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Mushroom politics: Chesco farms seek immigrant workers

The dozens of mushroom farms in southern Chester County have jobs that pay double the federal minimum wage with health and retirement benefits plus paid vacation. Yet, the farms are struggling to fill 1,000 of those jobs. The reason: Immigration policy.

Peter Gray explains the growing cycle of shiitake mushrooms at Phillips Mushroom Farm in Kennett Square Monday October 22, 2018.
Peter Gray explains the growing cycle of shiitake mushrooms at Phillips Mushroom Farm in Kennett Square Monday October 22, 2018.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

For the last 16 years, Alfredo Bedolla has been harvesting mushrooms at Mother Earth Organic Farms in Chester County, a dirty job that requires waking up before dawn and working for up to 12 hours in cramped spaces with manure compost.

The cremini and portabella mushrooms at Mother Earth grow in wooden beds stacked about two feet apart, forcing those who pick them to bend and crouch in uncomfortable positions in darkened rooms.

Amid the loud music playing while the harvesters pick mushrooms, there is also political talk. Those in Chester County's mushroom business have a big stake in the midterm elections.

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Workers at the Mother Earth farm can't take more than one day a week off. The reason: Stricter limits on immigration under the Trump administration have made it harder for the county's four dozen mushroom farmers to hire all the employees they need.

"It used to be that even if people didn't have all their papers squared away, they could still come and go and get jobs," Bedolla said in his native Spanish. "Now with the government system we have, it's more difficult."

Bedolla immigrated from Mexico to the United States to work in the 1980s and eventually achieved legal status. His children, educated at American schools, have no interest in picking mushrooms, and neither do most of the children of the other immigrants who currently work at the farms.

So far, the farms have not had any luck in trying to recruit workers born in the U.S. to harvest mushrooms. Bedolla said that he's seen Americans — white and black — try the job and quit two days later. And it's not the pay.The wages at the farms are reasonable (an average $14 an hour, depending on how fast a worker can pick), in addition to health care and retirement benefits. The employees receive no overtime pay.

For generations, mushroom harvesting in the U.S. has been the work of immigrants, first Italians, then Puerto Ricans and, in the last two or three decades, Mexicans.

The region's 47 growers say they are short about 1,000 workers.

"We would all like to expand, we would like to grow, we would like to build more houses and employ more people, but we're not doing that because we don't know if we can even finish picking the houses we already have," said Meghan Klotzbach, a sixth generation farmer who is regulatory manager at Mother Earth Organic Mushrooms in West Grove. "The demand is there. We want to produce for the country, we want to grow our company, but we just can't."

With the Trump administration cracking down and prioritizing immigrants with specialized, high-tech skills, the mushroom growers say year-round farmers like them need help.

The mushroom industry has been pressing Democrat Chrissy Houlahan and Republican Greg McCauley, who are vying for the open and newly drawn Sixth Congressional District seat, for help when one of them gets to Washington.

The candidates have heard from the growers and the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce about the crisis, but they have not discussed it much publicly.

When asked about it, McCauley said he would push for an immigration plan that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a work visa that would let them remain in this county legally while pursuing citizenship.

"They would be able to work for the farmers, and they would have a great job and the industry would have the workers it needs to survive," McCauley said.

One of the main federal visas used for agriculture, the H2A, is for seasonal or temporary workers; mushroom growers say they need year-round workers. There are other ways to get a green card, but according to immigration lawyers it's a process that can take years.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement that each year many "law-abiding individuals" who are seeking better opportunities in the U.S. are allowed to come here and work. He said decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

"The administration has been relentlessly pursuing merit-based policy and regulatory immigration reforms, including a thorough review of employment based visa programs so they benefit the American people to the greatest extent possible in fulfillment of the President's Buy American, Hire American Executive Order," Bars said.

Peter Gray, a manager at Phillips Mushroom Farm in Kennett Square, one of the largest growers, said it is short about 60 harvesters. And it's not for lack of trying.

"I'm so short I pretty much have to hire anybody that's still walking and can do some work, and it's slim pickings," Gray said.

For the first time in decades, the mushroom industry in Pennsylvania saw annual production drop in 2016, from 587 million pounds, to 573 million pounds, and again slightly dropped in 2017. Things aren't looking any better in 2018.

"That's what a lot of these politicians don't seem to understand. It's all 'Oh these immigrants are taking American jobs,'" Gray said. "Well, I'm not finding Americans who want to do this work. I hire them. They come two or three days and then that's it, they don't show up."

Wendy Castor Hess, a Philadelphia-based immigration attorney, said she is hearing the same from many other mushroom farmers.

"Bottom line is, U.S. workers don't want to cob manure at 1 a.m. … This is hard agriculture labor," Hess said. "Now, what you have is the old timers who were legalized under the special agricultural worker program in the '80s, and there's no new source to bring in new workers."

The Southern Chester County Chamber created a Mushroom/Agriculture Labor Crisis Task Force to help the mushroom farmers seek alternative labor solutions.

Mother Earth has partnered with the Coatesville VA Hospital to train and employ veterans in mushroom farming. So far, four employees have come from that partnership, but they are working on the operations side, not picking mushrooms, which is the real need.

On a recent day, Bedolla was supervising a group of 10 harvesters in a nearly 9,000-square-foot room full of mushrooms ready to be picked. There should've been a crew of 20.

“They need to allow more Hispanic people to come, because they might actually want the jobs but can’t come here,” he said.