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Town’s Unemployed Find Job Opportunities Mushrooming

Associated Press

The search for jobs often ends underground in this small western Pennsylvania town, where workers who once manned assembly lines now pick mushrooms in the dark caverns of a limestone mine.

“At least we have one industry left in our area that pays a half-decent wage,” said Ray Denny, 50, of nearby Fenelton. “It pays enough that we can get by on.”

With more than 970 workers, the Moonlight Mushrooms Inc. mine is the largest private employer in Armstrong County, about 50 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where the continuing shutdown of steel mills and factories has hit hard. The county unemployment rate was 11.4% in February, double the nation’s jobless rate of 5.7% that month.

“Any time there’s any opening in this area that pays $5 or more, that employer almost always is overwhelmed by the number of people applying,” said Terri Kinney, a supervisor at the state unemployment office in nearby Kittanning.

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Remaining Mainstay

The mushroom mine, once one of several big employers in the area, has become the mainstay.

Major shareholders, members of founder John Yoder’s family, said in April they wanted to sell the mine, and Moonlight in early June announced that it had agreed to sell to a New York holding company, Prospect Group Corp.

If the sale goes through, “There’s not going to be any disruption in the way the business is being run,” said Fred Bennitt, Moonlight’s group manager of administration.

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One of the problems facing the operation is foreign competition.

In the mid-1980s, cheap mushrooms from China, Taiwan, Korea and Europe dried up much of the processed mushroom market--those with an imperfect appearance used in soups, gravies and other processed foods.

Forced to Adjust

That forced many American mushroom farmers to adjust their crops for the more competitive fresh market: the large, white unblemished variety found in grocery stores.

“The price of mushrooms hasn’t gone up much in the past 10 years, and we’re trying to maintain our people with higher production and maintenance costs,” said Francis (Chug) Giesler, Moonlight’s materials purchasing manager.

Through research, Moonlight has developed more efficient ways to grow mushrooms, and sales of $40 million were reported in fiscal year 1987, Bennitt said.

The mine’s 525 pickers make $7.15 an hour plus bonuses for harvesting more than 30 pounds an hour. The average worker picks 62 pounds an hour and gets a bonus of $1 per hour, said Nancy Lahmers, Moonlight’s human resources manager.

“There’s nothing in the community that’s as good,” Denny said. “You can leave and take a minimum wage job, but that’s about all you can get.”

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Denny, a Moonlight employee for 31 years, directs a crew of 15 pickers as it moves through the labyrinth of rocky corridors big enough for a fire truck to pass through.

Perfect Conditions

In the mine, as much as 380 feet underground, conditions are perfect for mushrooms year-round; it’s always damp and about 60 degrees. Mushrooms require no sunshine. Large cavernous growing areas, a small portion of the 150 miles of tunnel, are lit only by small white lights on the pickers’ hats, tools of the trade, along with rubber gloves and small knives.

Mushrooms grow so fast they double in size in a day, so picking starts at 7 a.m. every day and continues “until the work is done,” seven to 10 hours later, Lahmers said.

“There’s days you don’t even get to see daylight at all,” said picker Randy Zema, 29, of Fenelton. “You go down in the dark and come up in the dark.”

Mushrooms are grown in rich compost in large wooden trays placed on tables, with one tray at ankle level, another about waist level. Workers water the crops with long hoses.

As Zema works, his hands move quickly, slicing stems, grabbing and dropping top-quality mushrooms into one basket and imperfect ones into another.

The large white mushrooms gleam like pearls when light strikes them. Good mushrooms are soft and “nice picking,” but bad ones are tough and “hard to grab hold of,” Zema said.

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‘You Stoop a Lot’

“It’s tiresome work,” said Tom Parisi, 34, of Templeton. “It’s hard on your legs and you’re bending all day. You stoop a lot.”

Workers don’t talk much while they pick, and soft music piped in around growing areas penetrates the stillness.

Pickers ride into the mine in electric carts and head for a brightly lit oasis to eat, an underground lunchroom with vending machines.

Visitors from above frequently are asked: “What’s the weather like?”

Many pickers have a spouse, parent or child working beside them. Zema’s grandfather began working at the mine in 1937, and his mother has worked her way from picker to assistant manager.

Zema and Parisi had worked in nearby Butler at the Pullman Standard box car plant, which closed in 1982, idling 2,800 workers.

Misses Old Job

“I made a few dollars more in there than what I am now,” said Zema, who painted railroad cars for Pullman. “I miss the whole job, period.”

Like many pickers, Marge Lasher, 34, of Ford City said competition from foreign imports led to the demise of her former job. She was laid off from her assembly-line job at a garment factory.

In July, 1985, the mushroom company closed its nearby 200-acre West Winfield mine, where it began operations half a century ago.


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