Lou Caputo Jr. is disgusted: All that harvest, and nowhere to sell it.
His newest mushroom shed complex, finished in 2018 at a cost of $6.5 million, was bursting full of white, agaricus mushrooms -- “just beautiful,” he tells me over the phone, texting me a video he took last weekend of the ripe beds, a fluorescent-lit fungus bunkhouse the size of a football field, which could top a southern Italian soccer league’s pizzas and pastas for many months.
That harvest ought to be on its way to Aramark and the Big Five college cafeterias, NBA and NCAA stadium sandwich shops, Wendy’s and Carnival Cruise. But that’s not happening this March.
Because of the coronavirus, Caputo says. “Food service — the cafeterias — and the restaurants, the salad bars, the cruise ships — all closed down,” he lamented.
He says he “steamed off" — heated, sterilized and trashed — a crop worth $200,000 last week. All to trailer-sized open-topped disposal containers, good only for recycling. Some neighbors are doing the same, “throwing away thousands of pounds.” That’s after sending 20,000 pounds to food banks, Caputo added.
Aren’t you redirecting the harvest to supermarkets, where people who normally eat in restaurants are now standing in extra-long lines? I asked.
Caputo: “People are buying extra paper and pasta. Not produce.”
His companies — Caputo & Guest (white-mushroom growers), Kennett Square Specialties (exotics), and KSS Sales (distribution) —- will take the loss.
And the working people: “I took 160 workers and showed 'em how to apply for unemployment,” he said.
U.S. farms sell about $1.2 billion worth of fresh mushrooms a year, according to federal Department of Agriculture data. Crops mature on a several-week cycle, moving from refrigerator-cold to spawn-induced heat, year-round.
More than half the total is raised in Kennett Square and nearby townships of southern Chester County, and in neighboring Berks County.
As with other crops, “mushroom growers are being impacted due to the coronavirus,” said Lori Harrison, spokeswoman for the American Mushroom Institute, also based in Kennett Square. Although growers who ship to groceries are busy, those who rely on restaurant and food service buyers “are seeing a negative impact,” until supermarkets are ready to take up the slack or restaurants reopen.
The mushroom lobby joined fruit and vegetable and grain groups in a letter urging U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to use federal funds to declare a national emergency and buy up unsold produce until the markets rebalance, she added. “Things are moving quickly.”
Farmers, including descendants of Quaker and Italian growers who pioneered the industry in the early 1900s, backed sometimes by rich outside investors, run several dozen mushroom farms. They are staffed largely by naturalized or green-carded Mexican immigrant pickers and packers, whose labor has been at a premium as President Donald Trump, whom Caputo supports, cuts back on new immigration.
Caputo grows both the familiar white and brown mushrooms, spawned by specialists in composted dirt, as well as more costly so-called exotic species, typically East Asian-derived mushrooms cultured on wood.
He says it’s too bad that Americans aren’t eating more of those exotics during the epidemic. “We believe our exotic mushrooms — shiitake, maitake — they boost your immune system,” he insisted.
When I asked for the science on those claims, Caputo referred me to a report on a mycology study at an Australian university, and said there were others like it on the Internet, showing a warm faith in the online world, which is safe from coronavirus, but which hasn’t yet figured out new ways to sell more produce to consumers stuck at home.