Independence — Cheryl and Johnnie Santangelo Jr. never dreamed of the turn their lives would take when they purchased a 50-acre tract of land not far from their home in Tangipahoa Parish.
Known locally as the chicken farm, the property, located a few miles off Interstate 12, also included a large, abandoned building once used to grow mushrooms commercially. When they bought the property in 2005, giant vines, tallow trees and weeds completely covered the building, their son, Johnnie “Little Man” Santangelo III, recalled.
“We had to use machetes to get to the doors to see what it looked like,” his father said. “It operated for five years when new, was shut down for 12 or 13 years, and then we reopened it.” They found everything just as it had been left.
Johnnie Santangelo Jr., an agriculture teacher at Loranger High School, and Cheryl Santangelo, assistant principal at Independence High School, knew nothing about growing mushrooms, but they decided to learn more about the process. “My husband did a lot of research,” Cheryl Santangelo said. “He contacted LSU, but they didn’t know much about mushrooms, and Penn State. He took trips to Pennsylvania to look at mushroom farms.”
“When people got wind about the mushroom idea, they’d tell him he was crazy,” their son said.
Within one year of purchasing the property, the couple picked their first Red Hill Creole Mushroom Farm produce. Each of the farm’s 12 rooms has 5,000 square feet of growing space.
“Johnnie grew one room of mushrooms,” his wife said. “They came out so he planted more. We were planting, picking and packing by hand. We cut, sliced, did everything by hand. Our two daughters came and helped and our son-in-law, too. If we needed them, they came and helped. We hired some help, but financially we couldn’t do too much because we just getting started. Sometimes we picked until 1 a.m. and then got up at 5 a.m. to go to our other jobs.” They also were making their own compost.
“It was a killer,” Johnnie Santangelo said.
They produce three types of mushrooms, the white button, the large brown portobellos, and the criminis or baby portobellos. “The white and portobello are different strands of the same spores,” his son said. “Browns aren’t big sellers here. … We pick the little ones as a crimini and leave the bigger ones to grow into portobellos.”
The German Coast Farmers Market in Destrehan “really, really helped us get our start,” Cheryl Santangelo said. Eventually, they were utilizing six of their facility’s 12 rooms. They marketed their mushrooms as Louisiana-grown and used a “Louisiana produce” label. All that work meant “we grew too big too fast,” she said. “It just took over. We did a good job of PR and growing. It took off.
“We were selling to Associated Grocers, Whole Foods, Rouses, Piggly Wiggly, Fresh Market. When we got in touch with Fresh Market, we ended up going into other states.”
By marketing their mushrooms as fresher because they were locally grown, the couple began tapping into the business of out-of-state growers who had been supplying the local market. Basciani Foods, the fourth largest mushroom grower in the United States, called Johnnie Santangelo to discuss buying the family’s operation. That was in 2010.
“It’s a very costly business to grow mushrooms,” Cheryl Santangelo said. For example, their son said, it costs more than $20,000 to fill a room’s seven layers of beds, each 44 feet long, with specially formulated compost.
The couple agreed to lease-own Red Hill Creole Mushroom Farm to Basciani Foods and “Little Man” Santangelo, 27, is the manager of what Basciani Foods calls its Louisiana Division.
Under the agreement, the farm’s name must remain the same, all of its customers are kept and the Santangelos will retain a percentage of the business and continue to represent the company.
Today Red Hill Creole Mushroom Farm utilizes all 12 of its rooms and grows an average of 30,000 mushrooms weekly that are sold in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Florida.
When she retires from her assistant principal’s job in 11/2 years, Cheryl Santangelo doesn’t plan to take it easy. She envisions having more time to go to food shows and educate people on how “mushrooms can enhance any dish” and the benefits of eating Louisiana-grown mushrooms.
“Have you tried my portobello mushroom burger?” she asked. “It tastes better than meat.”