The past and future of Pietro Mushrooms has strong ties to Europe.
After emigrating from the Abruzzi Region of Italy, Alfonso Alonzo and his son Peter worked in quarries and silk mines in Lebanon, PA. Emidio Frezzo, a co-worker, moved to Toughkenamon to grow mushrooms. After a silk mill closed and jobs were lost, Peter reconnected with Frezzo for lessons on growing mushrooms.
In 1936 the Frezzo and Alonzo families grew mushrooms together. After a few years, the families split up and started their own independent farms. Peter and his son Pete Jr., started Pietro Mushrooms with four growing houses in 1967 in Kennett Square, PA. They picked the name Pietro for the business since it is Italian for Peter. At the time Pete was working for du Pont and he quit his job to work with his father. Within a few years Pete Jr. was running the farm.
Today Pete is the vice president and his son Chris is president. The mushroom farm continues to expand. In 1994 the growing rooms increased to 27. Today, the farm has 54 growing rooms and plans are in place to break ground for additional capacity with the latest technology from Europe.
“My grandfather was the farmer, my dad is the entrepreneur,” said Chris. “I’m the farm manager.”
Growing up in the world of mushrooms Chris wasn’t sure if he wanted to enter into the family business. “The family part of mushroom growing scared me, not the business part” Chris, who has an economics degree from Allegheny College and once managed a restaurant, said. “I went to Europe after graduation and while there Dad called and told me about a two-week class on mushroom growing being held in Holland. He said if I ever thought about joining the family business I should take the course.”
Chris discovered he liked growing mushrooms. “That was 13 years ago. I got over the worry of working with family all year. We don’t always agree but business is business and family is family. During the first few years, I was an hourly worker and then I went into management.”
Pietro Mushrooms is part owner of two farming cooperatives, Laurel Valley Farm and Country Fresh Mushrooms. Laurel Valley creates the specialized substrate for mushroom growing and Country Fresh handles the marketing, packaging and sales of the product. “In the old days, a grower did all the jobs on the farm but it’s not efficient for mushroom farmers to do that any more,” said Pete.
“The cooperatives help us increase production. We can’t stay small,” Chris Alonzo said. “The mushroom farm community is consolidating and the packers need more product. We couldn’t survive as a four-room grower. In the 1950s there were 300 to 400 mushroom farms. Now there are 70 farms. New technology allows us to do more with less physical labor.”
As for future growth, Pietro Mushrooms is using technology developed in Holland on the farm’s new central facility. The new facility features aluminum shelving instead of wooden beds. “The process is more cost effective, will require less electricity and physical labor and result in a better quality mushroom and improve food safety,” Chris said. “There will be a reduction of traffic on local roads and that will be a savings in fuel costs.”
As with most area mushroom farms, Pietro Mushrooms is a family business. “The nice thing about our business is that we exchange information and ideas,” Chris said. “Even if we’re not related we help each other as all good farmers should.” A cousin, Brian Donahue, is the farm’s operations manager.
Pete’s sister Dolores is the company secretary and another sister, Theresa, is married to the sales manager of a spawn company and has a son in the business. Pete’s daughter Meghan does not work on the farm. She is a graphic designer and lives in Maryland. Chris said when his children are old enough they will make their own decision whether to join Pietro Mushrooms. “Dad pushed me a little but gave me enough time to make my own decision. I got involved because I wanted to do so,” he said.
If Chris’ children David and Jayson do join him, they may discover a surprising aspect of the business as their father did. “Mushroom growing becomes a part of you,” Chris said. “Everyone says how you become one with the land. Growing mushrooms is part of your life. Mushrooms are a lot like people, they take in oxygen and when you are cold they are cold. When you are hot, they are hot. Growing mushrooms is really an art and not a business. What you do is control the environment to make mushrooms happy each day.”
Some of the workers at Pietro Mushrooms are second generation, also. Ed Caraballo has been an employee for two decades and is the head grower while his daughter-in-law, Sylvia, works in the office.
Pietro Mushrooms works with neighbors to make them happy. “When a new neighbor arrives we offer them a tour of the farm,” Chris said. “By allowing them to see the process, they realize what it takes to grow mushrooms and they are amazed. We attempt to be a good neighbor. We’ll plow snow from some driveways and we have worked with neighbors to build fences and plant trees to shield them from the noise of our early start.”
Being a good neighbor also means contributing to the community, according to the Alonzo’s. Pete started the American Mushroom Institute’s (AMI) Community Awareness Committee scholarship in 1993. He runs the annual golf tournament that supports the educational programs. The scholarship has awarded more than $110,000 to area high school students since its inception. The Mushroom Festival, Chester County Envirothon, Read Across Kennett, Kennett After The Bell and many other local groups receive money from the scholarship committee.
Chris is a member of the Kennett Planning Commission and has been involved in the Ag in the Classroom project. He is frequently a speaker at agriculture conferences, is a past member of the Mushroom Council and is a current AMI board member. He has also served on the board of United Way and many other local committees.
Pete and his son both see a bright future for mushroom farming in the area. “Consumer demand for mushrooms should continue to increase because mushrooms are a healthy food,” Chris said.
Pietro Farm Profile