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Federal Officials Raid Mushroom Farm Leaving Wyoming Prisoners "Spore" Losers

By: Bob Williams

Wyoming State prisoners face layoffs due to the imminent closing of the Wind River Mushrooms farm (Farm) in Shoshoni. This was caused by federal officials raiding the Farm finding false identification on Guatemalan immigrant workers used to secure their employment. Other immigrant workers fled leaving a shortage of workers.

In 2004, the Farm started producing Crimini and Portabella mushrooms after the Wyoming Department of Corrections (DOC) implemented production assistance from prisoners at the Wyoming Honor Farm (WHF) in Riverton. The president and chief executive officer of the privately operated Farm blamed the closing on a state labor shortage. The immigrant workers were producing 80 to 100 thousand pounds of mushrooms every week. WHF prisoners worked with them but were not as productive.

Farm crew chief Douglas Tanner stated "You can't hire anybody in Wyoming, there’s nobody to hire" and that "we'll just have to shut down and regroup and see if we can open it back up eventually...what we're doing isn’t working." He went on to say that most of the mushrooms were being discarded because "we just couldn't get the mushrooms picked" and that he couldn't replace the lost workers.

Ten to twelve WHF prisoners were picking at a satisfactory rate although twice that was required. The original goal was to pick 100 pounds per hour. Senator Bob Peek, publisher of the Riverton Ranger, solicited volunteers to assist prisoners for about six weeks to keep production going and claimed that it took about three months to certify legal immigrants. Wyoming Department of Employment public relations manager Shelli Stewart assisted in efforts to keep the Farm open by searching for workers. The Riverton Work Force Center joined the efforts and attempted to assist in the immigrants’ application process. Peck stated that it was the "premier prison industry program in the country" and that the affect of the "energy boom" could not be foreseen.

DOC administrator Donna Sheen claimed that most of the prisoners were better at operating machinery than picking and that it required "dexterity, focus and speed." She also stated "we will go ahead and stop actively producing mushrooms, so that will start an organized shutdown of the facility until we can come up with some solutions to the problems."

Loan program manager for the Wyoming Business Council, Ben Avery, took credit for the council securing a $3 million loan with the First Interstate Bank of Jackson for the Farm and was responsible for covering $250,000 of the loan. The balance was guaranteed by a rural development business and industry program through the United States Department of Agriculture who backed 70 percent of the loan's default. Avery stated, "As I understand it, they have great markets" and that he hoped "they can solve the problem." Source: Star-Tribune, "Mushroom Farm Faces Closure," July 27, 2006.

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