Mushrooms and Immigration
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania is known as the “Mushroom Capital of the World”.
In this small town, located about 30 miles outside of Philadelphia, mushroom growing has evolved over the past 100 years into a multi-million dollar industry. Every year, the residents of Chester County enjoy the Annual Mushroom Festival that draws thousands of people from all over the state. The output of mushrooms from here accounts for nearly half of the nations total production.
The industry was originally started by Pennsylvania Quakers on small farms. As operations blossomed in the 20’s, Italian immigrants began to work the fields. Over time, these Italian immigrants learned the business, worked hard and struggled and eventually started farms of their own.
In the 30’s and 40’s, both White and African-American locals became employed on the new farms owned by the Italians. As the 50’s rolled around and opportunities became richer for the workforce, they lost their workers and began to recruit poor southern whites and blacks to do the hard and dirty work. Once again, opportunities led these workers to move on and Puerto Ricans took over the majority of the work well into the 70’s. They came and worked because Chester County presented an opportunity for good pay and sustained work.
In the late 70’s, poorer Mexican workers began to replace the Puerto Rican workforce. These Mexican laborers would live in “mushroom camps”. Needless to say, the living conditions for these men were horrible. These camps existed well into the early 80’s. The men stayed for about 9 months to work and then returned back to their homeland with the money they earned for their families. As the years rolled on, improvements to the camps were required by law, some complied, others just shut down. After The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, labor camps were becoming a thing of the past and by the 90’s, pretty much abolished. This Act led to many undocumented workers to establish legal status. They began to build their own homes and had their families join them here.
In 1986, President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act and changed the Mushroom workers conditions considerably. This law granted amnesty to those illegal aliens who had lived in the U.S. since 1982. It also provided strict sanctions on employers for future hirings. At first, the Mexican workers were skeptical of the law, but afterwards they no longer lived in fear of deportation. They had their loved ones with them, etc. Since they were now legal and able to venture out and find different employment, they found even greater opportunities, forcing the pay for mushroom picking to raise for those willing to work. Actually, to work legally. The workers realized quickly that in America there could be prosperity for them. The average wage in Quadalajara is eight times less than picking mushrooms in Kennett Square.
What was once an isolated group of transient men, is now a permanent Mexican community in Kennett Square that now comprises of 28% of the population of this small quaint town. Their roots can be seen all along the roads throughout Kennett. They are kind people, hard-working and very American. They are proud of their status as legal residents and I know many of them. They would be all too happy to present their documentation to verify that they are legally American. They would not take offense to it. They worked hard for it, they became legal and they prospered here in Chester County. Just like the Italian immigrants who worked those very same fields and eventually became owners. America truly is the Land of Opportunity when laws are not broken but adhered to.