Mushroom Farms Upgrade for Future

Aug 30, 2019  | 6 min  | Ep4502

More than one entrepreneur has launched a business that quickly outgrew the garage to become a major employer in the community. Corporate giants Microsoft and Apple are new to the game in comparison to one business with roots in the East.

Colleen Bradford Krantz has more in our Cover story.

Contact: @BradfordKrantz

Anyone in southeastern Pennsylvania worth their weight in Maitake knows the story of how the mushroom industry began here. It’s not about the area’s climate, terrain or soil.

Kathi Lafferty, owner, The Mushroom Cap: “The mushrooms all started back in the late 1800s.”

Jim Angelucci, Phillips Mushroom Farms: “It started when a carnation grower’s son saw wasted space under the carnation beds...”

…in a Kennett Square city market similar to this one in New York city…

Jim Angelucci, Phillips Mushroom Farms: “He was very fastidious and, wanting to make use of all the resources. He took a steam ship to Europe where they were growing mushrooms in Paris …”

Kathi Lafferty, owner, The Mushroom Cap: “and he brought in the mushroom spawn.”

Jim Angelucci, Phillips Mushroom Farms: “And in 1902, Swayne and a fellow named Harry Hicks built the first building specifically to grown mushrooms.. and the industry just started to spread.”

Today, Pennsylvania is the nation’s top producer of mushrooms, growing and picking 67 percent of the United States’ 827 million pounds of the most commonly cultivated mushrooms, including white button. California comes in a distant second, raising 11 percent.

Chester County and, specifically, the community of Kennett Square have labeled themselves the “mushroom capital of the world.” The city of 6,000 holds an annual Mushroom Festival, serves mushroom-focused dishes in nearly every restaurant, and even has a mushroom-themed gift shop.

Kathi Lafferty, owner, The Mushroom Cap: “It’s great for the economy here in Chester County and, you know, the industry employs probably 10,000 people. It’s just amazing.”

Yet, it’s not always an easy business. A new report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service shows the volume of all mushrooms slipping 10 percent over the past three years.

Jim Angelucci, general manager of Phillips Mushroom Farms, says the startup and overhead costs are significant for those trying to get into the business. But labor has perhaps been the biggest problem as some companies struggle to hire enough workers to pick their mushrooms. Like many dairy farmers, mushroom producers are not allowed to hire temporary international workers under the H-2A visa program because the work occurs year round.

Jim Angelucci, Phillips Mushroom Farms: “Since we grow mushrooms 24-7, 365, we are not considered seasonal. My comment is, you know, our crop is only 9 weeks long. We just elect to do it six and a half times a year…If we don’t do something, I consider it a national security issue. We’ve got to have labor…You know, we’re going to lose the salad bowl in California if we don’t get labor.”

Phillips Mushrooms has been around for 92 years, and is now the world’s largest grower of exotics mushrooms. Business is strong enough that the company is building a new state-of-the-art mushroom farm just across the state line in Warwick, Maryland.

Growers pick inside climate-controlled buildings with humidity and temperature set to the perfect range for mushrooms. However, that doesn’t isolate the company financially from consequences of extreme weather.

Jim Angelucci, Phillips Mushroom Farms: “We don’t have to deal with the elements directly. When it’s 105 degrees here in the summer and our electric meters are spinning off the walls because of the electricity we are using to cool the rooms, that’s still a direct effect of the weather… the cost of doing business continues to escalate, the cost of compliance with the government.”

The Warwick facility, where additional buildings are still being constructed, features stainless steel rather than the traditional wooden growing shelves. The complex was begun when the company decided to return to growing large volumes of white button mushrooms, which it had moved away from. The stainless steel shelves are easier to wash down when the compost – or substrate - is changed after a batch of mushrooms is harvested.

Jim Angelucci, Phillips Mushroom Farms: “Our Maryland facility is called the Dutch style growing…When we were going to venture back into growing whites, the Agaricus mushrooms, back in 2009 we decided that we would look at state of the art facilities, food safety being the most important factor. So we spent a few years going back and forth to Europe before we decided on the design.”

The mushroom, as they have always been, are grown in a special type of substrate. Stall bedding from a nearby horse track is used, as is old wheat straw and hay, preventing that material from being tossed into a landfill. Some of the area’s mushroom farmers own the composting facility as a shared cooperative, and the materials are blended and prepared for all.

Angelucci, even before working for the Phillips, knew mushroom farming, and how to work with the substrate.

Jim Angelucci, Phillips Mushroom Farms: “My father told me when I was nine years old to put something on the table besides my elbows. So he took me down to our friend, a mushroom farmer … and I was the little kid on top of the pile with the hose, making sure that it reacted properly.”

Angelucci feels good about where the company and industry are heading, particularly if the labor problem can be resolved. Recent studies point to a possible connection between eating white button mushrooms and inhibiting the development of breast cancer in older women.

The Mushroom Council is encouraging Americans who are considering becoming vegetarians to instead blend chopped mushrooms into their ground meats, becoming “blenditarians.”

Jim Angelucci, Phillips Mushroom Farms: “Research has shown… an incremental sales increase in beef because people feel better about eating it… A blenditarian is one who believes that the meaty, mighty mushroom makes meals more nutritious, delicious and sustainable.”

For Market to Market, I’m Colleen Bradford Krantz.

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