How 400 Million Mushrooms Are Grown A Year In This Small Town | Big Business

Narrator: Farmers grow, harvest, and pack nearly 400 million mushrooms a year in this small Pennsylvania town. Chris: This is Kennett Square, the mushroom capital of the world. Narrator: Here, they cultivate everything from white button and portobello to specialty mushrooms like shiitake and lion’s mane. But the industry’s facing a major problem. There aren’t enough mushroom pickers. Sonya: Demand is starting to rise, but it’s hard to meet that demand if there’s not enough labor. Narrator: One big reason for that is America’s strict immigration laws that are keeping workers away. Without the extra hands, many farmers have been forced to kill off entire crops. It’s estimated more than a million mushrooms every week are getting destroyed. Sonya: You’re are steaming off rooms with mushrooms that could be harvested that just had nowhere to go. Chris: And that’s not just my farm. That’s farms in California and Texas and all over the country. Narrator: And it’s left businesses like this one on the brink. Chris: We’re losing about $50,000 to $100,000 of revenue per month. Narrator: So why is the industry struggling to find workers? And how can it recover? We went to Pennsylvania to find out. All of mushroom life starts here, with compost. Glenn: The mushrooms here are very picky eaters. Narrator: The mushrooms eat a strict diet of recycled mulch, hay, wheat, straw, poultry litter, and corncob. Glenn: So this is the material near the end of the composting process. It’s dark, caramelized. It’s soft. It has a lot of water. Narrator: The mushroom spores, or seeds, are added in. Then it’s aged, pasteurized, and trucked to farms across the county, like this one. Chris: I’m Chris, and I’m a third-generation mushroom farmer. Narrator: Chris’ family has been growing white button and cremini mushrooms since 1938. Chris: Mushrooms are grown indoors so that we can control the environment. Narrator: It all happens on vertical shelves. Workers use this machine to lay the compost down. Then comes the layer called casing, with peat moss, limestone, and water. Chris: This equipment allows us to have the machine do the heavy work. Narrator: It helps get a perfect 1.75-inch layer, so the mushrooms don’t grow unevenly or come up dirty. This panel controls the growing conditions. They want a perfect combination of carbon dioxide, humidity, and temperature. Chris: After 16 days, we’re ready to harvest. Narrator: But it’s harvesters who are hardest to find. Chris: We’re always harvesting. The only day we don’t work is Christmas. That did not stop because of the pandemic. Our workers were considered essential. Now that the economy started to pick back up, we’re down 20% on our workforce, and it’s been a major impact on our business. Narrator: The mushrooms are grown and harvested in three breaks, or phases, meaning each room will get picked from three times, starting with the biggest mushrooms. Then they’ll wait for the little ones to mature. Narrator: Mushrooms double in size every 24 hours, so pickers have to move quickly. Each armed with a knife, a cart, and tons of boxes. They harvest every mushroom by hand. Daniel: You kind of twist the mushrooms, you don’t put no dirt. Sonya: 220 mushrooms to fill up a 10-pound box. Daniel: 10 an hour. That can give you a good prospect. Some people, they do more than 15, 16 an hour. They’re fast. Narrator: Daniel Beltran and his daughter, Sonya, run Masda Farms, just up the road. Daniel: I’m the second Mexican to grow mushrooms in the whole United States. Narrator: Daniel worked as a mushroom picker for over 12 years. Daniel: And I was thinking on my mind, I said, “I hope one day I get a farm.” Narrator: Today, he and Sonya own 25 mushroom houses. Daniel: We probably need close to what, 80 harvesters every day, and we have 60. Narrator: Today, harvesters work up to 12-hour days to pick as many mushrooms as they can. Narrator: But they still can’t keep up. Chris: We should be harvesting 10 rooms of mushrooms every day, and we usually only can get to seven or eight rooms. Narrator: In the leftover rooms, the mushrooms will be steamed off, meaning they’ll be destroyed. It’s a race against time, because mushrooms grow so quickly. Waiting even one day means … Narrator: And customers don’t like that, so the value decreases. Chris: We’re about $0.35 a pound instead of a dollar a pound. Sonya: It kind of like, hurts a little bit, thinking of — seriously, there’s nowhere that you could probably put this, and there really isn’t. There’s nothing you can do. Narrator: It gets even worse for specialty mushrooms that require even more labor. Like these shiitakes at Phillips Mushroom Farms. Pete: It usually takes three days to pick the whole house. That’s still all done by hand, so it’s still labor-intensive. Narrator: Or these maitakes. Pete: Each one of these logs has to be moved by hand. Put them on a shelf to spawn-run, then we take them off the shelf and bring them down here, put them on this shelf to pick, and then we have to pick them. And then we also have to throw it away. There’s six touches in the course of this thing’s life cycle. Every touch is a person, which are hard to come by nowadays. Narrator: But the labor issues don’t just stop at harvest. They can also be felt at the packing level. Meghan is the third-generation of her family to run Mother Earth Organic Mushrooms. Meghan: This pallet of mushrooms was just brought in from our farms, and then we get it in to one of our two coolers. Everything is labeled so that we know exactly what farm it came from, the date it came in, and how many pounds are brought in, and it’s all in our system so we can easily trace back all of our product. Narrator: Meghan has machines to wash and cut the mushrooms, and even to wrap and label the boxes. But everything in between, from topping off a box to tracking and weighing, is done by hand. Meghan: And then it’ll get put in a flat at the end and get palletized to go out to the customer. Narrator: Mother Earth delivers mushrooms as far as Denver, Texas, and Boston. But getting them there is tough with so few workers. Meghan: So, it used to just be harvesters that were harder to get. Now it’s at our harvesting level, at our supervisor level, at our quality assurance level, even our office staff level. Truck drivers have been really hard to find, as well. The problem is, is that they can’t get them harvested at the farms, that means we don’t have the mushrooms for the packing facility. It’s a complete ripple effect. Narrator: So how did the industry’s labor problem become so dire? Well, it starts with Kennet Square’s history of immigration. Quakers, a Protestant Christian group, were the first to grow mushrooms here in 1885. As the story goes … Chris: Originally, a Quaker farmer who grew carnations tried to grow mushrooms under the beds of the carnations, and he was successful. Narrator: The Quakers then hired Italian immigrants to do the hard manual labor. The Italians then started hundreds of mushroom farms of their own in the area. From the 1950s to the 70s, former sugar cane workers from Puerto Rico settled into Kennett Square and took over picking the mushrooms. But when they began asking for higher wages and better working conditions, farm owners fired them and hired Mexican immigrants instead. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed an immigration bill that gave legal status to certain undocumented agricultural workers who came into the country before 1982. Daniel: That really, really helped for all the Mexican workers. Most Mexicans work in the mushroom industry for, I would say, at least 40 years. Narrator: They built Kennett Square into America’s mushroom capital. It now produces 60% of the country’s product. But that population of Mexican immigrants is aging out of this work, and their kids have chosen other career paths. Daniel: We started getting people from Central America now. Narrator: Even before the pandemic, these new workers began leaving for other industries. Leo: There’s people that say, “Oh, like, you go to construction or you go to landscaping, make more money.” Narrator: To make things worse, strict immigration laws in the US have suffocated the legal flow of Central and Latin American workers. Because mushrooms are a year-round crop, the industry doesn’t qualify for the H-2A temorary worker program, which allows immigrants to come into the US and work in seasonal agriculture. The labor crunch is affecting every mushroom farm, both small and large. To entice the few pickers left, farm owners are offering perks: higher pay, housing, and transportation to and from work. Chris: Our harvesters work on a piece rate, we pay them per box. My average harvester earns over $14 an hour, but I have some harvesters that make over $20 an hour. I would like to pay them more. The company just can’t afford to yet. Agriculture in general, and mushroom farms specifically, work on very thin margins. So when we can’t harvest 10% of our product, we’re definitely losing money. Narrator: Chris is losing $40,000 in revenue a week. Glenn: For this current year, we probably have lost somewhere in the middle of $250,000. Daniel: It’s millions around. Sonya: Yes. Daniel: It’s not thousands. It’s millions, realistic. It is painful. Chris: If this happens, farms will either have to reduce their scale and fill less growing rooms, or they eventually would have to shut down. Narrator: All together, Chester County’s mushroom farmers lost $168 million in 2020. And that has a significant effect on the market, which is booming in popularity. Chris: For the last 10 years, we’re seeing a demand increase of 3% to 5% every year. Narrator: Sales in grocery stores have gone up by 15% in 2021. Chris: Customers are asking every day to fill their orders, and we just don’t have enough mushrooms to do that. So it’s difficult to want to expand, want to provide all the orders that they want, and then see mushrooms just go to waste. Narrator: The solution for the labor issue isn’t an easy one. Farmers have already automated much of the process. Some have turned to growing bigger mushrooms. Meghan: If you grow a larger mushroom, it actually makes it a lot faster for the harvesters to pick them, so we can get them quicker here, and get them out to our customers and do it with less labor. Narrator: The American Mushroom Institute is pushing the Senate to pass the Farmworker Modernization Act. The bill would extend the H-2A temporary program to the mushroom industry. That way, immigrants could get an agricultural worker visa to pick mushrooms. Chris: We need more migrant workers, we need more ability to bring people up to the country. Just like our grandparents did — they came up and worked two jobs and worked hard to make a better life for ourselves. And we need to continue to have America do that for new immigrant populations. Narrator: Others in the industry are considering robot pickers, though not everyone thinks they’re the best option. Leo: You can’t really get a machine to be as delicate as a person’s hand to choose exactly which mushroom. You also have to have, like, the eye to see which one is ready to pick. Narrator: Robots like this are still three years away. Until then, farmers will keep putting out the call for anybody to come help pick mushrooms. Daniel: Every mushroom gives you an extra day of life. So if you eat 20, 20 extra days. Leo: Actually, I don’t even like eating mushrooms. I don’t like the taste. I don’t like any of that. But like, I like seeing how they grow, you know?

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