RIVERTON — It might seem to be a paradox — growing mushrooms, which require a humid, mild climate — on the wind-swept plains of Eastern Fremont County, but it’s about to be tried for the third time.
The Iglesia Ni Cristo church, headquartered in Quezon City, Philippines purchased the property recently and had a grand opening last week with an open house at the facility located on the west edge of Shoshoni.
It will be operated under the named Shoshoni Eco-Farm Mushrooms.
The mushroom plant was original constructed with the intent of using labor from the Wyoming Honor Farm to grow and process mushrooms at the facility. Problems with low worker efficiency, state regulations and other twice led to shutdown.
The facility was purchased with documented foreign workers providing much of the labor force, but that too failed to last, and the property went on the market.
Listed only since the second week of January, the 158-acre plot, with an 89,000 square-foot production facility, a 4,300 square-foot processing facility, a 3,000 squarefoot administrative building, a pair of three-bedroom, two-bath houses and an additional four-bedroom, two-bath house caught the eye of Iglesia Ni Cristo officials, who were looking for a production facility somewhere in the United States.
Worldwide, Iglesia Ni Cristo has production facilities in 37 nations.
In the former South African province of Lesotho for example the church is developing cashew, pecan and mango orchards and practicing aquaculture in raising catfish and tilapia.
They have textile plants in many locations as well. A poultry facility on Luzon in the Philippines produces 380,000 chicks per month. Iglesia Ni Cristo calls these industries “Eco-Farming Projects.
“We’ve done a lot of eco-farming in places where unemployment is high,” Iglesia Ni Cristo spokesman Bob Pellier said. “A factory in New York City doesn’t contribute much, but it can really help here. Eventually we’d like to build a house of worship here.”
With churches in 156 countries and millions of congregational members, Iglesia Ni Cristo takes a prominent place on the world stage of faith-based community development.
“You can give a person a fish or teach them to fish,” Pellier said.
Shoshoni mayor Joel Highsmith and the town council have been looking for development ideas to improve the local economy.
“We’ve looked at other small towns, like Ranchester to see what works,” councilman Beau Weaver said. “We talked with them, and they spoke with the mayor. This happened fast.”
HomeSource Realty in Riverton handled the sale and indicated a lot of interest came once the property was listed.
The property sold for $2.5 million.
A similar project is planned for western South Dakota.
"Eventually we hope to hire a lot of people from the Pine Ridge Reservation,” Pellier said. “Their economy could greatly benefit from a project like this.”
Wherever Iglesia Ni Cristo locates an eco-farming project the ultimate goal is sustainable agriculture.
Mushroom production was high, with good quality and reliable yields in the two previous attempts at the Shoshoni facility, the problem was finding a dedicated work force.
The local work force is expected to number about 60.
“We’ll begin hiring soon and hope to have a full staff in 60 days,” Pellier said.
Once the workers are in place, production can begin.
“We’re looking forward to working with them,” Highsmith said. “One of our attributes was that we have rail service in Shoshoni. They can ship worldwide from right here.”
In addition to their economic outreach, Iglesia Ni Cristo operates the New Era University, a non-sectarian university with the main campus in Quezon City and three branch campuses in San Fernando City, Pampanga, Lipa city, Batangas and General Santos City. Over 30,000 students attend school at one of these campuses.
Iglesia Ni Cristo also operates its own seminary for training ministers and church workers.
Housing for workers is a concern for the development of the plant. Additional company housing may be constructed along with workers living in homes located in Shoshoni and Riverton.
The economic impact for Shoshoni has great potential and could affect Riverton as well, Highsmith said.
As Highsmith addressed the group of approximately 85 members of the Iglesia Ni Cristo church in attendance at the open house he said, “I’m just a country boy from Wyoming. Welcome to Shoshoni.”