff on my farm,” Rose explains.

Rose also began to grow a wider range of products, adding tomatoes, peppers, onions, shallots, garlic, basil, and asparagus, all grown with the same level of care and quality for which his mushrooms were grown. He now has 30 different jarred products, including salsas and pickled garlic, as well as items that have resulted from collaboration with other local, organic farmers

Rose found that other people were excited about what he was doing-not just the products, but the approach to quality. People began to ask if they could work with him. Rose used to go to farmers’ markets five days a week. Now he goes three days a week, so he can spend more time on the farm, but his “team” is out at the markets six days a week, carrying the River Valley Ranch mushrooms and products to 28 farmers’ markets, from the farmers’ market in Madison to Chicago’s Green City Market-and still, of course, to Evanston, where his association with farmers’ markets started.

Though Rose has found a few other outlets for his product, including a lovely shop right on the farm, farmers’ markets are still the mainstay of his business. He has been delighted to see the number of markets in the Midwest virtually explode in the 34 years since he started, from two to dozens. He also appreciates that the markets are better regulated today. However, he also acknowledges that farmers’ markets may not be for everyone. “It’s rewarding, but it’s also tough. We get up at 3am, load the trucks, and drive to market. And not every market is a good fit. My approach is ‘guess and test.’ Sometimes when you’re new at a market, you don’t get the best place, but you just hang on if you like the market. People will find you if you’ve got a good product, and relationships get built. It’s a lot of work, but the one-on-one makes it worthwhile.”

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