What is the smallest room in the world, goes the old joke? The answer: The mushroom. But in Alamosa there is nothing small or insignificant about mushrooms. In fact, said Kevin Wilkins, the Colorado Mushroom Farm is a pretty big deal in Alamosa, hub of the San Luis Valley. “It is an important part of the local economy,” said the Executive Director of the San Luis Valley Development Resources Group.
Every week, said Wilkins, the operation ships between 80,000-120,000 pounds of mushrooms to neighboring states. The plant, the only mushroom farm in Colorado, also employs “more than a hundred” workers. But a recent outbreak of COVID-19 threatened to put a major crimp in the operation and the local economy. The company represents a big contribution to the local tax base in this town of 9,000.
“The first week in May is when they identified the first case (of the virus) and began investigating,” said Linda Smith, spokesperson for the San Luis Valley’s Regional Emergency Preparedness and Response Team. While there were no deaths related to the COVID-19 outbreak at Colorado Mushroom Farm, she said, there were 29 cases recorded.
The COVID-19 episode at Colorado Mushroom Farm represents only a portion of the outbreak in the Valley. There have been nearly 300 cases identified in the multi-county region with five deaths. A handful of the cases, said Smith, were serious enough to ship the victims to Denver and Pueblo.
Those mushroom farm workers identified with the virus were sent home, said Smith. The outbreak did not cause the plant to shut down. “They (plant owners) worked closely with public health,” she said. “They were very conscientious, very cooperative.” To ensure maximum safety for workers and product, the plant was cleaned, and new methods for worker health and safety were put in place to minimize any threats.
Wilkins, whose agency monitors economic development in the Valley, also said the Colorado Mushroom Farm was completely cooperative and proactive in addressing the problem. “The exposure came from outside the mushroom farm,” said Wilkins. “When it was brought in, he (the owner) stopped the operation to address the problems.”
“They put all the right measures in place,” he said, including installing hand sanitation stations and providing the workers with the proper safety equipment. They also mandated the wearing safety masks by the workers and strict observation of social distancing. “I think the measures have given paramount consideration to the employees,” and the public, said Wilkins.
Except for a change in ownership which caused a brief interruption in business, mushrooms have been a staple in Alamosa’s economy since 1983. It supplies white and brown mushrooms, more commonly known as crimini and portabella, to larger markets in the southwestern United States as well as a small handful of cities in the Midwest.
Colorado Mushroom Farm also operates in Wyoming and Canada and sells its product under the name Rakhra Mushrooms.