Kennett Square, considered the Mushroom Capitol of the World, embraces its identity with shops such as The Mushroom Cap, which is located on West State Street. Image provided.
Mushrooms have never been in short supply thanks to the farms of Chester and Berks County.
According to Kathi Lafferty, the owner of The Mushroom Cap in Kennett Square and wife to a mushroom farmer, Pennsylvania is the number one state for growing mushrooms - with an astounding 68 percent of the nation’s mushrooms coming from the commonwealth.
“Mushrooms are grown all over the U.S. but the majority of them come from Pennsylvania,” said Lafferty, adding that California grows and sells the second most mushrooms in the U.S. – at 14 percent.
More than half of Pennsylvania’s mushrooms come from Kennett Square and the surrounding areas. All in all there are 47 mushroom growers in Kennett Square. The other regional hot spot for mushroom farming is in Berks County, which has about 300 mushroom farms.
Jim Angelucci, General Manager of Phillips Mushroom Farm, stated that 52 percent of mushrooms in Pennsylvania come from farms that are within a 25-mile radius of Kennett Square. He added that many of the jobs that are in Kennett Square come from mushroom farming.
“A good percentage of people who live around or in Kennett Square work, in some capacity, in mushroom farming,” Angelucci said.
The mushrooms that are grown at Phillips Mushroom Farm are shipped anywhere east of the Mississippi. Many of the other Kennett Square farms cover other areas of the country.
“They go up to Maine and down to Florida,” Angelucci said.
Phillips Mushroom Farm measures its mushrooms by the pound, and Angelucci said that each branch of the farm ships out over 30 million pounds of mushrooms a year.
With the large amount of mushrooms that just one farm in the area can grow and distribute, many would think that there is something special about Pennsylvania that makes growing mushrooms easier than in other places, but that assumption is incorrect.
“There is nothing in Pennsylvania that makes growing mushrooms easier or better than the rest of the country,” Angelucci stated.
According to Gene Pisasale, a historical novelist and resident of Kennett Square, the origin of the mushroom business in Kennett Square began with a man by the name of William Swayne. Swayne found that he had extra room in a bed where he was growing carnations. He decided to import spawn from Europe and began to grow mushrooms.
“He had tremendous success growing the mushrooms and other farmers took notice,” Pisasale said.
Angelucci said that there were a lot of farmers in the area who had greenhouses, and they used their greenhouse space to grow mushrooms as Swayne did.
According to Pisasale there are a few reasons why the industry has stayed in Kennett Square. The chief reason, which many people agree with, is simply because it started, and was successful, here.
The late J. Franklin Styer was one businessman whose prosperity helped Kennett Square become the Mushroom Capitol of the World. He owned what was known as the Styer Nursery until 1973, when he sold it but still remained on the board of the company.
Other farms that are still in Kennett Square today are Phillips Mushroom Farm, which grows specialty mushrooms and has been in Kennett Square since the 1920s, and Kaolin Farm, which grows general mushrooms and has been in business in Kennett Square since 1925. Both farms have headquarters in Kennett Square and employ a good portion of the people living in the immediate area.
Another key reason for the success of the mushroom industry, according to Pisasale, is the geographical location of Kennett Square. Kennett Square is only an hour and a half away from Baltimore, an hour away from Philadelphia, and a half hour away from Wilmington, and all of these are cities which can easily ship goods out to sea and around the country.
A third reason for success is the labor force.
“We do get a lot of migrant workers who are willing to do the labor, but that is one of the smaller reasons why it has thrived in Kennett Square,” Pisasale said.
Part of living in Kennett Square means that mushroom farming is a way of life, and since 1985 part of that life has been the Annual Mushroom Festival which is held every September.
The Mushroom Festival has been featured on Gourmet Live, which is Gourmet Magazine’s online resource, as one of America’s Best Food Festivals.
While the main focus of the Mushroom Festival is to sell mushrooms, it also serves the purpose of giving back. From the 2011 festival proceeds, 33 local non-profit organizations received grants that totaled in $55,000.
September 7 and 8 will mark the 28th anniversary of the Mushroom Festival. It is estimated that the last year the Mushroom Festival brought in more than 100,000 people. So clear your schedule for the festival September, and go celebrate your residency in the Mushroom Capitol of the World!
For more information on the Mushroom Festival go to www.mushroomfestival.org.