How Enterprising Immigrants Keep Kennett Square the Mushroom Capital of the World

Chester County is the largest mushroom-producing region in the country, thanks in part to the dedication of a wave of new citizens.

A worker does the trimming at To-Jo Mushrooms in Avondale//All photos by Tessa Marie Images.

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, 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, also working 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 31st annual Mushroom Festival, running Sept. 9-11.  

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.”

To-Jo Mushrooms Warehouse

Loading baskets of fresh product at To-Jo.

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.

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. 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.”

Masda Mushroom Houses

Mushroom houses

Because mushrooms can grow indoors, they could be grown anywhere. So why is it 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.

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 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.

makeshift shrine

A makeshift shrine at the To-Jo Mushrooms facility.

By the ’50s, there were hundreds of mushroom farmers in Chester County, and by 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.

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.

Pietro Industries

A day on the job at Kennett Square’s Pietro Industries, which produces 11 million white mushrooms a year. 

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 outside the county. 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 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.

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, less-than-neighborly resistance to plant odors, water usage, and compost disposal. 

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. “Without labor, we will not be able to sustain this,” says Gale.

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. 

Louise and Tony D’Amico

To-Jo Mushrooms’ mother-and-son team, Louise and Tony D’Amico.

From her retail shop 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 varieties. The Mushroom Cap also offers soup mixes, Lafferty’s own Snack N Shrooms seasoned dry mushrooms, and themed gifts and collectibles. A 13-minute film at the shop covers the industry’s history, explains how and where mushrooms are grown, and touts the health benefits of mushroom consumption (blasts of natural vitamin D). Courtesy of Phillips, Lafferty also has a model of a mushroom house and packing room, plus educational displays from the old Phillips Mushroom Museum, which closed in 2001. “It feels good to save what’s a big part of our heritage,” she says.

Lafferty married a mushroom farmer. Her husband, Tom, and his brothers, Phil and Steve, operate the family business begun by their father, Philip, in 1946. The family now rents its mushroom houses in Avondale, Landenberg, Kennett Square and Hockessin, Del. They’re also part-owners of Mushroom Conveyors, and they sell spent mushroom substrate to garden centers. A son, Chris, works at Hillendale Peat Moss.

When Lafferty took charge of the Mushroom Festival, there were 69 vendors. Her initial assignment was to alphabetize them. With time, her idea to take the festival’s bottom line from red to black took hold. “I suggested that we give money away to make money,” she says. 

In 2000, her plan netted a $5,000 return for the community. The festival has since grown to 240 vendors and given away more than $805,000. “Now, our carnival vendor, Jim Houghton Enterprises, is in Cochranville. With his coordination, it will be bigger this year.” 

Pietro Industries

A day on the job at Kennett Square’s Pietro Industries, which produces 11 million white mushrooms a year. 

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.” 

“Transparent,” adds his daughter, Sonya.

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.”

Pietro Industries mushroom house

Inside a mushroom house at Pietro Industries. 

When he began his business in 1994, Sonya was 3. At 14, she started working in the office with Maria, who’d once worked in packaging for Modern Mushroom (currently owned by Giorgio). Now 52, Beltran was the second Spanish 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 5- 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.

Pietro Industries mushroom house

Inside a mushroom house at Pietro Industries. 

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.

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