LOUDON (WATE) - It's a good bet that if you've eaten mushrooms recently, they very likely were grown in Loudon County.
Monterey Mushrooms has been around for decades and is one of Loudon's biggest employers. It's currently in the midst of another expansion.
In rural Loudon County, under some 400,000 square feet of roof, mushrooms packed in recyclable boxes move along a conveyor belt in what appears to be an unending cycle.
These delectable fungi will move from to pallets stacked one on the other and eventually to stores throughout the south within less than a days' time.
To make that happen, more than 600 men and women will work day and night to produce more than 600,000 pounds of mushrooms each week.
That's more than 31.2 million pounds a year
"And the folks that make that happen, our growers, have years and years of experience under their belt, and it's a time-consuming process," said General Manager Dirk Cox.
Cox says experience and a strong work ethic make the plant one of the largest distributors of mushrooms in the country.
Much of the work starts in the harvest rooms.
"The thing about our process is it's multi-stepped. And everything is different depending on which stage you're in," said Vic Rodgers.
Rodgers is the agriculture manager, responsible for growing the mushrooms. He's been doing this since the late 1970s.
He said the mushrooms go through a two month growing cycle which starts with compost made onsite. Then, step by step, mushroom spawn, nutrients, peat moss, and lots of water are added to the mix.
"This growth that you see right here, all these mushrooms. This is 15 days after we apply the casing layer to the compost," he said, showing us the process.
Once you get to this point, the real work begins: the harvest.
"They have their equipment with them. They have racks and they hang them on the tray then reach in and grab a mushroom. They've got a knife in this hand, cut the stump off and reach in and grab another," Rodgers said.
"Out of that 600 and some, probably 240 to 260 are just in the harvesting department, hand picking these on a daily basis," said Cox.
From growing to harvest, Monterey Mushrooms is a major East Tennessee employer and a major supplier of mushrooms made in Tennessee.
Cox says they hope to hire an additional 50 or so new employees over the next six months.