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Mushroom farmers dependent on immigrant labor fear worker shortage

Marketplace Contributor Jun 13, 2017
A bed of white agaricus mushrooms, commonly known as button mushrooms, at Pietro Industries in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Laura Benshoff

Mushroom farmers dependent on immigrant labor fear worker shortage

Marketplace Contributor Jun 13, 2017
A bed of white agaricus mushrooms, commonly known as button mushrooms, at Pietro Industries in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Laura Benshoff

Each year, farms in and around a place called Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, produce more than half of all mushrooms grown in the United States. The town calls itself the mushroom capital of the world and drops a glowing mushroom cap on New Year’s Eve.

But all those baby portobellos and shiitakes are picked by hand and almost entirely by immigrants — many of them undocumented — from Mexico and Guatemala.

Mushroom farm owners, like Chris Alonzo, say fears of immigration enforcement under President Trump may already be hitting their bottom line.

“There’s uncertainty with businesses. A lot of businesses have slowed down their investment in new equipment because we’re unsure of the workforce situation,” he said during a recent tour of one of his growing houses.

Nearby, a group of harvesters pick from giant stainless steel shelves filled with peat moss and blanketed with white mushroom caps. The shelves are stacked like bunkbeds from floor to ceiling, and the room is cool and damp.

It’s early afternoon, but these pickers have already put in more than a full day.

“Our employees started at four in the morning, which is part of the reason why I think it’s difficult to find Americans that want to do the work,” Alonzo said.

Pickers are paid by the pound, so a slow harvester may bring in $8 an hour — above minimum wage in Pennsylvania — while an experienced one can bring in $12 or $14, according to farm owners.

Even at that rate, available workers are scarce. Chester County, where Kennett Square is located, is home to both farms and wealthy bedroom communities for Philadelphia and Delaware. Unemployment here is below 4 percent, the lowest in the state.

In the area’s tight-knit Latino community, rumors of arrests sweep through social media.

At a “know your rights” meeting earlier this year, mushroom workers’ concerns were on display. More than 200 people packed into the lobby of a local social service provider, La Comunidad Hispana, to have their questions answered by immigration attorneys. To protect their identities, audience members wrote questions on index cards, which the group’s director, Alisa Jones, read aloud.

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

Harvesters pick from mushroom beds at a farm owned by Pietro Industries.

Many questions from the event addressed concerns about getting around — and flying under the radar — in this rural corner of southeastern Pennsylvania.

This situation is not unique. Around half of all U.S. farm workers are undocumented immigrants, according surveys conducted by the Department of Labor.

And while mushroom farmers carefully maintain that as far as they know, their employees can all produce the correct documents to show they are authorized to work, there is no evidence to suggest that they buck that trend.

In late April, immigration officers swept into a mushroom house in Avondale and arrested 12 workers, spiking community fears. Attorneys for those arrested argued that the arrests were unconstitutional, but some of the men have chosen to accept removal from the country rather than sit in detention while their cases are fought.

“A lot of our employees are saying they’re just leaving to go back to Mexico, they just want to go home,” said Meghan Klotzbach, who handles human resources for Mother Earth Organic Mushrooms in West Grove.

In the last couple of months, she said some employees have left and fewer people are knocking at their door looking for work. Recently, that farm has been unable to pick all of its mushrooms for the fresh market before some over-ripen and split, losing most of their value.

Politicians and farmers agree deporting workers is bad for business, but how to fix it splits along partisan lines.

“Sen. Toomey believes we should raise the cap on low-skilled worker visas,” said Steve Paul, spokesman for Pat Toomey, a Republican U.S. senator.

Mushroom growers like that policy — as long as they are included. But unions traditionally don’t favor that proposal. Mushrooms, dairy and other year-round agricultural production is excluded from the existing guest worker visas for farm labor, called H-2A visas. Some mushroom farmers said they also want amnesty for workers who have been living in the U.S. and paying taxes.

According to annual production reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, productivity at Chester County’s mushroom farms dipped by 2 percent last year. And while it’s not clear what caused the drop, it’s enough to make farmers protective of a crucial resource — their workers.

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