I addressed public transportation in a recent article as a weakness of Southern Chester County. But what about the strengths?What about being “The Mushroom Capital of the World”? Growing up in Kennett during the 50’s and 60’s, you basically grew up on a horse farm.Back then, all the mushroom soil composting was done outside and when walking to the school bus,it was rare that you didn’t catch the smell of horse manure in the air.
Today the composting is done inside, but you can experience the effect when they are switching out old compost for new. The industry has made major changes to reduce the effects of composting but if you’re paying attention you can still catch a whiff of living in the Mushroom Capital of the World.
Kennett can be proud of a lot of things. We could be the Gas Chromatography capital of the world thanks to Arron Martin, Gene Bennett and the F&M Corporation. We could be Little Switzerland where you can invest and protect your money thanks to Chatham Financial and Mike Bontrager. Or even A Place to Grow Old Well, with Genesis Health Ventures and the Quaker experiment of the Kendal-Crosslands Communities that combined the three levels of care- independent living, assisted living, and health center into one community. But Mushroom Capital was what we did best, first. In 1800’s William Swayne brought the first spores over from Europe to grow mushrooms under the flower beds in his greenhouses.
In 135 years we have gone from an idea to augment a flower business, to producing400 million tons of mushrooms a year; about half the country’s total production. The key reasons that helped, other than a couple of great entrepreneurs, was location. Mushrooms can double in size in 24 hours so they need to be picked and shipped at just the right time. Kennett was able to pick them at 4 AM, clean and package them by 6 AM and put them on a train to New York, Boston, Philly or Washington DC by 8AM so they were in the kitchens of restaurants by the afternoon.
Then, there is Penn State which has been conducting research and educational programs to assist the Commonwealth’s mushroom industry for 95 years. The value of the industry to Pennsylvania has grown from $42 million in 1970 to over $764 million today. Mushroom farmers have had the highest income of any class of farmer in the United States. Penn State helped with research on mushroom spawns and growing technology whose patents paid for additional research.
As a Penn State grad, I always enjoyed the fact that members of the University Trustee Board from Kennett would take up fresh mushrooms for the Nittany Lion Inn, and my friend Bud Pierce would drop a box off of Phillip’s best onto Sue Paterno’s doorstep each football weekend for her famous Italian dinners after the game.
The mushroom farmers are well paid, but the farm workers that pick the mushrooms make just above minimum wage. Most American farm workers travel to the location of the harvest which lasts only weeks, but mushrooms are picked year around. Access to low cost workers is a big reason for the industry’s success. Kennett has learned to integrate immigrants into the community over the last 100 years.
The Quakers hired Germans, who hired Italians, who hired Puerto Ricans and Mexican immigrant with Guatemalans now. It is not just a robust food cupboard and healthcare system that makes their lives better but the schools and the police departments are knowledgeable in accepting these new Americans who have so much to offerour society.
There is a top 25 list somewhere that says “You Know You’re from Kennett Square when…...” My favorite is- “When you’re in town you have to stop off at Sam’s Sub Shop for a real sub from Sandy, Sam’s daughter.”
According to this top 25 list, the number one reason you know you are from Kennett Square is when you catch the smell of mushroom compost in the air, you know that that is the smell of money.
Listen to NPR’s interview by Dan Charles of Kennett’s Chris Alonzo; How A Sleepy Pennsylvania Town Grew Into America's Mushroom Capital.