The growing difficulty with finding people to pick mushrooms in Chester County is beginning to stomp on the area’s centuries-long agricultural pride and joy.
A deepening labor shortage is forcing the county’s more-than-50 mushroom growers to pay workers higher wages while more mushrooms are being sent to lower-paying buyers, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal by Scott Calvert.
“This is the worst it’s ever been,” said Tim Hihn, co-owner of C.P. Yeatman & Sons in West Grove.
Yeatman is short 20 percent of its workforce, and has raised wage rates on a five-pound box by 22 percent to lure replacements. Kennett Square’s Phillips Mushroom Farms boosted a bonus by 45 percent, which is enough to land good pickers an hourly wage of $15.95, and is currently at full production. Pietro Industries in Kennett Square is down 10 percent.
“It’s one of the things that keeps you awake at night,” said Phillips general manager Jim Angelucci. “Are you going to go in the next day and find nobody’s there?”
Chester County’s March unemployment hit a scant 3.5 percent, and mushroom farms face competition from landscapers and construction firms. On top of that, there are immigration fears.
Meanwhile, the lower the workforce, the more mushrooms that miss prime picking windows and have to be sent to canned mushroom processors.
“You’re picking more of the lower quality (mushrooms), and the price for it is less,” said Pietro president Chris Alonzo. “This is a spiral-down effect that is going to come crashing and burning on some growers.”