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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mushroom Capital

I knew, as many of you probably do, that Kennett Square, PA--that small town in Chester County--is truly the mushroom capital of the US (if not the world).  Farms there produce about 400 million pounds of mushrooms each year--that's over half of the mushrooms consumed in the US.  That's an amazing amount.

What I didn't know was how Kennett Square became the center of the mushroom universe.  An interesting NPR article gives more information, but here are some of the basics.

The story begins with Quakers.  According to the local story, in 1885, a couple of Quaker flower farmers in Chester County wanted to use up some ground under their flower greenhouses.  So they decided to try to raise mushrooms.  It worked.

White mushrooms ready for the picking.  (Photo courtesy of NPR.)
For this labor intensive work, they hired Italians who lived in the area, who eventually started their own farms.  By 1950, there were hundreds of mushroom farms in the area--many owned by Italian families. 

Raising mushrooms starts with the compost.  Most of the local farms use cocoa shells from Hershey, and corn cobs, hay, chicken manure and horse manure from area farms.  The spores are added to the compost in dark buildings, which creates fungus.  The farmers then lower the carbon dioxide level and temperature and add water.  This simulates winter coming on and the fungus then forces the mushrooms to grow.

Tending the mushroom growing barns, harvesting, etc are all done manually.  (Many of the workers are Mexicans who have worked these farms for generations.)  And timing is important.  According to the article, mushrooms can double in size in 24 hours, so when they're the right size, they have to be harvested. 

The mushroom business in Kennett Square continues to grow.  Unfortunately, that means that the big farms have gotten bigger and many of the smaller ones have folded.  With larger farms, it's harder to get enough of their needs met locally.  For example, compost ingredients have to be brought in from further away, which is more expensive.

Still, the farms that continue to thrive are a result of the hard work and ingenuity of the many who came before them.  And that's a pretty cool thing.

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