From the Farmer's Tractor
April 26, 2009
How did you get into mushroom farming?
I grew up here in Kennett Square, where commercial mushroom production started back in 1896. In the 1970’s there were over 300 different family owned farms within a 25-mile radius of Kennett. Today, that number is closer to 80, but the farms are much larger. Both of my grandfathers grew mushrooms for a short period of time and my father was also involved in the industry, selling mushroom spawn (seed) and supplies.
As a young boy I worked for the parents of my friends who were mushroom growers. My first job at age 11 was turning the cypress boards in the growing rooms so that they would dry in the summer. At that time growing mushrooms was a seasonal endeavor. Today is it year-round, 24/7. Later, after my discharge from the Navy, I started growing mushrooms on my grandfather’s small farm. I took a position at Phillips in December of 1973.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
Over the years, Phillips has expanded both its growing and packing operation. We concentrated on only white mushrooms for the fresh market, both for retail and food service, but in 1979, owners Don & Marshall Phillips decided to venture off in specialty mushroom production, experimenting with a process that was being used in Japan to grow Shiitake mushrooms on a formulated log. Up until then, the only fresh Shiitake mushrooms that were available were grown on natural oak logs and would only grow seasonally, depending on weather conditions.
We eventually became the first commercial mushroom farm in the country to grow and market fresh Shiitake mushrooms year ‘round. We added Oyster mushrooms in 1982, and became the first grower to market the big brown open mushroom known as a Portabella in 1985. Other species like crimini, enoki, beech, pom pom and royal trumpet® were added and are still grown today.
There have been other changes as well. We were certified as an Organic farm in 1997. There has been a tremendous increase in the awareness of food safety. We have a number of third party audits a year to ensure that our HACCP Plan (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points) meets minimum standards. Record keeping has become more important than ever. And as with all companies, the cost of doing business has increased.
What is your greatest challenge as a mushroom farmer?
Growing mushrooms is very energy dependent so it’s always a challenge to be as efficient as possible. Also, with ever decreasing margins for our mushrooms, the industry goes through a shake up every few years – where some farms close, others sit tight, and still others expand. We’re in the expansion mode right now. We’re looking toward the future and we want to be able to supply potential customers with the highest quality mushrooms, grown in a state of the art facility.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
It’s very difficult trying to anticipate what retailers will want in the future. We try to get them to increase the category shelf space and to feature mushrooms as often as possible. Cross merchandizing is also a way to increase both the exposure and sales of mushrooms. For instance, putting mushrooms in the meat department helps convey the message to consumers that mushrooms go well with steak, and that helps increase the likelihood of a mushroom purchase. Since consumer research shows that very few shoppers actually put mushrooms on their shopping lists, and that they are an impulse item, the more places that we can place them in a store, the more likely they are to sell.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
The mushroom industry is the original re-cycler. We’ve received a number of conservationist awards for our efforts. We take agricultural by-products and combine them into a nutrient rich substrate from which mushrooms get their food. Everything we use in the growing division is re-cycled into a potting soil ingredient. Water from our cooling units and the water used to hydrate Shiitake logs is captured and sprayed onto our hay fields. The hay is then harvested and used as an ingredient for mushroom compost.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
We have a small retail shop here at the farm where local consumers can purchase our products. We also supply local restaurants that pick up their mushrooms here. They’re fresher and less expensive that buying from their supplier.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
Some people laugh, others say the job sounds interesting and most are fascinated when I explain the growing process to them. Farming is more of a lifestyle than an occupation. Every day is a new experience.