Fearing crackdown on labor, Chester County mushroom growers urge hybrid status for immigrant workers

     A bed of white Agaricus mushrooms in a southern Chester County mushroom house. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    A bed of white Agaricus mushrooms in a southern Chester County mushroom house. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    Chris Alonzo’s family has been in the mushroom-farming business for three generations.

    As the president of Pietro Industries, he’s one of many growers in southern Chester County with ties to the Italian immigrants who first cultivated fungi in this lush corner of Southeastern Pennsylvania a century ago.

    Today, on the floor of one of his mushroom houses, Spanish — not Italian — is the lingua franca.

    In the breakroom, TV screens scroll through safety messages in Spanish, and training signs line the walls warning that cutting off too much of the “pata,” here meaning the stem, equals less money for pickers and farms. Mushroom farms now employ pickers almost entirely from Mexico, drawing from an agricultural state called Guanajuato, or Central America.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    These laborers fuel the area’s economic engine. Chester County is home to 56 mushroom farms, which alone produce more than half of all mushrooms grown in the U.S. That cluster of businesses pumps $2.17 billion through the local economy and employs 6,100 people each year, according to an economic impact study done by Penn State in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available.

    What does that economic impact look like on the ground? Each year, the number of mushroom growing businesses creeps up, and an immigrant-owned business sector of restaurants, grocery stores and services aimed at the Mexican community is thriving.

    Now, some growers worry that the promise of stiffer immigration policies under President Donald Trump could put the brakes on their businesses. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Chester County by more than 24,000 votes, in spite of voter registration rolls showing Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 20,000 voters.

    20170323 150249Workers pick Agaricus mushrooms from beds in one of Pietro Industries’ mushroom houses. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    Uncertainties abound for employers, workers

    In one of his mushroom houses — a warehouselike building divided into 24 temperature- and humidity-controlled growing rooms — Alonzo explained how the life-cycle of a mushroom harvest requires nearly round the clock attention when a crop is ripe.

    “[Pickers] will come in and harvest the room for four or five hours, and then 24 hours they’ll come back and harvest the same room,” he said. “If I wait 30 hours, the mushrooms will have opened and then the value, as a fresh mushroom, will be gone.”

    The workday started at 4 a.m., but in one growing room, workers are still still picking from floor-to-ceiling steel shelves, brimming with peat moss and a blanket of white mushroom caps, in the midafternoon.

    Pickers are paid by how fast, and well, they harvest mushrooms. A slow harvester may make $8 or $9 an hour, but a quicker worker can make up to $14, according to Alonzo.

    Even with the possibility of making well over minimum wage, agricultural jobs like this one tend to attract few American-born workers.

    As a result, around half of all hired crop farm workers in the U.S. are unauthorized immigrants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    And while Alonzo and other Chester County mushroom farmers maintain that — as far as they know — their employees all have the correct papers to work in the U.S., they worry more immigration enforcement could affect their businesses.

    “There’s uncertainty with the workers, with their communities,” he said. “And, there’s uncertainty with businesses, they’ve slowed down their investment in new tractors, new equipment because we’re unsure of the workforce situation.”

    So far, immigration enforcement in the area occurs at the same pace as it did under President Barack Obama. But, at a recent community meeting, turnout alone showed uncertainty was weighing heavily on southern Chester County’s large Latino community.

    Two hundred people packed into the lobby of La Comunidad Hispana’s Kennett Square location, to pose their questions to immigration attorneys.

    To protect their identities, audience members wrote questions on index cards, which executive director Alisa Jones read aloud.

    “I am undocumented and work on a mushroom farm. I drive without a license to get to work,” she read. “Is driving without a license a reason to be deported? Should I just stop driving?”

    Many of the questions pertained to getting around in this rural area.

    And while immigrants are busy learning their options, mushroom-growing businesses want lawmakers to think about ways to keep workers here legally.

    “They’ve been paying taxes and investing in our economy,” said Meghan Klotzbach, regulatory manager at Mother Earth Organic mushrooms. “If we could allow those employees to get that legal status, that’s what we would like to see.”

    While growers said they agree with removing immigrants who have committed crimes and are living in the U.S. illegally, they said a change in U.S. immigration policy is important too.

    Striving for ‘balance between enforcement, reform’

    But what that will look like is not clear yet, said Bev King, spokeswoman for the American Mushroom Institute, a trade group

    “What they want is either a reform or something like the guest-worker program, so it’s a balance between enforcement and reform,” she said. Mushroom growing and other year round agriculture businesses, like dairy farms, do not qualify for temporary worker visas, called H2-A or “guest-worker” visas.

    King said the growers have another pressing concern. In 2016, mushroom production in Chester County was down 2 percent over the previous year, according to the USDA, slicing into already thin profit margins.

    “We definitely feel that. There are a lot of farms that have not been able to take their third break of mushrooms because they don’t have the employees to pick it,” said Klotzbach, who was not the only person to pin some of the blame on a labor shortage.

    While it’s not clear what other factors may have caused that fluctuation, Gary Smith, CEO of the Chester County Economic Development Council, said without immigrant labor, all agriculture in the area would collapse.

    “These are very, very critical people that are paramount to maintain these industries. Without them, these companies will close,” he said.

    It’s hard to picture mushrooms leaving Chester County for good.

    Kennett Square calls itself “the mushroom capital of the world. On New Year’s Eve, the town drops a giant, bedazzled mushroom cap.

    It is easier to imagine fewer farms. Congress has been unable to agree on immigration reform that would provide a legal pathway to unauthorized workers.

    A 2014 study by the American Farm Bureau Federation showed that policies focused solely on removing unauthorized workers — without also providing a way to naturalize some of them — would cut fruit and vegetable farm revenues by at least a third.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal