Every world capital seems to have troubles of some kind these days, and it's no different here in Kennett Square, the self-designated global capital of the mushroom industry.
Troubles are popping up like, well, like mushrooms. The main trouble is that they can't grow profits here the way they used to.
More mushrooms are raised in and around Chester County than anywhere else in the country, and that is part of the problem.
Like the Midwest farmers who raise wheat and corn in record quantities, the 300 or more mushroom farmers here are so prolific that they've produced a mushroom glut.
Other troubles make times yet uneasier around Kennett Square. Low-cost canned imports from the Far East are flooding the market. Big agribusinesses entering the industry are giving small farmers conniptions. The recession has slowed fresh-mushroom sales.
"Production costs are up 30 percent, and the price is down 10 percent in the last three years. It's not a very happy picture," said Joe DiNorscia Jr., the otherwise cheery president of Nick Basilio and Sons. Basilio's is one of the largest family-run operations in the country, growing 6 million pounds a year.
"Most of these operations are family-based. My father came here as an immigrant," DiNorscia said. "He saved money and put up a mushroom plant. We all picked mushrooms.
"Now my son is the head grower here. My four partners' sons are in the business. The tragedy is that you build all this equity over the years, then it comes down to whether you can make a living or not," DiNorscia said.
The mushroom men are not entirely without friends. Rep. Richard T. Schulze (R-Pa.), organizer of a mushroom caucus in Congress, is pushing legislation to require canned-mushroom labels to disclose their country of origin. He and the growers think that will help.
Proposed legislation also seeks to establish a mushroom marketing order, not to control supplies as some other farm marketing orders do, but to allow the industry to assess all growers to finance a campaign to extol the high nutritional value of fresh mushrooms and, of course, promote sales.
A tariff imposed by the International Trade Commission two years ago helped stem the tide from South Korea and Taiwan, but it did not deter China, which is dramatically increasing its exports (from 119 metric tons in 1979 to 6,723 in 1980, according to the Department of Agriculture).
The flip side to Joe DiNorscia's unhappy picture involves the several thousand workers who mix highly aromatic manure-based compost, put it in the growing beds, plant the spawn (seeds) and then harvest the mushrooms by the light of lamps beaming from their miners' helmets.
Most are Puerto Ricans and illegal Mexican aliens, restless over poor housing, long hours, low wages and working conditions in the hundreds of cramped, dark and humid cement-block growing buildings that dot the Chester County countryside.
It is tough, dirty, demanding work, with occasional exposure to toxic pesticides and the potential for contracting a chronic respiratory ailment known as Mushroom Workers Lung.
Unlike migrant farm laborers, the mushroom workers stay here, mostly in farmer-provided quarters. But they are, in a sense, a captive work force, housed on relatively remote farms, lacking transportation and working 12 hours a day or longer six days a week at the agricultural minimum wage ($3.35 an hour) with no overtime.
Art Read, a Philadelphia-based Legal Services lawyer who handles farmworker cases in the state, described it this way: "Our concerns are over the long hours, the housing conditions, the pay and the health problems. A major difficulty involves people learning to overcome their fears of complaining and bringing pressure."
Juan Sanchez, a young Puerto Rican attorney with Chester County Legal Aid, added, "We find the system has set Puerto Ricans against Mexicans, fighting each other for the jobs. . . . A large percentage of the Mexicans are undocumented workers, living in fear of exposure, afraid to complain, unaware of their rights. . . .
There are many wage violations, and the crew leaders, who tend to be Hispanics, keep tight control over the men. They complain, they're told to hit the road. The illegal Mexicans are afraid; the Puerto Ricans need the money," Sanchez said.
There apparently has been some change for the better, but many of the critical findings of a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report on working and housing conditions in 1977 appear to be as valid today as they were then.
"Let's face it," said DiNorscia. "Some growers don't have good living quarters and the hours are long because that is the nature of this industry. My own day begins at 5 a.m. and it goes to 6 p.m., seven days a week."
The Basilio brothers' operation may be one of the exceptions to the commission's findings. It features modern barracks-style quarters for about 100 workers, who each pay $10 a week rent and $36 a week for three meals a day. Most are paid on the hourly scale, with bonuses for above-average mushroom picking.
Conditions elsewhere are such, however, that there are stirrings to organize and unite the workers.
Puerto Rican Jesus Manuel Rivera, a former mushroom picker who now sorts mail in nearby West Chester, is one of the forces behind the Hispanic United Workers Committee, whose recent weekend of workshops was meant to stimulate the unity drive and alert workers to pesticide-handling dangers and federal wage laws.
Rivera said, "There is collective fear. They're afraid to lose their jobs, they have no academic education, they don't know their rights. But what we're trying to do first is unite the two communities, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. The growers and the crew leaders do their best to set the groups against each other."
In some parts of the country, mushrooms are grown in old mines and deep caves, but here in Chester County it is a highly automated, highly capitalized, highly specialized industry--yet dependent on a large amount of manual labor.
The edible mushroom goes back to ancient times (early Egyptians thought it promoted immortality). But the industry didn't spring up around here until the late 19th century, when one J. B. Swayne tried to grow mushrooms under the shelves of his greenhouses. It worked.
Others in the area copied him, and Pennsylvania is now the number one mushroom state, with about 60 percent of the national crop and more than $300 million annual income. Along with it grew a sizable support industry--compost makers, packers, "seed" producers, equipment companies.
One of the inheritors of Swayne's legacy is Steve Pizzini, owner of a medium-sized concern, who, like many others here, is of Italian origin and who learned the business from his father. Pizzini has been growing mushrooms 17 years; his father did it for 40.
"Yes, it's all indoors, but we definitely consider ourselves farmers," he said. "Mushrooms are a vegetable. We're definitely agriculture and we use a lot of the waste that used to come from farming--horse and chicken manure, corncobs, cocoa bean shells, which go into the compost mix."
Pizzini grabbed a large flashlight and led a visitor into one of his "fields"--a blockhouse about 36 feet wide and 60 feet long. The atmosphere is not unlike that of a coal mine--dark, cool, damp, confining and confusing. Workers bob around in the dark, rarely speaking, guided by the lights from their helmets.
Temperatures in the houses are tightly controlled--heat in winter, air-conditioning in summer--to maintain proper growing conditions. Each house has two tiers running lengthwise; each tier contains six levels of growing beds.
The beds are filled with compost, in which the mushrooms grow, and subjected to intense heat to kill off adverse bacteria, convert nitrogens and rid the compost of ammonias. Having no chlorophyll, the mushroom cannot carry on photosynthesis as green plants do and must rely on organic matter--the compost--for its food.
The beds are smoothed by workers, then planted with spores, commercially produced seeds of microscopic size. Planted beds are covered with topsoil, watered frequently and left to germinate.
Within 10 days, tiny mushrooms are pushing through the topsoil and harvest begins. Workers dart among the tiers, deftly cutting the largest mushrooms and dropping them into baskets that go to the packinghouses.
Each bed is harvested three or four times as new mushrooms pop through the surface. This three-month cycle then begins anew, with the old compost moved out, the house sanitized and readied for fresh compost.
Pizzini emerged back into daylight with a bit of a glint in his eye.
"You know, the folklore says we're growing an aphrodisiac here. I don't know about that, but I know the mushroom can stand with any vegetable on the shelf today."