A sign at the entrance to Kennett Square declares this town in Pennsylvania, 35 miles west of Philadelphia, “the Mushroom Capital of the World”. Within a radius of 15 miles around 120 mushroom growers produce approximately 200,000 tons of mushrooms per year. That is over 40 per cent of the total mushroom output of the United States.
Between 3,000 and 4,000 Mexican workers, mostly men, pick the mushrooms and together with their families constitute the most important minority ethnic group in Southern Chester County, where Kennett Square is located. The Mexicans moved to this area during the 1970s and 1980s and replaced the Puerto Rican workers in the mushroom farms.
Milton Ricardo Machuca, a Salvadorian anthropologist and former Jesuit, chose to study this ethnic group for his PhD thesis in anthropology (2004). His topic was the relationship between migration and religion, to understand “the importance of the religious dimension in the migratory experience of Mexican immigrant workers, their cultural practices, and the role of the local Roman Catholic Church.”
But since nearly all the Mexican migrants he studied work in the mushroom industry, his thesis deals at great length with the origins and changes over time of this industry. The crises and changes in the mushroom industry in Pennsylvania resemble the crises and transformations of the Irish mushroom industry in its short history. Some lessons can be learnt. What follows is a summary of chapters 2 and 3 of Machuca’s dissertation.
A brief history of the mushroom industry in Chester County
The mushroom industry started in this area in the 1880s when Quakers began to cultivate mushrooms as a part-time occupation. At the time one pound of mushroom could sell for $1.50 in the Philadelphia, Washington DC and New City markets. It was a specialty product. In the 1900s farms expanded and Italian immigrants were the first wage workers of this industry. In a short time, however, the Italians started to acquire mushroom farms (at present, Italian-Americans own 75 per cent of mushroom farms in the area). It was still a family farm operation, and had a seasonal character.
The cannery industry started in 1917. In 1926, Louis F. Lambert created a strain of white mushroom, white agaricus, which was to become the dominant type in the fresh market. In 1925, Cordivano, an Italian-American, introduced the first air-condition mushroom plant, using a water spray chamber.
At that time the Mushroom Growers Association was created. The Association promoted sales, organized the purchase of supplies, encouraged research programmes, organized a trucking service and established a cannery industry. But it mainly focused on lobbying for higher tariffs against European and Asian canned mushrooms. During the 1930s Pennsylvanian growers found very difficult to compete with growers of those continents because labour was scarce and expensive in the US. Overseas mushrooms also grew in caves and did not have overhead costs.
Another problem for the mushroom industry was the lack of manure supply to produce compost as cars replaced horses during the 1930s. Synthetic compost became available in the 1940s and eliminated the need of horse manure. World War II brought about a labour shortage as growers and growers’ son went off to fight and the government did not allow the use of tin to can mushrooms. Production was limited to fresh mushroom, and the Puerto Ricans arrived to work in the farms.
In 1952, an article in the Kennett News and Advertiser showed that labour was still one of the main constraints in mushroom farming: “The one major problem facing mushroom growers as well as general farmers, fruit growers and greenhouses owners alike is the growing shortage of labour. The tight labor supply is causing an increase in the number of staggered fills… It is not known whether additional Puerto Rican laborers will be brought into the area. At present, they are also used in nurseries and in general farming. Some members of the industry think additional laborers from southern states will also migrate to the area.”
The increasing availability of a large supply of Puerto Rican workers, technical developments and a strong demand for mushroom after the end of the war allowed the mushroom industry in Chester County to expand operations. Mechanical cooling was introduced in 1948 and mushroom production became a year-round crop. The MGA set up the American Mushroom Institute in 1954 to promote “the consumption of all cultivated mushrooms through research, advertising, publicity, merchandising, consumer education… and to assist the industry in developing better growing and handling methods.” By 1965, the Chester County mushroom industry had turned into a $20 million business employing over 5,000 people.
Crisis and structural transformation A long term crisis, however, hit this industry in the 1960s and throughout the 1970s and 1980s: In the early 1990s “Mushroom growers… described the last twenty years in the business as a kind of social Darwinism, or survival of the fittest”. The number of growers in the area, for example, went from a peak of 514 in 1986 to 129 in 2002. At the same time, production increased from 116,300 to 208,000 tons/year. That means that average output per farm went from 226 to 1612 tons/year. The number of small farms decreased at the same time that the industry experienced a concentration of capital. The parallels with the developments in the Irish industry are obvious, as are the reasons for these changes. The first sector of the mushroom economy to suffer the crisis was canned and processed mushrooms, 80 per cent of the total production in 1974. In the late 1960s the “gang of four” (Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and China) began to export cheap canned mushrooms into the United States and canneries in Pennsylvania could not compete with them. In 1971, a botulism toxin was found in canned mushrooms and the mushroom industry kept making headlines for a while after. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled mushroom pizzas, cans, and frozen pizzas. The crisis also affected the sales of fresh mushrooms.
By the beginning of the 1980s the cannery industry had become a thing of the past in Chester County. Not even the introduction of a high tariff on imports from the “gang of four” could save it.
The entry of agribusiness corporations marked another big change in the industry in Chester County. They brought with them a vertical integration of all operations: production, marketing and distribution. A chain in consumer preferences [I would rather say retailer preferences] in the 1980s also brought new competitive pressures that favoured big corporations over small farms. Success in mushrooms depended on three criteria: quality, better and more aggressive marketing, and better management.
Inefficient producers went out business and gave way to highly efficient ones: that is, those who had invested in the latest technology.
The labour issue Increasing legislation on pesticide use and labour relations also raised the financial costs of growing mushrooms. The 1970s brought with them more attention to working conditions in mushroom farms. Canneries offered industrial wages and good working conditions, as any other industry, but picking fresh mushrooms was “time-sensitive and required that work started early in the morning (3:00 or 4:00 am), and continued non-stop for ten to twelve hours, seven days a week… In order to cut increasing production costs, mushroom growers lowered wages and neglected the workers’ housing… By and large the Puerto Rican workers refused to work more for less and gradually left the mushroom industry. Undocumented Mexican workers, however, had little choice but to accept these conditions”.
In relation to the exodus of Puerto Ricans, a latino activist said at that time that faced with “long hours, low wages, humiliating work inducements, and at times unbearable conditions, who would not look for an opportunity to go elsewhere if that was possible?”
On top of that, the Puerto Rican had freedom of movement and had been in the US since the 1950s. When they first migrated, they were unskilled, uneducated, single males with agricultural background. But in two decades in the US, they had settled and their children had access to education. They also could speak English fluently, unlike the Mexicans. The remaining Puerto Ricans are now found in middle management positions.
Changes in working conditions and replacement of one group of migrants by another also reflect changes in migrants’ attitudes over time. While newly arrived migrants work longer hours, accept worse conditions, avoid leisure activities and save all the money hoping to return soon to their countries, after some time they change their behaviour and tend to work fewer hours, socialise more, save less money, and extend their stay. Their need for higher wages also increases. Therefore, a new wave of migration might replace them or they might struggle for better working conditions and wages.
“Mushroom Growers’ preference for Mexican made “good common business sense”, in the words of one grower. Growers related that Mexicans were better workers than Puerto Ricans because they “would not make union trouble”; “wanted seven days of work per week and would leave (your firm) if you couldn’t give it to them”; and “would do any job you told them without complaint… Growers believed Puerto Ricans had been the best workers they had ever seen. But these growers believe that Puerto Ricans had been “spoiled by welfare” or “didn’t want to work anymore” or had “ideas put in their heads” by labor organizers; or simply “got better jobs” and moved on.”
Some Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, felt that the increasing number of Mexicans arriving to work in the industry was thwarting the efforts of Puerto Ricans to get higher wages and better working and living conditions. The Unites States Commission on Civil Rights released a report in 1977 confirming sweatshop practices.
In spite of the mushroom growers’ denial, the report captured media attention. Articles about migrants in the mushroom industry poured out in endless succession in newspapers. The Pennsylvania legislature then passed the Seasonal Farm labor Act 1978 mandating maximum hours and minimum wages, and calling for regular inspections of mushroom camps, where pickers lived.
In the 1990s the mushroom industry emerged transformed in Chester County. The surviving growers had adapted to the fresh market, “many were younger, college-educated, with more corporate approaches to labor-relations… Growers upgraded their equipment and growing techniques… improved their marketing of mushrooms by developing closer ties with marketing entities and direct ties with large accounts; forming marketing and composting cooperatives with other growers; or even by developing their own marketing entity.”
In relation to labour relations, the work force was left unionised after the canning houses closed. There was also a shift from the “crew chief” system, in which the farm hired the crew chief and this chief hired and paid the workers, to the “foreman” system, in which the growers directly hire and pay the workers. In this way, growers’ controllled more directly the performance of their workers since there are higher quality requirements.
On the other hand, the industry doesn’t stop during the summer months and requires a year-round stable labour supply. Therefore, a stable Mexican community live now in Chester County, in part thanks to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which allowed a majority of undocumented migrants to get documents to work and live in the US. The passing of labour legislation, and the monitoring of the media, have also helped improving working conditions.