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Oral history interviews on cultivated mushroom industry
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Oral history interviews on cultivated mushroom industry

Accession 2018.219

Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum and Library


PO Box 3630
Wilmington, Delaware, 19807
302-658-2400
askhagley@hagley.org

Finding aid prepared by Amrys O. Williams, Benjamin Spohn, Nicole Strunk, Marissa Kalinowsky, and Michelle DiMeo, 2019.

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit 2019-08-15T15:07-0400

Finding aid prepared using best local practices and Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Cite items for this collection in the following format:
[Description and dates], Box/folder number, Oral history interviews on cultivated mushroom industry (Accession 2018.219), Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807

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Descriptive Summary

Title: Oral history interviews on cultivated mushroom industry
Dates: 2018-2019
Accession Number: 2018.219
Creator: Hagley Museum and Library. Library. Oral History Project Office.; Spohn, Benjamin, (staff); Williams, Amrys O., (staff)
Extent: 18 items
Physical Description: 16 WAV files.
Language of Material: English
Repository: Hagley Museum and Library: Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department
Abstract: Over half the mushrooms in the United States are grown in and around the town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, which proudly calls itself the mushroom capital of the world. This oral history collection brings together interviews with individuals whose experiences capture the many different kinds of work and knowledge involved in mushroom cultivation, harvesting, packing, distribution, and marketing, and how those processes have changed over time.
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Administrative Information


Existence and Location of Originals

View this collection online in the Hagley Digital Archives .

Access Restrictions

This collection is open for research.

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Historical Note

Over half the mushrooms in the United States are grown in and around the town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, which proudly calls itself the mushroom capital of the world. Beginning around the turn of the century, Quaker greenhouse owners began using the space below their beds to grow mushrooms. They hired Italian laborers, who then started their own mushroom farms. Today, Italian-American families own most of the mushroom companies in the area, and the labor force has shifted as well, from Puerto Ricans to Mexicans, as Pennsylvania’s mushroom farms became a destination for migrant farm workers looking for reliable, year-round employment in one place. Mushroom farming itself has changed, as growers have expanded their plants, mechanized certain aspects of production, and begun to market a wider variety of mushrooms.

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Scope and Content

This oral history collection brings together interviews with individuals whose experiences capture the many different kinds of work and knowledge involved in mushroom cultivation, harvesting, packing, distribution, and marketing, and how those processes have changed over time. This is a story about an unusual farm product: one that grows inside, largely year-round, and that requires a different set of inputs than livestock or crop production. It is farming and not-farming in very interesting ways. It is a story that involves ethnic and immigrant communities, land-grant college research and scientific and political support for the industry, the formation of trade organizations and accessory industries that support mushroom farms, changes in marketing and distribution, agricultural policy and labor and immigration laws, and the persistence of family operations despite unsuccessful attempts by corporations to get in on the mushroom game. It is also a story about the Pennsylvania environment, the horse farms that provide the manure for compost, the land that provided the topsoil for mushroom beds, the climate that made production possible at certain times of year and not others, the vernacular architecture of the standard double mushroom house, and the changing geography of mushroom farming over time. Lastly, it is a story that offers a fascinating counterpoint to some of the major themes in twentieth-century agricultural history, including industrialization and consolidation of ownership. Although mushroom farming was highly scientific and technological from the early twentieth century, it has retained a family form of organization in the area, and corporate attempts to consolidate the industry or buy up family mushroom farms have largely been unsuccessful.

The project includes interviews with mushroom growers and owners of mushroom businesses of different sizes, many of which are multigenerational family-operated concerns; mycologists and other scientists and technicians working in spawn laboratories at mushroom companies; business people whose companies provide the lumber, machinery, tools, heating and cooling, trucking, composting, spawn, and other services that mushroom cultivation requires; people who promote mushroom consumption through food, recipes, and marketing; and others.

This project documents a unique agricultural business, forming a foundation for research on how and why farming changed in the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Issues include the role of science, technology, climate control, and mechanization; immigration policy as it pertains to agriculture; the pressures of marketing and distribution; and the shift in agricultural research from the public to the private sector.

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Series Descriptions and Inventory

Interview with Kristine "Tina" Ellor, 2018 April 26
1 WAV file, TRT: 02:15:31
Scope and Contents note
The interview was conducted by Amrys O. Williams and Nicole Strunk.
In this interview, Tina Ellor discusses her personal journey to her place in the mushroom industry of Chester Country; she explains her passion for mushrooms and their health benefits. Ellor reflects on cultural differences between America and other parts of the world when it comes to the attitudes towards and the uses of mushrooms in everyday life and on the growing and processing of different kinds of mushrooms. [ID: Ellor_Kristine_20180426 ].
Biographical note
Kristine “Tina” Ellor (1961-) is the Technical Director at Phillips Mushrooms where she started in 1995 as a mycologist in their mushroom spawn lab. Ellor is known within the Chester County Pennsylvania mushroom community for both her job as well as her family ties to the business through her husband Joe Cordivano and for her personal passion for mushroom growing and science.
Interview with John B. Swayne, III, 2018 June 5
1 WAV file, TRT 01:55:25
Scope and Contents note
The interview was conducted by Amrys O. Williams.
In this interview, Swayne tells the story of his family's move into mushrooms, his own upbringing in the industry, and his efforts to run his own company and improve the quality of mushroom spawn available. [ID: Swayne_John_20180605 ].
Biographical note
John B. Swayne III is a descendant of one of the original Quaker families who started growing mushrooms at the turn of the century as a side business to their greenhouse operation. He has had a long career in the mushroom industry as the owner of his own growing operation and spawn company.
Interview with Charles and Jane Brosius, 2018 May 31
1 WAV file, TRT 03:22:10
Scope and Contents note
The interview was conducted by Amrys O. Williams and Nicole Strunk.
In this interview, the Brosiuses reflect on their family history with mushrooms, their experiences in the mushroom industry, the challenges and frustrations of agricultural policy and politics in Pennsylvania, and changes in the labor situation in the mushroom industry. [ID: Brosius_Charles_and_Jane_20180531 ].
Biographical note
Charles Brosius (1930-) is a longtime mushroom grower, a descendant of one of the longstanding Quaker mushroom families in Chester County, a Penn State University graduate, and a former Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture. His wife, Jane Brosius (1930-), is a graduate of Penn State University with longstanding experience in mushrooms.
Interview with Donald P. and R. Marshall Phillips, 2018 June 19
1 WAV file, TRT 01:44:36
Scope and Contents note
The interview was conducted by Amrys O. Williams.
In this interview, the Phillips' discuss their early experiences growing up in a mushroom family, their training at Penn State University, their leadership of the company, the move into exotic mushroom production, and the challenges and rewards of growing mushrooms.
Biographical note
Donald P. Phillips (1935-) and R. Marshall Phillips (1938-) are the owners of Phillips Mushroom Farms, the country's largest producer of specialty/exotic mushrooms, and one of the larger growers in the Kennett Square area.
Interview with John and Sara Cordivano, 2018 June 28
1 WAV file, TRT 02:23:19
Scope and Contents note
The interview was conducted by Amrys O. Williams.
In this interview, the Cordivano's reflect on their longstanding involvement in the mushroom industry, from their experiences growing up in mushroom families, to John's experience with making better mushroom compost. John Cordivano describes his family entering the business and his own work for several mushroom companies over the years (Cordivano Brothers, John Swayne, a farm in Maryland, Oxford Royal, Laurel Valley) and the various jobs he performed there. Sara Cordivano, talks about her experience in mushrooms, converting a dairy barn into their personal mini mushroom farm, managing the marketing for it, and describes their children getting involved, but eventually moving on to careers they desired. [ID: Cordivano_John_and_Sara_20180628 ].
Biographical note
John Cordivano (1936-) is the third generation affiliated with mushrooms in his Italian family. His grandfather got his start working for the Swayne company, and then forged out on his own. His wife, Sara Cordivano (1941-), also grew up around mushrooms and has experience helping to run the family's small growing operation.
Interview with Emidio "Junior" and Barbara M. Frezzo, 2018 July 19
1 WAV file, TRT 02:22:15
Scope and Contents note
The interview was conducted by Amrys O. Williams.
In this interview, the Frezzo's describe the family's path toward the mushroom business in the early 20th century, the growing business Frezzo got started with his family's assistance, the growth of the family business and changes in machinery and technology, the shift from canned to fresh mushrooms, Frezzo's work advising the Kennet Square Bank on loan applications from mushroom growers, his time in the peat moss business, and their travels to the annual mushroom conference. [ID: frezzo_emidio_jr_and_barbara_20180719 ].
Biographical note
Emidio "Junior" Frezzo, Jr. (1936-) comes from an Italian family of mushroom farmers. His family came to the states from Italy in 1920, and his father worked in mining and quarrying before moving into the mushroom business. Frezzo was for a time the owner of Emidio Frezzo, Jr., Inc., a mushroom growing operation he got started with the help of his father. He is a former chairman of the American Mushroom Institute. Frezzo's wife, Barbara M. Frezzo (1941-), has also been involved in mushrooms, and recalls lining baskets and packing mushrooms as a young person.
Interview with Dominic Manfredini, 2018 July 20
1 WAV file, TRT 02:16:23
Scope and Contents note
The interview was conducted by Amrys O. Williams.
In this interview, Dominic Manfredini reflects on his lifelong career in the mushroom growing industry, including the range of companies he owned. Manfredini inherited the family business from his father he also talks about his business travels to New York and Italy. Manfredini's interview covers the period 1946 to 2018, revealing how consumer tastes, farming technology, and scientific innovations changed business practices for mushroom growers over the course of 70 years. [ID: manfredini_dominic_20180720 ].
Biographical note
Dominic Manfredini (1930-) is the president of Manfredini Enterprises, Incorporated., formerly Frank Manfredini and Son, founded in 1946 by Dominic’s father, Frank Manfredini. Manfredini also had shared ownership of DM-LRP, a mushroom business run with his brother-in-law, Lucio Pizzini. Manfredini was a co-owner of Keystone Mushrooms from 1969 till 1983, at which point they sold the company to new owners. Manfredini was a member of the Eastern Mushroom Marketing Cooperative and remains a member of the American Mushroom Institute.
Interview with James A. Angelucci, 2018 July 24
1 WAV file, TRT 02:53:21
Scope and Contents note
The interview was conducted by Amrys O. Williams and Benjamin Spohn.
In this interview, Angelucci discusses his experiences growing up in an Italian mushroom-growing family, his time with the military during the Vietnam War, his reluctant return to mushrooms after his release from the service, and his long career at Phillips Mushroom Farms starting in the early 1970s, where he was a key player in the company's turn toward specialty/exotic mushrooms and organics. He also discusses his longstanding affiliation with the American Mushroom Institute, the Mushroom Short Course at Penn State University, and other groups devoted to promoting mushroom production and consumption. [ID: angelucci_james_a_20180724 ].
Biographical note
James A. "Jim" Angelucci (1949-) is general manager at Phillips Mushroom Farms. He grew up in a mushroom-growing family in Kennett Square, where he learned the trade. After serving in the armed forces, he returned home and got back into mushrooms, first growing for himself, then working at Phillips.
Interview with Keith Silfee, 2018 December 4
1 WAV file, TRT 01:50:25
Scope and Content
The interview was conducted by Benjamin Spohn and Michael Weiss.
In this interview, Keith Silfee discusses his experience working at various small banks that provided loans for mushroom growers and other agricultural operations. Silfee describes how he worked at several different banks between 1981 and 2017, and often changed jobs upon his employer's acquisition by a larger bank. Silfee talks about his career as a loan officer and explains agricultural lending. Silfee compares and contrasts financial and banking regulations before and after the 2008 recession. Silfee explains why he likes his job and his lifelong interest in agriculture. [ID: Silfee_Keith_20181204 ].
Biographical Note
Keith Silfee (1954-) is the Chief Financial Officer at Hy-Tech Mushroom Compost Incorporated in West Grove, Pennsylvania. Silfee has always been interested in agriculture, as a teenager he worked on a dairy farm. After four years of service in the Air Force, Silfee attended Penn State University, and earned a business degree focused on agriculture and finance. After graduating, he began working as a loan officer. Silfee worked as a loan officer until December 2017 when he began his current job.
Interview with Clinton and Rosa Blackwell, 2018 December 7
1 WAV file.
Scope and Contents note
This interview was conducted by Benjamin Spohn and Michael Weiss.
In this interview Clinton and Rosa Blackwell describe their lives in the mushroom business. Rosa Blackwell talks about the mushroom industry that existed in New Castle County, Delaware. Clinton Blackwell talks about his training as a carpenter and a builder and how he became a mushroom grower after his carpentry business failed. Blackwell and his father-in-law started the business in 1969, before then he had no experience with mushrooms, after his father-in-law died in 1973 he ran the business on his own, and describes how difficult it was to run a business with only four years of experience. Clinton and Rosa Blackwell explain how the costs of doing business have changed as has mushroom growing technology, and the labor force. Clinton Blackwell talks about the manufacture and sale of compost for growing mushrooms. [ID: Blackwell_Clinton_and_Rosa ].
Biographical/Historical note
Clinton Blackwell (1944-) and Rosa Blackwell (1942-) are the retired owners of CJ Mushroom Company. Rosa Blackwell was born into a mushroom growing family in Delaware and has been around the mushroom industry her entire life. Her husband, Clinton Blackwell, was also born in Delaware and trained to be a carpenter and a builder. Clinton Blackwell became a mushroom grower in 1969 when he went into business with his father-in-law and opened CJ Mushroom Company in Toughkenamon, PA, he retired in 2017.
Interview with Peter Alonzo, 2019 January 9
2 WAV files.
Scope and Contents note
This interview was conducted by Benjamin Spohn.
In this interview Alonzo talks about his family's history in the mushroom industry. He describes the production of compost for mushroom growth and how it has changed over time. He talks about how his family's business grew from the 1940s to the present day. He talks about the political situation in the United States and how the Wal Mart in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania was built on land he sold to them. Alonzo talks about the role of Pennsylvania State University and the American Mushroom Industry in mushroom education and promotion respectively. [ID: Alonzo_Peter_20190801 ].
Biographical/Historical note
Peter Alonzo (1943-) is the retired owner of Pietro Industries, Incorporated, a mushroom farm in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. He inherited the business from his father. He has since retired and his son now runs Pietro Industries, Incorporated.
Interview with Carla Mckinney and Tyler Blackwell, 2019 January 31
1 WAV file, TRT 01:09:55.
Scope and Contents note
This interview was conducted by Benjamin Spohn.
In this interview, Mckinney and Blackwell talk about their lives in the mushroom industry. They talk about growing up and working with their father, Clinton Blackwell. They also talk about how the mushroom industry has changed since they started working in the industry in the early and mid 2000s. [ID: Blackwell_Tyler_and_McKinney_Carla ].
Biographical/Historical note
Carla Mckinney (1974-) and Tyler Blackwell (1982-) operate CJ Mushroom Company based in Toughkenamon, Pennsylvania. They began to run the business after their parents, Clinton and Rosa Blackwell retired.
Interview with Gale Ferranto, 2019 February 5
1 WAV file, TRT 01:25:00.
Scope and Contents note
This interview was conducted by Benjamin Spohn.
In this interview Ferranto talks about her role as President of Buona Foods Incorporated, she explains that before coming to the mushroom business she had a career in the children's fashion industry. She talks about how her mother founded the company and the dayd to day responsibilities of running it. Ferranto talks about promoting mushroom consumption and her company's role at the Pennsylvania Farm show. She elaborates on the Pennsylvania Farm Show and explains how her company runs the mushroom industry booth at the foodcourt. Ferranto talks about the challenges of being a woman in the mushroom industry and other women who have held leadership positions in mushroom farms, the American Mushroom Institute, and the Mushroom Council. [ID: Ferranto_Gale_20190205 ].
Biographical/Historical note
Gale Ferranto (1969-) is the president of Buona Foods Incorporated based in Landenberg, Pennsylvania. After a career in children's fashion Gale began working for Buona Foods, a mushroom wholesaler and farm started by her mother in 1972. Ferranto's company is also invloved with the Pennsylvania Farm Show, they run the mushroom industry's part of the food court at that event.
Interview with Robert "Bear" Ferranto, 2019 February 19
1 WAV file, TRT 01:22:18.
Scope and Contents note
This interview was conducted by Benjamin Spohn.
In this interview Ferranto (1938) Talks about his career in the mushroom industry. He explains that shortly after graduating from Pennsylvania State University, he became discouraged by low prices on mushrooms so he left the industry in 1963 and returned in 1988 to help run the growing company started by his wife, Rosemarie Ferranto, in 1972. He talks about how that company, Buona Foods Incorporated has grown over the decades and currently grows its own mushrooms, works a brokerage with other famers selling mushrooms to retailers, and promotes mushroom consumption. He also talks about the Pennsylvania Farm Show and how his family's company has operated the mushroom industry's booth at the food court since the 1970s. [ID: Ferranto_Robert_20190219 ].
Biographical/Historical note
Robert "Bear" Ferranto (1936-) is the father of Gale Ferranto (1969-), the current president of Buona Foods Incorparted. Ferranto was born into a mushroom growing family, but left the industry, only to return to help run Buona Foods Incorporated once it got too large for its founder, Rosemarie Ferranto, Robert's wife to run. He is retired from day to day work, but continues to be a presence at Buona Foods Incorporated.
Interview with Leone "Sonny" Pizzini, 2019 March 8
1 WAV file, TRT 01:47:33.
Scope and Contents note
This interview was conducted by Benjamin Spohn.
In this interview Pizzini talks about his involvement in all aspects of the mushroom industry. Pizzini explains that his father came to the United States in 1930 and started his own mushroom farm shortly thereafter. He says that he still does some consulting with his company, Leone Pizzini and Son. In addition to talking about his business, Pizzini talks about growing mushrooms and producing mushroom compost. He also talks about his personal involvement in several mushroom industry related trade organizations and Pennsylvania State University's annual short course on mushrooms. [ID: Pizzini_Sonny_20190308 ].
Biographical/Historical note
Leone "Sonny" Pizzini (1937-) is the retired owner of Leone Pizzini and son, a mushroom growing operation. In addition to working as a mushroom grower, Pizzini worked as a broker, purchasing mushrooms from farmers and reselling them to other buyers. He also owned and operated a mushrooms processing plant. Pizzini is a former president of the Pennsylvania Food Processors and a former chairman of the Mushroom Processors Association.
Interview with Arthur Needham and Donald "Buster Needham, 2019 June 24
1 WAV file, TRT 01:32:37.
Scope and Contents note
This interview was conducted by Benjamin Spohn and Nicole Strunk.
In their interview, father and son Donald "Buster" and Arthur Needham explain their individual and familial involvements in the mushroom industry. D. Needham gives an overview of the industry beginning in the 1960s; he references international competition with new mushroom growers at the time in East Asia. A. Needham talks about the health concerns that arose out of the smell that comes with mushroom composting that is, while potent—harmless, and how that affected the farm’s relationship with the local residential community. He speaks about their farm’s interaction with composters from abroad, many coming from the Netherlands and how they implemented European technologies in their composting process. Both A. and D. Needham speak at length about the difficulties that the industry has with the labor pool and the shifts within it. With the large portion of the current labor pool being Mexican immigrants, the pair also speak about immigration and immigration reform. [ID: Needham_Donald_and_Artie_20190624 ].
Biographical/Historical note
Donald "Buster" (1935-) and Arthur Needham (1962-) are the father - son partnership behind Needham Mushroom Farms and Hy-Tech Compost company. Buster’s father was one of the southern migrants who came to the area as a part of the industry’s first labor wave and later began his own small growing operation which Buster later took over. Along with his son, Arthur, who was raised working on the mushroom farm, they expanded and opened Hy-Tech Compost; the Needhams focus on creating mushroom compost rather than mushroom growing.