Mushroom Farming in Chester County

Goes into the history of mushroom farming in Chester County and the significance of the annual Mushroom Festival.

Mushroom Farming in Chester County
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

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Every county has something about it that makes it special. For some, it’s a famous figure. For others, it’s a landmark. For Chester County, you ask? Why, mushrooms, of course! In this article, we will discuss the history of mushroom farming in the county, give an overview of how the mushroom farming business works, and go into the incredible yearly Mushroom festival that attracts crowds from all over the world.

History

According to local legends, it all began in 1885 when two Quaker gardeners living in Kennett Square noticed all the space they had under their flower beds and began looking for good use of it. Eventually, they settled on planting some mushrooms to take advantage of the shadow the planter cast. They then traveled to Europe, where mushroom farming was already being regularly practiced and came back with spores to plant.

Something interesting that happened during all this was when they hired some Italian laborers who had been laid off from a nearby quarry to handle the labor. After getting used to the job, some of them left to start their own mushroom farms. Their children, their extended family, they all started doing it. Within a century the mushroom farming business in Chester County was made up of almost entirely Italian-American business owners, with only a scant few remaining Quakers still in the business today.

How the Magic Happens

Mushrooms are weird. Unlike most plants, which will happily accept any kind of fertilizer, mushrooms will only accept specific kinds, like horse manure. A typical compost-making yard is around 20 acres. As you might imagine, you can smell it from all around the county. You will get used to it, and the locals typically don’t even notice it anymore, but a newcomer to the area will have some adjusting to do!

Once horse manure compost mixture is made, it is brought to a specially designed climate-controlled building, then poured into long beds stretching from one end to the other. The mushroom spores are then mixed into the soil and slowly begin to germinate. Thick webs of mycelia resembling white threads will spread throughout the soil and even the peat moss on top.

Eventually, through a special process where the climate of the warehouse is artificially changed by lowering the level of carbon dioxide and temperature, the mushrooms are tricked into thinking that winter is coming and accelerate their growth. They rapidly begin growing the cap portion of the plant, doubling in size every 24 hours into the form that you are likely most familiar with. Once that’s done, they are then harvested by hand by laborers.

The laborers are mostly comprised of Mexican immigrants. It’s hard work with long hours so it can be tough for some families. That doesn’t keep them down, though. Some of them have gotten together and opened their own businesses! One great example is the now-beloved La Michoacana Homemade Ice Cream shop in beautiful downtown Kennett Square. They serve just about every kind of ice cream under the sun, even exotic flavors that you’d never even expect, like corn flavor, avocado, and toasted coconut.

Mushroom Festival

Every year since 1986, hundreds of vendors set up their stalls, put out their signs, and attract over a hundred thousand people to the two-day annual event held in September. They sell all kinds of dishes, not just mushroom ones, but also stuff like french fries, funnel cake, and various other goods from local artisans.

That’s not all though, they also have all kinds of super fun events to attend! To name only a few of them they’ve had over the years the festival has been going, there’s been things like mushroom cook-offs where amateur chefs’ will show off their skills, fried mushroom eating contests, a mushroom growers exhibit, a soup and wine festival going on during the festival itself, not to mention live music, children’s shows, and even classic cars exhibits.

It’s important to remember that none of this would be possible without the community. Every year, the whole county comes together to put on all these great events. The festival itself is run by an all-volunteer organization that donates a large number of its proceeds to all kinds of charities and organizations that benefit the residents of Kennett Square. The festival is more than just an event, it’s a major benefit to people all over the county. The money raised during the event is actively making the lives of everyone there better. It’s one of the things that make this county so special.

Conclusion

As you can now plainly see, there’s a lot more interesting history to mushroom farming than you could have ever imagined. Between the rich history, how cool the actual process of farming is, and the incredible mushroom festival, there’s a little something for everyone. The mushroom festival is held every year for two days on the first weekend after Labor Day. You won’t want to miss the festivities!

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