National Geographic : 1993 Feb
Much Ado About Mushrooms Fungus is big business in Pennsylvania, where mushrooms are the major cash crop. Some 350 million pounds of the familiar commer cial mushroom (Agaricus bisporus), almost half of last year's U. S. harvest, came from the state, much of it from the Kennett Square region. Mushrooms don't just pop up. From spore to store their cultivation takes at least ten weeks and a lot of work. A mushroom may cast mil lions of spores, though in the wild only a very few will grow to maturity. For the cultivated mushroom, life begins in a lab oratory, where the microscopic spores are germinated, produc ing a net of fibers called the my celium. Technicians place tiny plugs of the fibers on sterilized millet seeds for ease of planting. They are then incubated and sent to a mushroom farm. There, workers in windowless buildings spread compost eight inches deep in beds, pasteurize it, and then cast the seeds by hand. Computers control heat and humidity. In two to three weeks the mycelium mats the compost. Peat moss is layered over the mycelium; the room temperature is then suddenly dropped to 60 degrees and the humidity raised to 95 percent. The shocked ' ' fibers cluster to form pinhead size mushrooms. Five weeks after r planting, the first of several harvests ' pokes through. Damp condi tions are facts of life for the mush- . room worker. And compost dust in the air can cause a respiratory ailment known as "mush room worker's lung." Poor housing and low pay were once the reward for long hours in the mushroom houses. Many laborers were illegal Mexican immigrants living in camps hidden in the country side. But the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted amnesty to most, and advocacy groups have helped achieve better conditions. Now, as legal residents, some workers rent apartments and send their children to school, while others save enough to visit their fam ilies in Mexico regularly. "Necesitamospiscadores," reads a sign in front of one mushroom company, "We need pickers." The land of the Penn sylvania Dutch has made room for a new ethnic group: the Pennsylvania Mexicans.