EDITOR’S NOTE: To celebrate the magazine’s 25th anniversary, we’re highlighting standout stories from our archives addressing topics that define our region. This feature was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Main Line Today.
For Daniel Beltran, the feeling was unsurpassed. “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 had just purchased his first mushroom houses—a four-unit complex on a 12-acre plot in West Grove. Until about two years ago, he rented for 16 years on one farm. A single house (actually called a double) rents for about $2,700 a month. All of them look about the same—windowless cinder-block shells with gray metal roofs. Drab, at best. “It’s not good style, and the mushrooms inside aren’t any prettier,” says Beltran’s eldest daughter, Sonya.
After graduating from Kennett High School, Sonya 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 University. She’s 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—all out of offices on Gap Newport Pike in Toughkenamon. The family lives in Kennett Square, a booming Chester County borough that’s preparing for its next Mushroom Festival in September.
The initials of Sonya’s family members are buried in the company names. Beltran’s wife, Maria, is the “M” in Masda. Offspring Alberto, Sonya, Daniel and the youngest, 12-year-old Avril, follow. While Alberto is a junior at Purdue University, Sonya continues to blossom in the industry, serving as a first-year board member at the California-based Mushroom Council, which meets this month in Kennett Square. “We’re seeing more Spanish faces—and female faces,” says Sonya. “It’s nice to see the increasing diversity in the industry. Sure, it’s competition. But when others do well, it’s good for you, too.”
That’s the nature—and purpose—of September’s National Mushroom Month and the festival in downtown Kennett, which draws 100,000 guests for a weekend of mushroom eating, growing exhibits, contests and entertainment. It’s a unique cultural experience that’s helped foster consumer interest in mushrooms, their health benefits, and the “blend” trend— using mushrooms to supplement meat
Lest you question Kennett residents’ commitment to fungi, the borough drops a 500-pound stainless-steel mushroom in its town square every New Year’s Eve. “It’s been amazing to see the growth over the years,” says Kathi Lafferty, coordinator of the festival and Midnight in the Square.
Kennett Square has long been the self-proclaimed Mushroom Capital of the World. Now, the numbers back it up. More growing operations are concentrated in Southern Chester County than in any other part of the United States. (Monterey, Calif., ranks No. 2; Reading, Pa., is No. 3.) About 65 percent of the fresh mushrooms consumed in the United States are grown here, and they’re the largest cash crop in Pennsylvania, adding, on average, $500 million to the state economy annually. The industry employs 10,000 in this region.
Kennett Square has long been the self-proclaimed mushroom capital of the world. Now, the numbers back it up. More growing operations are concentrated in Southern Chester County than in any other part of the United States.
Jim Angelucci is a veteran general manager for mega-producer Phillips Mushroom Farms. He grew up in Kennett, and he’s been in the business for 57 years. Many see him as the godfather of the local industry. His opinion of Kennett in the old days: “If God was to give an enema anywhere, he should’ve stuck the tube at State and Broad. It was not a great or lively place,” he says. “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.”
Angelucci travels all over the world for the mushroom business. “I’ve never been anywhere where you don’t have to tell someone what you do, and people always give me a double take,” he says. “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.”
Because mushrooms can grow indoors, they could be grown anywhere. So why Kennett Square?
The earliest 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. All of this is cited in the Manual of Mushroom Culture, initially published in 1935 in West Chester.
William Swayne was the first to grow mushrooms in Chester County in 1885. A successful florist in Kennett Square, he grew them beneath his carnation benches. He went to England for spawn and returned to build the area’s premier mushroom house. His son, J. Bancroft Swayne, helped make mushroom growing commercially viable by developing a spawn plant and cannery. They hired Italians—mostly laid-off stonemasons— to do the work. The Italians then started their own farms and passed them through their families.
To-Jo Mushrooms has been 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. In 1955, the American Mushroom Institute set up shop in Avondale. Its Mushroom News is mailed to 80 grower members in 17 states, along with 171 associate and professional members. Such support has helped the industry “mushroom into what it is today,” Angelucci says.
Seasonal work on other kinds of farms is migratory. Mushrooms provide year-round income, which is why thousands of workers have settled here. Growers used to produce three crops a year. To meet rising demand, they now raise six.
Growing mushrooms 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, sending a thick web of white threads—mycelia—through the compost and to a top layer of limestone and peat moss. The growers then cut carbon-dioxide levels, lower the temperature 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 80–100 pounds an hour.
Seasonal work on other kinds of farms is migratory. Mushroom harvesting provides year-round income, which is why thousands of workers have settled here. Growers used to produce three crops a year. To meet rising demand, they now raise six.
As demand has grown, so have the 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 increasing, even the most successful farms are spreading elsewhere. About 60 survive in Chester County.
Phillips is the country’s largest producer of specialty mushrooms—some 35 million pounds a year. Over the past 10 years, it has expanded to five new locations. Three of those 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.
As they strive to get more mushrooms into a more diversified and competitive market, growers are looking for efficiencies to combat the rising costs for things like health insurance, food-safety audits, water usage, compost disposal, and less-than-neighborly resistance to plant odors.
The Ferranto family is trying to expand locally. They have 45–50 employees and grow in 140,000 square feet of space. Gale and her brother, Pete, bought a farm in Landenberg fewer than two years ago. Once a greenhouse, it’s called Pleasantville Farm. “Someday, this spot will be pleasant again,” Gale promises. “It will become our future, but I’m not sure if growth [for others] will come here. The neighbors have changed, too. Now, they don’t want to live in a farming community—though they live in one.”
Hence, the shortage of workers, which is also due to a lack of affordable housing. Even mighty Phillips has few new workers. “Without labor, we will not be able to sustain this,” says Gale.
For farmers of all kinds, the issue of immigration isn’t about citizenship or borders. Immigration is about survival.
At age 16, Daniel Beltran emigrated from Jalisco in central Mexico in 1980. He came east after a brief stay in California with his migrant father. Friends here knew of the need for mushroom harvesters. Beltran was first hired by a farm in Oxford, then spent the bulk of his worker-bee years with the now-defunct Elite Mushroom Company. After three years there, he was upgraded from harvester to supervisor under the wing of owner Vincent Santucci, who recently died at 95. “He would never hide anything [about the business],” Beltran says. “He was very open.”
Even after five years as a supervisor, Beltran wanted to move on to something else. Anything was possible in the economy of the early 1990s, and with his supportive wife, Maria, he 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.”
When Beltran began his business in 1994, his daughter was 3. At 14, Sonya started working in the office with Maria, who’d once been an employee for Modern Mushroom (currently owned by Giorgio). Now 52, Beltran was the second Latino grower to strike out on his own in this region. The granddaddy is Hermion Davalos, who runs Solo D Mushrooms in Nottingham and Oxford. Davalos has been integral in furthering other Latino growers. “He tried to convince me for a year, and he’s helped others,” Beltran says. “He’s loaned money, given advice, made connections. Now those he helped are growing 100 million pounds of mushrooms a year.”
The Beltrans employ 125 full-time, mostly Latino workers. They grow 11.5 million pounds of wholesale white mushrooms a year, which ship out in thousands of five-to 10-pound boxes a day. The average client—anywhere from New York to Florida to Chicago—orders 300–500 boxes a day.
Among the family’s ventures, Masda owns or rents 30 houses in six locations in Avondale, Kennett and West Grove, and Asa has 25 in West Nottingham. JB Mushroom Service deals in substrate.
Beltran doesn’t plan to expand his operations as quickly as others have done. “I believe in taking my time,” he says from beneath an oversized rancher hat. “Everyone else is going fast, fast, fast. But the problem with going fast is, 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.”
While Sonya and her siblings are proud of their parents, Beltran won’t use the word “pride.” He calls it “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 the region is better for it.
Chester County’s agricultural industry continues to rank second among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties and 53rd among 3,000-plus counties nationwide. The mushroom industry impacts the county to the tune of $3 billion annually.
Even in light of all the positives, COVID-19’s ramifications have amplified well-established industry workforce shortages, forcing owners to rethink business models in the face of lost revenue, mostly from the hard-hit restaurant, university and cruise industries.
In Chester County, mushroom farm owners have taken pandemic precautions. Chris Alonzo points to new measures on his farm, including TV monitors playing safety messages in Spanish for his largely immigrant workforce, more conversations with employees about their health, and T-shirts that feature a Superman-style logo with a mushroom and the slogan “I’m feeding America! Stay 6 feet away.”
“The guys liked that,” says Alonzo, the president and CEO of Pietro Industries in Kennett Square and also the board chair of the Chester County Agricultural Development Council. “They’re frontline workers, too— getting food out every day, and worthy of our attention and appreciation.”
With safety in mind, Sonya Beltran, director of operations at the family-owned First Generation Farms and Masda Mushrooms in Avondale, partnered with LCH Health & Community Services in Kennett Square to offer voluntary on-site COVID-19 testing. All of her employees were paid, even during a two-month shutdown. She also offered flexible scheduling for childcare.
Harvesters already wore gloves, but masks were new. Workers further spread themselves out in harvesting rooms, and doors were kept open for constant air circulation. Extra cleanings became commonplace. “They’re all habits as of now,” Beltran says.
Despite what she sees as an industry-wide switch to retail packaging for grocery stores, Beltran is staying the food service-wholesale course. On average, her farms have produced 11 million pounds of fresh mushrooms a year in 50 growing rooms, though the pandemic forced a two-month growing lapse. At one point, production dipped 70 percent at Masda and 80–90 percent at Pietro. “Initially, we had seas of mushrooms,” Beltran says. “We were tossing gorgeous, freshly harvested mushrooms that came right off a [growing] bed straight into dumpsters. It was heartbreaking, but it takes so many days in advance (about two months) to prep for a mushroom. You take the risk.”
Beltran is vice chair of the Mushroom Council, the national trade promotion group that’s pushing the “blend” trend, a sustainable cooking technique that combines chopped mushrooms with recipes. Indeed, there’s a renewed focus on the nutritional value of mushrooms in meals. “They can be essential workers in your immune system, and they’re cost-friendly for a pandemic budget,” Beltran says