How Kennett Square Became the Unofficial Mushroom Capital of the World
This month, Kennett Square celebrates the hard work and diversity that made Chester County the largest mushroom-producing region in the country.
All photos by Tessa Marie Images
Daniel Beltran recalls the feeling he had after purchasing his first houses—mushroom houses—a four-unit complex on a 12-acre plot in West Grove, Pa., about two years ago.
“You knew you were getting your foot in the door after renting, renting, renting,” he says. “It changed my life totally around.”
An immigrant from Mexico, Beltran rented for 16 years on one farm. A single mushroom house—what is called a double—rents for about $2,700 a month. Few are eye-catching. In fact, all houses look about the same—windowless cinder block shells with gray metal roofs. They are drab, at best.
“It’s not good style, and if they were the mushrooms inside wouldn’t be any prettier,” says Beltran’s eldest daughter, Sonya, who after graduating from Kennett High completed her undergraduate years in fashion and retail management at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, then returned home to earn a master’s degree in organizational leadership at Immaculata College.
She is now director of operations for the family’s First Generation Farms. She also works in accounts payable for its related entities—Masda Mushroom, ASA Mushroom and JB Mushroom Service—out of offices on Gap Newport Pike in Toughkenamon.
The initials of the family members, who live in Kennett Square, are buried in the company names. Daniel’s wife, Maria, is the M in Masda. Son Alberto, daughter Sonya, Daniel and the youngest, Avril, follow. Alberto is a junior at Purdue University. Sonya is blossoming in the industry as a first-year board member at the California-based Mushroom Council, which meets this month in Kennett Square. Avril is 12.
“We’re seeing more Spanish faces—and female faces,” Sonya says. “It’s nice to see the increasing diversity in the industry. Others get excited for you. Sure, it’s competition, but when others do well, it’s good for you, too.”
That’s the nature, and purpose, of National Mushroom Month—every September—and the 31st annual Mushroom Festival in downtown Kennett Square. The festival draws 100,000 guests for a weekend of mushroom eating, growing exhibits, contests, entertainment and a unique cultural experience that’s helped foster consumer interest in mushrooms, their health benefits and the blend trend—using mushrooms to supplement meat in such things as restaurant burgers.
All this in a borough that at midnight on New Year’s Eve drops a 500-pound stainless steel mushroom in the town square. “It’s been amazing to see the growth of the festival over the years,” says Kathi Lafferty, coordinator of the festival and Midnight in the Square.
“That’s the best part, the fun part,” says Gale Ferranto of Landenberg’s Buona Foods and Bella Mushroom Farms, third-generation family mushroom growers and vendors. “It’s a place to connect, and we get the mushrooms ready for sure. There’s an energy, a buzz like when a band is coming on stage.”
About 65 percent of the fresh mushrooms consumed in the United States are grown in Southern
Kennett Square has long been the self-proclaimed Mushroom Capital of the World. Now the numbers back it up. More mushroom growing operations are concentrated in southern Chester County than in any other part of the United States. Monterey, Calif., ranks No. 2. and Reading, Pa., is No. 3. About 65 percent of the fresh mushrooms consumed in the United States are grown here, and mushrooms are the largest cash crop in Pennsylvania, adding, on average, $500 million to the state economy each year—about half the national total of $1 billion.
Jim Angelucci is a veteran general manager for mega-producer Phillips Mushroom Farms. He grew up in Kennett, and many see him as the godfather of the local mushroom scene. He’s been in the business for 57 years.
His opinion of Kennett in the old days: “If God was to give an enema anywhere, he should stick the tube at State and Broad,” he says. “It was not a great or lively place. Grandma’s on Sunday for pasta was the lone highlight, but there was always a diversity of inhabitants, and that lends a lot to an area.
“I travel all over the world for the mushroom business,” says Angelucci. “I’ve never been anywhere where you don’t have to tell someone what you do, and people always give me a double take. Fortunately, there are only a few of us who can say they grow these disgusting things”—essentially a fungus that grows in smelly compost—“though most say they love them.”
According to the “Manual of Mushroom Culture,” first published in 1935 in West Chester, the first record of mushroom cultivation was made during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) in France. Most mushrooms then were farmed in man-made caves or picked in the wild.
Mushrooms grow indoors, so they could be grown anywhere. Why Kennett?
In 1885, William Swayne was the first to grow mushrooms in Chester County. A successful florist in Kennett Square, he grew them beneath his carnation benches. He went to England for spawn, returned, then built the area’s first mushroom house.
His son, J. Bancroft Swayne, made mushroom growing commercially viable in part by developing a spawn plant and cannery. They hired Italians—mostly laid-off stone masons—to do the work. The Italians then started their own farms and passed them down through their families.
One example is To-Jo Mushrooms, owned by the D’Amico family for four generations. Tony and Joe Jr. now run things. “It’s great to see what they’ve done to grow our business and how our family values have passed from one generation to the next,” says their mother, Louise D’Amico.
By the 1950s, there were hundreds of mushroom farmers in Chester County, and by 1955, the American Mushroom Institute set up in Avondale. Its Mushroom News is mailed to 80 grower members in 17 states, 136 associate members and 35 professional members. Such support companies helped the industry “mushroom into what it is today,” Angelucci says.
But fungus farming, which employs 10,000 in the region, isn’t traditional farming. It starts with substrate—acres of steaming, reeking mounds of decomposing cocoa shells, corncobs, poultry litter and horse stable bedding. Once the substrate is spread on growing beds and primed, mushroom spores are fed in. The spores germinate, then send a thick web of white threads—mycelia—through the compost and a top layer of limestone and peat moss. The growers then cut carbon dioxide levels, lower the temperature levels and add water. The abrupt change tricks the fungi into thinking it’s winter. They reproduce in a panic, sending up masses of mushrooms like bubbling foam.
A mushroom doubles in size every 24 hours, so it’s imperative that they’re hand harvested quickly 10 or 11 weeks after a crop is sewn. Crews begin picking as early as 4 a.m., then rush them to processing centers. A single picker should net 80 to 100 pounds an hour.
Seasonal work on other kinds of farms is migratory. Mushroom harvesting provides year-round work, which is why thousands of workers have settled here. So is rising demand. Growers used to produce three crops a year. To keep up now, they raise six.
As demand has grown, so have costs for everything from compost ingredients to processing equipment to housing for workers. As a result, big farms are getting bigger, and small ones are folding. With the price of real estate and taxes also rising, even the most successful farms are expanding outside the county. About 60 survive in Chester County.
Over the past 10 years, Phillips, the country’s largest producer of specialty mushrooms—some 35 million pounds a year—has expanded to five new locations. Three of the expansions are in Warwick, Md., where the company grows only common white mushrooms. The new buildings enclose sophisticated growing spaces that are more efficient and productive than the traditional doubles in Pennsylvania.
All growers are looking for efficiencies to combat the rising costs for things such as health insurance, while getting more mushrooms into a diversified and competitive market. That’s not to mention food safety audits, less-than-neighborly resistance to plant odors, water usage, compost disposal—even the flood of outsiders for the festival.
Ferranto’s family, which has 45 to 50 employees and grows in 140,000 square feet of space, is trying to expand locally. Gale and her brother Pete bought a farm in Landenberg less than two years ago. Once a greenhouse, it is known as Pleasantville Farm.
“Some day it will be pleasant again,” Gale Ferranto promises. “It will become our future, but I’m not sure if growth (for others) will come here. The neighbors have changed, too, and now they don’t want to live in a farming community, though they live in one.”
Hence the labor shortage, which is due also to a lack of affordable housing. “Without labor, we will not be able to sustain this,” Ferranto says.
Even mighty Phillips has few new workers, and it tends to lose to cash-paying landscapers each spring—at least temporarily.
So for farmers of all kinds, the issue of immigration isn’t about citizenship or borders. Immigration is about survival.
From her retail shop, The Mushroom Cap, on West State Street in Kennett Square, Kathi Lafferty sells fresh white mushrooms from John R Stinson Sons, exotics from Phillips and Kennett Square Specialties, and locally foraged mushrooms from Jason Ricci’s Shaggy Shrooms. She also offers soup mixes, her own Snack ‘N Shrooms seasoned dry mushrooms, and themed gifts and collectibles.
A 13-minute movie continuously unveils the mushroom industry’s history, explains how and where mushrooms are grown (visitors yearn to know where the caves are), and touts the health benefits of mushroom consumption (blasts of natural vitamin D).
Lafferty’s only competition is The Woodlands at Phillips, a similar store the company operates in the founding family’s original home.
Courtesy of Phillips, Lafferty added educational decor—a model of a mushroom house and packing room, as well as displays that depict the parts of a mushroom, how shiitake mushrooms grow and the history of mushrooms—that had been in the old Phillips Mushroom Museum, which closed in 2001. “It feels good to have saved what’s a big part of our heritage,” she says.
Lafferty married a mushroom farmer. Husband Tom and his brothers Phil and Steve have long operated the family mushroom business begun by their father, Philip, in 1946. The family now rents its mushroom houses in Avondale, Landenberg, Kennett Square and Hockessin. They are also part owners of Mushroom Conveyors (filling houses) and they have a sideline selling spent mushroom substrate to garden centers. A son, Chris, works at Hillendale Peat Moss Inc., a mushroom-related service business.
When Lafferty took charge of the festival, there were 69 vendors. Her initial charge was to alphabetize them, but with time her idea to convert the festival’s bottom line from red to black took hold.
“I suggested that we give money away to make money,” she says. The original carnival vendor doubted attendance would justify his investment. “He was shocked,” she says.
The first year (2000) her plan netted a $5,000 return for the community. The festival has since grown to 240 vendors and has given away more than $805,000.
“Most importantly, for the Mexican kids, it’s like a vacation for them,” Lafferty says. “Now, our new carnival vendor is in Cochranville, Jim Houghton Enterprises, and with his coordination, it will be bigger this year. It all celebrates our heritage.”
Daniel Beltran is all about his heritage. He first harvested. Now he’s an established owner in a model journey that demonstrates what’s still possible in the United States of America.
In 1980, at age 16, he emigrated from Jalisco in central Mexico. He came east after a brief stay in California with his migrant father. Friends here knew of the need for mushroom harvesters. Beltran first worked for Lincoln Farms in Oxford, then spent the bulk of his worker-bee years with the now-defunct Elite Mushroom Company. After three years at Elite, he was upgraded from harvester to supervisor under the wing of owner Vincent Santucci, who recently died at 95. “He would never hide nothing [about the business],” Beltran says. “He was very open.”
“Transparent,” Sonya adds in her more cultivated English.
Even after five years as a supervisor, Beltran thought he’d forge on with something else. Anything was possible in the economy of the early 1990s. He fought common fear and insecurities, but with a supportive wife, embraced the risk of going into business for himself. “Some [friends] branched out into the mushroom industry service sectors,” he says, “but growing is the best part, and it’s what I liked to do.”
In 1994—Sonya was 3—he began his business. At 14, she began working in the office with Maria, who had once worked in packaging for Modern Mushroom (now owned by Giorgio). Daniel, now 52, was the second Spanish grower to start on his own in the region. The granddaddy (el abuelo in Spanish) was Hermion Davalos, owner of Solo D Mushrooms in Nottingham and Oxford, who has been integral in helping other Latino-owned growers. “He tried to convince me for a year, and he’s helped others,” Beltran says. “He’s loaned money, given advice, made connections, and now those he helped start are growing 100 million pounds of mushrooms a year.”
The Beltrans, who employ 125 full-time, mostly Latino workers, do their part. They grow 11.5 million pounds of white wholesale mushrooms a year, which ship out in thousands of 5- to 10-pound boxes a day. The average client—anywhere from New York to Florida to Chicago—orders 300 to 500 boxes a day. Masda owns or rents 30 houses in six locations in Avondale, Kennett and West Grove, and ASA has 25 houses in West Nottingham. JB Mushroom Service is a substrate (peat moss) service.
Beltran doesn’t plan to expand his operations as quickly as others have done. “I believe in taking my time and in open land,” he says from beneath an oversized rancher hat. “Everyone else is going fast, fast, fast. But the problem with going fast is that the faster you go, the faster you fall. We could increase production by 20 percent right now [by utilizing unused growing space], but I don’t believe in that other 20 percent [until there’s a demand]. If I can’t sell what I grow, then I don’t grow it. That’s our rule.”
Speaking for her siblings, Sonya says they’re proud of their mother and father for creating an opportunity to better themselves and their children. But Beltran won’t use the word pride. He translates his success as “confidence.”
“I know what I can do, and have done,” he says. “You can say you’re accomplished today, but you could fall tomorrow morning, so to say you’ve made it, and you’re on top, no. But I’m confident that through the years we made the right decisions and moves.”
The region is better off for it.