Farming Magazine - August, 2009

FEATURES

A Fungus Among Us

Chester County’s mushroom industry
By Wendy Komancheck

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistic Service (NASS), the 2007-2008 Mushroom Crop Report, www.americanmushroom.org/nass.htm, the most recent report, stated that, “Sales of the 2007-08 mushroom crops are 809 million pounds, down 2 percent from the 2006-07 season and 4 percent below two years ago. Value of sales for the 2007-08 U.S. mushroom crops is $964 million, virtually unchanged from the previous season, but 8 percent above the 2005-06 season. The number of growers, at 286, is up six from last season. The average price is $1.19 per pound, up 3 cents from 2006-07.”

In Chester County, Pa., alone, six growers of Agaricus, the typical white button mushroom, produced 340 million pounds of mushrooms in the 2006-07 season. Indeed, Chester County’s mushroom industry is still the leader in the industry, with California coming in second in production and sales. Although Chester County’s mushroom growers are suffering due to the economic recession, it’s still considered the mushroom capital of the world. The Chester County mushroom industry spans over 200 years.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
Crimini mushrooms pop up through peat at Phillips’ Mushrooms.
 
An example of a steaming compost pile at Laurel Valley Farms.

Chester County mushroom farms

Chester County’s mushroom industry was started in the 1890s when the Quakers started a niche business of growing mushrooms under their carnation beds. To keep up with supply and demand, they hired Italian immigrants to do the labor-intensive work of mushroom growing, and from those Italian immigrants came the current owners of some of the most productive mushroom farms in southeastern Pennsylvania. In the early 20th century, these immigrants started up or bought existing mushroom farms.

Jim Angelucci, general manager for Phillips Mushroom Farms, www.phillipsmushroomfarms.com, grew up in Kennett Square, Pa. As a teen, he worked on local mushroom farms, “to make spending money. I spawned and cased mushrooms,” he says. When he was discharged from the Navy in 1970, Angelucci came back to mushroom farming. He started growing portabellas, but in the 1970s it wasn’t a popular product. Phillips has since specialized in the portabella market since the late 1980s.

Mushroom farmers measure their growing space in square footage and how many growing rooms are on their properties. For example, Phillips has over a million square feet and 105 growing rooms on its property. “We have the third largest [mushroom farm] in Chester County; we ship in excess of 35 million pounds of mushrooms a year,” Angelucci explains.

Phillips Mushrooms, a third generation mushroom farm, is owned by brothers Donald and Marshall Phillips. They sell mushrooms to the retail market, which are mainly grocery stores and food services, and they ship their mushrooms to “most of the states east of the Mississippi and from New York to Florida,” Angelucci says.

Phillips specializes in shiitake and portabella mushrooms. In 1980, the Phillips brothers began growing shiitake mushrooms on supplemental sawdust logs. They succeeded with their growing experiment and became the first indoor growers of this variety of mushrooms. Today, Phillips grows exclusively specialized mushrooms for their customers.

Chris Alonzo is part owner of Pietro Mushrooms, www.mushroomfarmcommunity.org/ pietro, along with his father, Peter. Pietro Mushrooms is a typical Italian-American success story in the mushroom industry. The company was started by Alfonso and Peter in 1967 with four growing rooms. Today, the company has 60 growing rooms and 130 employees.

They grow white, portabella and baby bello mushrooms, producing 18 million pounds of mushrooms per year. Pietro supplies mushrooms to Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Heinz food brands. They also sell their mushrooms through Country Fresh, www.countryfreshmushrooms.com/index, a cooperative wholesale company made up of six mushroom farms in the area.

Alonzo spent some time touring Europe after college. While in Europe, Alonzo’s father told him about a mushroom growing course in Holland. “The course taught [me] about mushroom farming,” Alonzo says. After completing the course he returned home to Chester County and joined the family business. “I was more nervous about the family business part,” but Alonzo has learned to navigate those waters after 15 years in the business.

Tom Lafferty, along with his brothers, Phil and Steve, own P.A. Lafferty and Sons in Toughkenamon, Pa. His son, Chris, is also part of the business. Lafferty says, “[My] grandfather grew mushrooms in the 1920s; [my] father started growing [them] in 1946. I started picking mushrooms at 12 years old. [I] picked up experience through the years.”

Today, P.A. Lafferty and Sons has 30 employees and owns 24 standard growing rooms.

The company grows between 2 and 3 million pounds of white Agaricus mushrooms, the only variety they produce, per year. They sell their mushrooms through Country Fresh Mushrooms.

Angelucci is holding a sawdust block with Royal Trumpets growing in it. Consumers eat the stems.
 
These brown and white Beech mushrooms grow in individual containers. They’re an example of Phillips’ Mushrooms specialty mushrooms.

Mushroom spawns and substrate

The American Mushroom Institute (AMI), www.americanmushroom.org, says that commercial mushrooms are grown in “specially formulated and processed compost made from wheat straw, hay, corn cobs, cotton seed hulls, gypsum and chicken manure. The three to four-week-long composting period is closely supervised and managed to assure that the composting temperatures exceed 160 degrees Fahrenheit for a few days in addition to a steam pasteurization, which occurs about one week before mushroom spawn is mixed with the compost. Finally, a layer of sphagnum peat moss, mixed with ground limestone, is topdressed on the compost, and mushrooms grow on the peat.”

Where do the farmers get their compost? Lafferty says, “We make our own manure.”

But for those without the means of making their own manure, they buy from a broker or a cooperative. For example, six Chester County mushroom farmers have developed Laurel Valley Farms to develop their sterilized manure for mushroom growing, as well as a place to recycle their used compost. Glenn Cote, general manager of the compost side of the company, explains the co-op started in the early 1970s.

The six member companies are Phillips Mushroom Farms, C.J. Mushrooms (http://www.cjmushroom.com/), John C. Leo and Sons, LLC, Pietro Mushrooms, Regester Mushrooms, Inc. and Basciani Mushroom Farms (www.bascianifoods.com/).

Cote says, “We make compost to make the mushrooms. We take out the old compost [from the mushroom farmers] and compost it. Then, we compost it further and sell it to the horticulture industries and different nurseries.”

Cote says, “The people benefit from buying [into] the buying power [of the cooperative]. It profits the companies; it improves their stock; and by taking their waste, it benefits to have an added value product; it lowers the cost of [getting rid of] their waste.”

Laurel Valley buys their compost through a purchasing agent, who buys the manure from farmers. They use special equipment to mix and pasteurize their compost products, including screeners and mixers. “It’s all large-scale equipment,” says Cote.

Laurel Valley is busy year-round making compost for mushroom growers. “It’s steady, consistent throughout the year; it’s continuous production,” says Cote. Laurel Valley has 38 full-time employees and two seasonal employees.

A brief lesson in mushroom growing

Mushrooms are grown in specialized, temperature controlled rooms. The AMI summarizes “a mushroom’s life: ”

• Mushroom spores (seeds) are started in a sterile laboratory. Once the seeds “spawn,” they are sold to the grower to produce in the growing rooms.

• Growers or co-ops prepare composts on an outdoor concrete slab called a “composting wharf.” The process includes mixing, watering and putting in large piles of compost to encourage the degradation process. The process continues for 15 to 25 days. To kill pests, the outdoor compost is brought indoors to be pasteurized.

• In the growing houses, the pasteurized compost is stacked on wooden trays or beds. The employees mix the mushroom spawn with the compost and add a top layer, which is usually peat moss, to cover the mushroom spawn. The growing houses are temperature and humidity-controlled for optimum growing. It takes a month before the mushrooms begin appearing in the beds.

• The mushrooms are picked by hand. The picking process takes six to 10 weeks. When the picking is finished, the growing area is sterilized with steam before a new crop is planted.

• Mushroom growing is labor-intensive and requires committed workers to produce a sellable crop. Additionally, growers use technology with computerized systems for each part of the growing process.

Tom and Chris Lafferty of P.A. Lafferty and Sons outside their mushroom facility.

Lafferty comments on the mushroom growing process, “[Mushroom farming] is extremely expensive to get started. We operate seven days a week, year-round. In good times, it can be very rewarding, but with the high energy, raw material, packaging and shipping costs, it becomes difficult for the grower at the farm level [if] he has not seen an increase [in] his product in five years.”

Most mushroom farmers hire Latinos to work in their growing rooms, but mushroom growers have been misrepresented by rumors that paint the mushroom industry as hiring illegal immigrants and forcing them to work in dark, dank rooms. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Hispanic population is the new generation of immigrants moving into management and starting small businesses in the area to benefit the local economy. Also, many farmers work side-by-side with their employees.

“When all is said and done, the mushroom is a great product: beneficial to our health [in] more ways than one,” Lafferty says. Indeed, Chester County mushroom growers market the benefits of eating mushrooms that promotes consumers’ health, as well as profiting Chester County’s strong economic health due to the profitable mushroom industry.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ephrata, Pa. She writes for various trade magazines focusing on landscape companies, agriculture and business.