A born-and-raised central Missouri farm boy, Virgil Jurgensmeyer spawned a mushroom farm in northeast Oklahoma more than 35 years ago. And the story of this family business mushrooms from there.
With 40 employees at its opening in 1979, Miami- based J-M Farms Inc. today employs 550 people who hand-pick, hand-pack and ship thousands of pounds of mushrooms. Employees collectively work around the clock every day of the year because mushrooms, which double in size every 24 hours, still grow on Christmas Day.
“People are shocked at what it takes to grow a mushroom,” says Jurgensmeyer, chairman of the board of J-M Farms Inc. “There is not a tour I don’t give through this facility that they are not shocked – even customers that we supply. When we bring them back here to show them our operation, they don’t believe we do all this to sell them mushrooms for just $1.50 per pound.”
Farming with Science and Technology
J-M Farms sells whole and sliced white, cremini and portabella mushrooms in nine states. About 60 percent of the business is wholesale to restaurants. The remaining 40 percent serves the retail market, of which Walmart represents their largest account, Jurgensmeyer says. J-M Mushrooms supplies seven Walmart distribution centers that service about 80 retail stores.
To economically accomplish their production and food safety goals, Jurgensmeyer, his three sons and a grandson-in-law who work in the business have mushroom farming down to a science.
It takes 29 days, including a pasteurization process, to produce an ideal mushroom compost, or growing medium, from wheat straw, chicken litter, cottonseed meal, gypsum and urea. Humidity- and airflow-controlled rooms aid in mushroom production. Sanitation and air filtration help prevent disease and its accompanying fiscal stress to the business. They also monitor carbon dioxide levels in growing rooms where mushroom spawn grows in pasteurized compost on 4-by-6-foot crates.
J-M Farms also stays ahead of increasing food safety standards. In fact, the company voluntarily embraces heightened product traceability practices. Within 20 minutes, their system can identify who picked a box of mushrooms at what time, in what room, all the way back to the farm source of the wheat straw in their compost. This system not only improves food safety, it also identifies the source of problems that need to be corrected in the operation, Jurgensmeyer says.
In December 2015, J-M Farms built a new packing facility with six loading docks. By early 2016, the family company had hand-picked and shipped a record 612,000 pounds in a single week, Jurgensmeyer says.
Oklahoma remains a solid location for their flourishing mushroom business for some of the same reasons Jurgensmeyer chose it in the late 1970s.
After years of building mushroom farms for a former employer early in his career, Jurgensmeyer resigned to start one with his brother and a friend. After much research, the trio chose Miami. The city’s 300-mile radius had an untapped mushroom market and its infrastructure provided adequate water and natural gas access. Roads in all directions reached those markets; and a more favorable business climate and labor force relative to nearby states sealed the deal.
Meanwhile, the Food and Agricultural Products Center at Oklahoma State University has proven a valuable asset, as has the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Jurgensmeyer says. For example, the department worked with other state agencies to review and lighten road restrictions that hindered farmers from delivering straw to the mushroom farm for compost.
“The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture and the state have really worked with us, because our farming business is different than the normal agriculture of the state,” he says. “Miami, Okla., has been a good community for us, too.”