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Pennsylvania’s mushroom industry faces threat from zoning dispute

White beech mushrooms grow Monday, July 31, 2006, in bottles at Phillips Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square. (Sylwia Kapuscinski/Chicago Tribune)
White beech mushrooms grow Monday, July 31, 2006, in bottles at Phillips Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square. (Sylwia Kapuscinski/Chicago Tribune)
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A Little Britain Township zoning dispute related to composting concerns could impact the state’s mushroom farming industry, worth an estimated nearly $600 million in annual sales.

The Lancaster County township is seeking to designate Rogelio Vivero’s mushroom farming operation at 101 Kirks Mill Road as commercial composting, a change that would bring increased regulation and cost.

At issue is whether or not composting operations used to make mushroom substrate — a growth medium made from materials such as straw, hay, corn cobs and manure — are protected under the state’s Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment law.

“We think this is a case the attorney general should act on in order to protect mushroom farming,” said Vivero’s attorney Mark Thompson.

Although Lancaster County ranks a distant fifth in mushroom cultivation, neighboring Chester County is the center of the state’s industry, generating more than three-fourths of Pennsylvania’s annual mushroom sales. According to the 2022 Census of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, those Chester County sales were worth $455 million.

The Vivero case is currently under review with the attorney general’s office. Vivero has also appealed the township’s zoning hearing board’s decision to deny his appeal of a 2023 notice alleging his operation violates the township’s zoning ordinance to the Lancaster Court of Common Pleas.

Farming practices under question

It’s been a year since the zoning dispute began. Following neighbors’ complaints of foul odor and flies, Little Britain Township hit Vivero’s operation with a violation and enforcement notice in July 2023. The notice categorized Vivero as a commercial composter and required him to seek conditional use approval to continue his mushroom composting.

The township’s zoning hearing board held hearings on Vivero’s appeal in December, January and February before ruling in the township’s favor in May. Vivero appealed that ruling to the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas at the end of May. The appeal is ongoing.

Neighbor Susan Ferrari notified the township zoning officer of large quantities of compost, trucks coming and going frequently and foul odors and flies, the court filing states. Ferrari testified that the odor is constantly present outside and inside their house and their children no longer enjoy being outside, calling the operation “horrible” and “miserable.”

The property has been used for at least 50 years for mushroom farming, dating before Vivero bought it in 1992, Thompson said. Mushroom substrate was made on location in the ’90s, but it then became more economical to purchase it from large-scale producers, he added.

Within the last year or two, it became much more expensive to purchase substrate, so Vivero decided to go back to the practice of making substrate for himself. The substrate is used on the property and on other farms that Vivero owns or operates in Chester County.

Making mushroom substrate is part of normal agricultural operations, which are protected under the state’s Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment law, said David Meigs Beyer, a professor of mushrooms at Penn State who testified before the Little Britain Zoning Hearing Board.

“It’s just like plowing a field,” Beyer said. “You’re just preparing to plant a crop, and so it’s strictly an agricultural process.”

Little Britain Township has argued that Vivero’s operations pose a health and safety threat to neighbors and their scope goes beyond the normal course of operations for a mushroom farm.

“The operation at issue, Riverside Compost, LLC, is a commercial business under the Zoning Ordinance provisions that produces mushroom substrate for off-site use,” township attorney Michael Crotty said in an email. “As determined through the Zoning Hearing Board proceedings, the use did not satisfy the Zoning Ordinance criteria for the same. During those hearings, neighboring property owners also testified about the detrimental impact of the operation on their health, welfare, and use and enjoyment of their properties.”

In similar cases, township authorities have lost, Beyer said. Potentially more consequential for the industry is the appeal to the attorney general’s office, he added.

“Right now mushroom substrate preparation is protected under the ACRE law in Pennsylvania,” Beyer said, “so I guess, if it gets to a point where they rule against that law, then that would have an effect on mushroom composters in Pennsylvania.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection does set best management practices for mushroom farming, and Vivero could make improvements to the property that would better protect his neighbors, Beyer said.

The main strategy would be to construct a berm around the composting area to collect the water used and channel it into a tank that would be aerated to minimize odor and collect the runoff water for reuse, Beyer said.

“We understand from our client that they are taking all necessary steps to comply with DEP’s regulations for mushroom composting operations including the submission of an environmental plan to DEP,” Thompson said in a follow-up email.

A struggle for survival

Vivero’s operations are a family affair. He operates Riverside Compost LLC out of the 101 Kirks Mill Road operation and also farms mushrooms under the name Perez Mushrooms. Vivero’s niece, Elva Renteria, and her husband farm mushrooms under the PM Mushrooms name.

In total, Vivero’s compost operation is supporting 24 mushroom houses that the family owns and operates (all but the Kirks Mill Road site are in Chester County). A steep rise in the cost of buying mushroom substrate means the family would face an additional $60,000 in cost for each three-month growing cycle if it could no longer make its own compost, Renteria said.

“This is just to stay in business,” Renteria said. “This is to survive.”

Renteria and her husband, Juan Rodriguez, said they’ve seen friends and family forced to close their small mushroom farms.

“A lot of people have been put out of business this year,” Renteria said.

The mushroom crop is sensitive to heat and struggles in the summer months, making it critical that farmers can control the composition of their mushroom substrate to ensure the plants can grow properly. Recent hot weather has resulted in the farmers adding less chicken manure to the compost to lower the heat levels of the growing medium, explained Vivero’s grandson Javi Perez.

Large-scale suppliers simply do not care as much about the quality of the compost, which means making your own can be the only way to control the quality of the crop, Perez said.

“We saw an opportunity,” Perez said, “and we took it.”

 

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