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July 9, 2018
Your Guide To Kennett Square’s Mushroom Heritage
“One of the fun facts about mushrooms,” says Lori Harrison, Communications Manager at the American Mushroom Institute, “is that they double in size every 24 hours.” The growth of Kennett Square’s mushroom industry has been even more extraordinary. In 1885, florist William Swayne spawned the idea of growing mushrooms beneath his greenhouse benches.
Encouraged by the results, he and Harry Hicks built the first mushroom house, at the corner of Apple Alley and Willow Street, in 1902. Swayne’s son eventually added a spawn plant and cannery.
Others followed suit, including many Italians who were working in the stone quarries. Generations later, over 300 family farms have consolidated, and Pennsylvania’s 57 mushroom farms, most of them in Southern Chester County, produce 64 percent of all white button mushrooms consumed in the US. That’s 577 million pounds of mushrooms worth $560 million in sales. It’s now a year-round enterprise, thanks to climate control, and growers have responded to consumer demand for more fresh mushrooms and exotic varieties.
“There are lots of places where it’s easier to grow mushrooms,” says Jim Angelucci, general manager of Phillips Mushroom Farms, “without the seasonal temperature extremes, for example. But it started here.” He smiles. “And it’s mushroomed into what it is today.”
This growth has been healthy and sustainable and has benefited from wisdom passed down through generations as well as from advances in technology.
Sustainable And Collaborative
“The mushroom industry is the original recycler,” Angelucci says. The mushroom-growing substrate is a blend of farming byproducts that provide the necessary carbon (e.g., from cocoa shells, many from Hershey), carbohydrates (hay or stable bedding), and nitrogen (e.g., poultry litter). If mushroom farmers didn’t buy and use these materials, most would end up polluting our waterways. After a few growth cycles, companies like Skyland repurpose the mushroom compost into a soil engineered for green roofs. “It’s 360-degree sustainability,” Harrison says.
Like the mycelia, the interwoven root-like web that spreads as the spores germinate, the mushroom industry is an integral part of the economic and social fabric of the community. Many local industries and businesses support and depend on it—from suppliers of machinery and materials to businesses patronized by employees.
The growers are also interconnected. “We’re all competitors in the same market, but we collaborate,” Angelucci says. They sell to each other and work on common issues including transportation, labor, and industry standards.
Healthy And On Trend
“The trend is to blend,” Angelucci says, and the recent enthusiasm for blended mushroom-beef burgers is good news for the industry, for the health-conscious consumer, and for the environment (growing mushrooms requires much less water than any animal-based food).
Harrison says the Mushroom Council has done an exceptional job educating consumers—from students to suppliers—about the many health benefits of mushrooms. The Woodlands at Phillips also offers a free mushroom-growing exhibit and museum. Mushrooms are rich in potassium, B vitamins, antioxidants, and vitamin D, and studies are finding some astonishing medicinal benefits as well. The pom pom mushroom has been found to mitigate dementia, maitake can relieve some side effects of chemotherapy, and shiitake can help protect the liver.
Steeped In Tradition, Looking To The Future
While many of the principles of mushroom farming are time-honored, the industry is so successful in part because of ongoing efforts to improve efficiency and productivity. Marlboro Mushrooms now runs on solar power, for example, and the newly expanded Warwick Mushroom Farms uses state-of-the-art climate control and communications systems.
But none of this technology replaces the key role of growers, maintenance crews, and harvesters. All systems need to be constantly monitored, and every single mushroom is still picked by hand. “The mushroom industry is not a vocation,” Angelucci says, “but an avocation. You have to live it.”