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The Future of Mushroom Production in the United States: Fewer Producers and Expanding Output -- Shannon Reid Hamm

The Future of Mushroom Production in the United States: Fewer Producers and Expanding Output.

Shannon Reid Hamm

The U.S. is the world's second leading mushroom producer, with 17 percent of the world's 4.5 billion pounds in 1995; second only toChina, the leader since 1991 (figure 1). U.S. mushroom production reached 787 billion pounds in 1996/97, increasing nearly 1 percent per year over the past decade. Mushrooms ranked fourth among vegetable cash receipts in 1996, after potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce. Sales of agaricus and specialty mushrooms totaled $767 million in 1996/97, up marginally from last year but 44 percent higher than a decade earlier.

Annual per capita use of mushrooms, including specialty varieties, has been slowly creeping up and now totals 4 pounds per person. Fresh mushroom are the most popular and account for 53 percent of total use (figure 2). Some of the growth in fresh use can be attributed to a change by major pizza chains from using canned mushrooms to fresh. The industry is likely to continue to see fresh use rise at the expense of processed as fresh packaging innovations increase and demand for specialty mushrooms continues to rise.

Even though we produce about three quarters of a billion pounds of mushrooms annually, the role of imports has increased in the past decade. Interestingly, canned mushroom imports, which acount for the lion's share of all mushroom imports, has declined in the past decade, dropping nearly one percent per year between 1986 and 1996. Contributing factors include saggingl grower prices for processing mushrooms and ongoing FDA ban of canned mushroom imports from Hong Kong. Fresh musrhoom imports have surprisingly risen quickly, growing 8 percent per year over the same 10 year period. The leading importing country has been and continues to be Canada, however, increases are seen from Mexico as U.S. companies have opened growing facilaties since the passage of NAFTA.

Although 23 states produce mushrooms, Pennsylvania produces the lion's share of U.S> output--44 percent--and California is a distant second with 17 percent. Pennsylvania's dominance its roots in early mushroom history (Mushroom News, January 1984). Pennsylvania, particularly Chester County, became a major center of production in the early 1920's, as the mushroom industry became a secondary crop for the florist industry and popular among the wives of egg farmers on the eastern seaboard. The industry blossomed when one of the early innovators, Louis F. Lambert, discovered a method for producing mushroom spawn, which in his words could provide enough spawn for the planet for several generations. Two of the first mushroom growers in the area were J.B. Swayne of Kennett Square and Jacob Styer of Concordville, they were flower and vegetable farmers who added mushrooms to their greenhouses. As production was centering around the Chester county area, spawn producers moved closer, which promoted more production and is the major reason Chester county is today's center of mushroom production.

Fewer Growers Raise More Mushrooms

Since the early 1980's, the mushroom industry has become concentrated among fewer growers as the cost of doing business has grown while revenues remained flat (figure 3). Between 1992 and 1996, the number of growers dropped 7 percent following a trend started a decade earlier. As their numbers have declined, the make up of mushroom producers has changed. In the past some of the major producers were multi-product corporations like Clorox and Ralston-Purina which have been replaced by specialized firms like Giorgio, Monterey Mushrooms and Slyvan Foods. (Agricultural Outlook, June 1992). Some of the factors contributing to the change include low profit margins, loss of pest control options combined with increasing costs, and environmental compliance.

In a recent Pennsylvania State University survey of mushroom producer's pest problems, 73 percent responded that "their neighbors" had a green mold problem and the most effective fungicide, Benlate, is not approved for mushrooms. However, EPA just approved a "third party, special local needs" registration for use on spawn in Pennsylvania.

Across the U.S. mushroom growers tend to use the same chemicals to eradicate pest problems, however, chemical registrations vary across state lines. For example more than two dozen chemicals were available for use by Pennsylvania growers more than a decade ago, now however, that number has been drastically reduced because chemical manufacturers do not generate sufficient revenue on mushrooms to justify the costs of reregistration mandated under the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996.

Factors that are likely to contribute to a continued downward pressure in terms of number of mushroom growers include further withdrawal of pesticide registrations, the need to implement best management practices for containing runoff in the Red and White Clay Creeks watershed area of Pennsylvania and nuisance complaints.

Pennsylvania's Changing Demographics

While the number of growers in the major mushroom producing counties has declined, the non-farm population has grown. According to the 1992 Census of Agriculture, the major mushroom producing counties in Pennsylvania include, Chester with 48 percent of the growing area and 109 growers and Berks with 19 percent and 34 growers. In 1992, there were 24 fewer growers in Chester and in Berks county. According to research conducted at Pennsylvania State University, Chester county's major agricultural activity is mushroom farming , yet because of Chester county's close approximation to major urban centers, like Philadelphia, it is increasingly feeling the pressures of suburbanization (Mushroom News, May 1997).

Suburbanization can facilitate the demand for nearby high-value seasonal produce, but at the same time drive up the price of land and impact zoning and local ordinances on agricultural activities. Chester county's general population grew 19 percent between 1980 and 1990, reaching slightly more than half a million people. Much of the economic growth in Chester county has been in housing, and high price executive homes at that.

Two professors at Penn State designed a mail survey for mushroom growers which was designed to learn more about nuisance complaints in Chester county (Mushroom News, May 1997). The survey was mailed out in 1994 to 54 farms with 28 farms completing and returning the survey-- a response rate of 56 percent. Farms responding accounted for 107 million pounds of mushrooms in Chester county or 67 percent of the entire county's crop and 14 percent of the U.S. crop in 1994.

Some of the findings about the type and number of complaints was interesting, as one would generally think that the smell of composting would offend the residential communities. Interestingly enough the analysis showed that composting at the farm site by itself did not significantly increased the likelihood that a farm will receive complaints. The farmers were the ones that identified composting as the major source of conflict with residential neighbors. It turned out that composting is related to the size of the farm and proximity to fast grower areas.

In general, complaints that farmers received focused on, odors, noises, runoff, and the ethnicity of their employees (table 1). More than half of the reporting farms receive only one type of complaint, of which type is not reported. Four farms received at least 4 complaints, but none greater than 9.

The researchers find their results consistent with previous work by Vail which suggests that conflicts arise from urban pressure and rapid development. The study conducted in 1994 demonstrates that mushroom farms in Chester Country are affected by growth of nonfarm homes in their vicinity. They state, "clearly the fabric of the communities is being changed by the in-migration of nonfarmers; the question is what will be the long run impact on the farms of such in-migration and complaints."

The bottom line from this study and other reports on the rural/urban interface is that the future of mushroom farming in Chester county is in question as conflicts on odor, noise, and water quality will increase as the population increases and as local officials are more supportive of homeowner concerns. Table 1-- Type of Complaints Received
Complaint Number of Farms Percent of Farms*
Compost Odors 6 21
Manure Odors 1 4
Unsightly Land Use 1 4
Truck Noise 4 14
Tractor Noise 3 11
Noise from Other Machinary 3 11
Late Evening Noise 1 4
Early Morning Noise 4 14
Water Runoff 7 25
Litter 1 4
Ethnicity of Employees 3 11
Treatment of Employees 2 7

* Does not add to 100 percent because some farms received multiple types of


Source: Kelsey and Singletary, Mushroom News, May 1997.


Del Sordo, Stephen G. "First Fifty Years." Mushroom News. Washington D.C. January 1984. pp. 2-6.

Hamm, Shannon R. "Mushrooms Cap a Decade of Growth." Agricultural Outlook June 1992. Economic Research Service, USDA. Washington D.C. pp. 16-20.

Kelsey, Timothy W. and Loretta Singletary. "Conflict at the Rural/Urban Interface: Nuisance Complaints & Mushroom Farms in Chester County." Mushroom News. Washington D.C. May 1997. pp. 14-23.

Vegetables and Specialties Situation and Outlook Report. VGS-271. Economic Research Service. USDA. Washington D.C. April 1997.

Vegetables and Specialties Situation and Outlook Yearbook. VGS-272. Economic Research Service. USDA. Washington D.C. July 1997.