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Man shares ‘inside Rakhra’ story

Posted: Friday, Feb 1st, 2013

Tom Coulson, with his dog Susie, is trying to plan for a future without Rakhra, where he worked for nearly 30 years.

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Tom Coulson can remember when Rakhra Mushroom Farm was a good place to work.

Employees received regular raises and incentives for good performance.

“We were one of the best farms in the U.S. and the best quality back in the ‘90’s. We were doing so well.”

Now the farm that once employed close to 300 is operating under a skeleton crew of less than 50, paychecks are delayed and bankruptcy proceedings pending, the facility is deteriorating, cold and dark, and upper management are locking their doors to avoid unhappy employees.

“You go over there today, it is very, very grim and dark … People are crying in there. They can’t pay their bills,” Coulson said.

Coulson’s employment with Rakhra ended January 15 after almost 30 years of working nearly every aspect of the farm. He said conditions had deteriorated to the point he begged management to release him.

“I never thought I would go out like this,” he said in a Thursday interview at his rural Alamosa home.

Moving to the San Luis Valley from Baltimore with his parents and brothers in 1976, Coulson began working for the mushroom farm in 1986. He said he has “done everything” from supervisor to maintenance.

Eight months ago management gave employees the option of voluntarily being laid off, Coulson said. At the time employees thought Rakhra would bounce back, as it had in the past, he said.

“But the trend kept going down and down.”

“We are two paychecks behind today,” Coulson said. “They have no money.”

Coulson is owed back pay plus vacation.

“We are all in the same boat,” he added.

Not only has the farm’s finances gone downhill, but its structures have, as well.

Recently the roof over the post crop room collapsed, Coulson said. The 75x150-foot room housed one of the vital operations required before the mushrooms go out the door. The post-crop operations have had to be moved to another area.

Coulson said in the late 1980’s a new roof was put over the seven-acre building containing mushroom growing operations. Unfortunately, the roof was not professionally installed, and it has been deteriorating since that time.

He said a couple of years ago he and others familiar with the maintenance work that needed to be performed developed an estimate for $2 million “to get the farm back into operation where it could sustain a good living for everybody.”

Since that time, the farm has deteriorated in a variety of ways, and Coulson said $2 million will not be enough now.

Coulson said he believes there are a few reasons why the farm deteriorated physically and fiscally. He said the owners did not put money into the facility as they should have over the years, and they expanded the farming operation several years ago but did not do it properly.

The owners purchased buildings and equipment from Holland in an effort to expand crop production, he explained. When a piece of equipment broke down, parts had to come in from Holland, which could take weeks. Coulson said the Holland equipment never worked right, either.

The new buildings were supposed to have 16 tunnels, but only 10 were constructed, so it was too small to support the expanded production.

In 2004-2005 the farm was producing 40,000-60,000 pounds of mushrooms a day and delivering its product to Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and other parts of the country.

Now Rakhra produces 2,000-3,000 pounds a day and delivers its product primarily to Denver.

The boilers have had to be turned down to half what they were previously because the farm could not afford the proper chemicals for the pipelines to them, so the rooms are very cold now.

“It always used to be warm,” Coulson remembered.

He said one room the size of a football field was so cold recently that ice was dripping onto the floor creating stalagmite-type ice formations a foot tall.

Another factor in the farm’s downfall was “the fiasco with packing,” Coulson recalled. He said management blamed packing for lost product which he believed was just a way to defer blame off themselves.

The upshot was the loss of the packing supervisor and sales team, along with many valuable contacts they had built up over the years.

Coulson said there were other problems with the farm. For example, management did not turn in payroll taxes for a while so now when employees get printouts from Social Security, there are large gaps where it appears the employees were not working, when in fact they were.

The farm never provided benefits such as health insurance or retirement, and Coulson knew of at least one instance where a man was deported after an injury at work required medical attention.

Coulson added through the years Rakhra employees have also been subjected to dangerous chemicals such as a pesticide that was a type of nerve agent regularly sprayed at the mushroom farm in the ‘80’s and formaldehyde, which is still used on a daily basis as a disinfectant at the farm.

“You go into another business, they can’t do that, but you can in agriculture,” Coulson said.

He said when people called OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and other entities, those groups said they could not do anything because the mushroom farm is agricultural.

He said people sympathize with Rakhra employees, but that doesn’t put food on the table.

“You learn things about survival that you never thought you would have to.”

When vendors would pay the farm, the money would be used for expenses other than payroll, and employees who counted on their paychecks got behind in their bills and racked up so much in service charges and bank fees that when they did receive any money, it was gone before they had a chance to pay bills or buy food with it, Coulson said.

“No bills got paid, and we were further in debt. I am not the only one,” Coulson said.

He said many of his coworkers have been at the farm about as long as he has.

“We all grew up together. We all went in there in our 20’s. Now we are all in our late 50’s,” he said.

It is especially difficult for couples who both worked at the farm, because neither of them has an income now. Coulson knows how they feel. His wife Genevieve lost her job last fall. At their age, late 50’s and 60, they are finding it extremely difficult to find other employment.

Tom and Genevieve are not sure what they are going to do. They could go back to school but there would be no guarantee they could find employment in another field, especially at their ages. Genevieve has a daughter in Florida, but moving there would mean leaving their home and pets behind and starting life over.

“It’s an adventure when you’re young,” Tom said. “At 60 it’s terrifying.”

He added, “This is home.”

The next bankruptcy court date for Rakhra is February 20.

Coulson said he would like to see the farm become successful again and former employees back at work, but he does not see how that is going to happen. He added there are a few people interested in buying the property but he believes it is because of the water that’s there, not because they want to grow mushrooms.

He said in the farm’s deteriorated physical condition it might ultimately have to be torn down, “which is really sad. It’s sad for the Valley because the Valley needs those 300 people. Everything is being affected by it. Everybody is being affected by this.”

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