Father-son have hidden King farm flourishing
MANALAPAN TOWNSHIP (Sept. 1, 2017) — There is no sign out front telling passers-by they are driving or biking past a very large mushroom growing operation.
But the reality is the business has been growing so quickly, Joshua Ho and his father, Jimmy, have little time to entertain visitors.
For now, Joshua said they are focused on their mushroom growing operations and keeping up with demand for their Certified Organic mushrooms and related products, like mushroom-growing logs.
Joshua went to Marlboro High School and then attended undergraduate and graduate school at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
He studied biomedical engineering and biomechanics and got his master’s in biomechanics in 2012.
Joshua said he helped his father out on the farm in Jackson when he was in high school. That’s when the farming bug bit him.
“My dad hated me for coming out of Drexel and deciding to work here,” he said, chuckling. “I worked at a biopharma company in Cranbury and had an internship at a large bank. My father was like, ‘You’ve got a lot of opportunities to work in banking or pharmaceutical companies, or consulting if you want to do that.’”
But the younger Ho saw the opportunity his father had created at Mushroom King.
“I saw that all we needed was some marketing to get the product out there. Now we’re in stores like Whole Foods,” Joshua said. “I could have gotten a job in biopharma, but I decided this could be more profitable. We’ve quadrupled in revenue and done about 14 times profits in the last four years.”
The father and son team moved into expanded quarters on the Englishtown-Manalapan border in 2015.
They still maintain a 15-acre site in Jackson Township, Ocean County.
The newer 50-acre site is adorned with special mushroom growing houses that are almost completely his father Jimmy’s design, based on operations he saw on trips to China.
The new larger site includes greenhouses, separate growing areas for shitake and oyster mushrooms, storage facilities and packing plant.
“We put those houses up just in the last few months and we’re putting more up now,” Ho related from his car, driving down several long dirt pathways.
“We’re growing pretty quickly. What we’ve been trying to do is one, grow our business; and two, introduce good quality mushrooms to the American public,” he said, noting “most people either love them or hate them.”
Asked about the genesis of Mushroom King, Joshua said the two farms are the result of something his father “picked up out of love, I guess, he got out of a business back in 2000 and he had read a bit about shitake mushroom growing, so he decided to start his own farm.”
Before that, Jimmy Ho worked mostly in the wholesale clothing business.
“He saw the quality of the mushroom product in the USA was not there, and even now, is still pretty terrible,” Joshua said.
He said his father adopted and modified a number of growing practices from China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, where he believed they used better growing and harvesting techniques.
“He did OK with this for about 12 years or so,” Joshua said. “He bought the 15-acre farm in Jackson and started building greenhouses on it. The funny thing is when he started, he had eight greenhouses and said ‘Okay, I’ll be fine to keep up with demand.’
“Now, we’re at 40 greenhouses and we’ll be at something like 100 greenhouses by next year.”
In the Mid-Atlantic region, much of the mushroom growing industry is confined to large growers in suburban Philadelphia, Joshua said.
They’re grown in cement buildings and these structures are very expensive, perhaps as much as $100,000 per house.
“Here, we can have the same growing capacity and we bring our fixed costs down; we just have to replace the plastic every couple of years,” Ho said, noting mushrooms need some sunlight, but not a lot.
Joshua worked to get the newer Mushroom King Farm in Manalapan certified for USDA Organic production and admitted it didn’t take as long as it would for a conventional, completely soil-based farm.
Mushrooms here are grown in wood logs in aerated greenhouses, much as they would on decaying logs in a forest.
Each greenhouse has doorways on both ends for ventilation, Joshua said, “and the sun and the wind does the rest for us. Even with the minimal electric usage we have here, we’re trying to transition over to solar right now.”
Mushroom King’s product list is fairly simple for now: Shitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms and mushroom logs for people looking to grow their own mushrooms in backyards or basements through decomposing logs.
“We use sawdust logs, put them into bags and inoculate them with a spawn, the mushroom spores and root systems grow throughout the log and after a few months the mushrooms come out,” he said.
With the farm’s growth, Joshua said he spends more time in the office and on the road for sales and deliveries than being out in the greenhouses working on the farm.
“We have some general laborers to help us harvest the stuff and with packaging,” Joshua said. “We grow and harvest mushrooms all year long. With mushroom farming, there is no break, it’s all year round.
“In the summer, demand is slower because people are not eating out as often.”
The oyster and shitake mushroom greenhouses are relegated to different parts of the 50-acre site, Joshua said, because the varieties cannot be grown together.
The wooden structures where the mushrooms are grown on logs typically last about 10 years and the clear plastic roofs are replaced every couple of years to maintain the temperature controlled environment inside each greenhouse.
“Mushrooms don’t generally do well in extreme sunshine, but they do need light,” Joshua said. “We use just regular insulation because we’ve had to adapt the greenhouses to the colder weather here,” as opposed to places overseas where temperatures do not fluctuate as greatly.
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