Celebratory cannon fire and red balloons marked the start of work on a Pennsylvania-style mushroom farm in China last month. Honored guests included a delegation from Chester County, which hopes the plant in Funan County, Anhui Province, will generate orders for farm-technology suppliers and services from "America's mushroom capital" as the grower ships fresh white and crimini fungi (Agaricus bisporus) to markets in Shanghai.
"Chinese people eat more mushrooms than Americans do. They won't be flooding the U.S. market," said Michael Grigalonis, chief operating officer of the Chester County Economic Development Council, who joined County Commissioner Terrence Farrell for the Funan opening.
"They say it's cool to have Americans involved," said Kennett Square mushroom grower Chris Alonzo (his family owns Pietro Industries), who is helping manage the Funan plant. Backers include local government in Funan, population 1.7 million, a little more than Philadelphia. Private investors including Thomas Yang, a north China native and former Philadelphia lawyer (Temple University LL.M., 2008).
Alonzo has visited China four times in the last year, part of an initiative by Chester County leaders trying to drum up Chinese investment in Pennsylvania and find China markets for Chester County industries. U.S. growers produced $1.2 billion worth of mushrooms last year, mostly Agaricus. Half of those grew at 60 farms in Chester County — on average, the nation's most productive, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data — largely in concrete-block sheds owned by descendants of the industry's Italian American pioneers, and cut by pickers born in Mexico.
Labor is crucial to the year-round harvest. Alonzo said the partners had no trouble finding skilled horticultural workers in Anhui, which hopes to expand its high-tech farming sector to rival the Netherlands and other capital-intensive indoor-growing centers. "In China, a lot of people want and need these jobs," he said, including farm workers who would rather work indoors cutting fungi than out in rice paddies.
That labor market contrasts with Chester County, where immigrant mushroom workers who achieved legal status in the 1980s are aging out and telling their locally schooled sons and daughters "to get a better education" and avoid farm and factory jobs, he added. "In Pennsylvania, we have a labor issue."
No robot pickers on the horizon? "The profit margins aren't big enough to make huge investments in mechanization, and the robotics isn't yet developed enough," Alonzo said. He knows he could get more pickers in Mexico — if the U.S. let him recruit. "But there are not enough visas to do it. We will lose these jobs without immigration reform."
Exporting their know-how to China, Chester County growers are completing a circle: Spawning mushrooms in darkness, straw and manure, in weeks-long cycles of heat and cold, the industry started as a winter seasonal-canning business. But U.S. canneries shut when they were underpriced by cheaper Asian competition in the 1970s and '80s. Larger producers expanded year-round to fill restaurant salad bars and grocery produce bins. Most U.S.-grown mushrooms are now eaten fresh at home and in restaurants. "Exotics" such as shiitake and oyster take special care and command higher prices.
The Pennsylvanians hope Chester County farm designers, engineers and other mushroom specialists might win contracts as the industry grows in China. "We've been working on this for three years; this is our first major success," Grigalonis told me. "We hope this is a prototype." To speed future deals, Chester County and the council opened a "China desk" in Shanghai at the Shimin law firm, which has an office in Philadelphia.
China isn't the only place with an interest in building its own edible-fungus industry from Chester County spawn. Bridget Mbu Mbeng, a native of Cameroon in central Africa, was commuting from Delaware to a nursing-care job in Coatesville when she became curious about the steaming mushroom sheds that dot the countryside around U.S. 1 near Kennett.
Mbeng told me she knocked on mushroom-house doors, introduced herself to workers and growers, and asked lots of questions. In the village where she grew up, "we harvest mushrooms in the forest. We have many kinds. Some are like Agaricus," she said. She was fascinated by how Pennsylvania growers had tamed the fungus, cultivating firm crops on regular cycles.
She took the Mushroom Short Course at Penn State University and joined the American Mushroom Institute. She shipped supplies home to Cameroon, where she taught a Catholic pastor and friends to grow mushrooms as a home industry, on shaded porches and in hillside sheds, selling to hotels and other local buyers. In 2015, her business plan to organize Mbeng Adio Mushroom Farms won free technical assistance in an African Diaspora Marketplace Competition sponsored by USAID and Western Union.
Now, she's looking for investors to build a modern plant in Cameroon.
"I grew up with hard work and community consciousness," Mbeng said, and she wants to build a company that exemplifies both.