WARWICK — Inside a growing room at Warwick Mushroom Farms, Maryland Department of Commerce Secretary Kelly Schultz peered at one row of mushrooms dotting the shelves of compost.
The secretary got a crash course in mushroom farming on Tuesday morning while kicking off her daylong tour to talk about the big picture of economic development with business owners and Cecil County officials.
Warwick Mushroom Farms was the only agricultural-based stop on her tour, but Schultz was quick to say it was one of the most scenic spots when she met with County Executive Alan McCarthy.
“This did take us to the most beautiful parts of the county,” she said.
Jack Reitnauer, farm manager of Warwick Mushroom Farms, explained to Schultz that the farm harvests 15 million mushrooms per week. With a workforce of 300 people strong, Warwick Mushroom Farms operates nearly 24/7, with only some time off for Christmas Eve.
Warwick Mushroom Farms was built in 2009, and had expanded on and off over the last eight years. The company is looking to expand once again this year, but things remain “up in the air” whether it will be out of its Maryland location or in Kennett Square, Pa.
“Maryland used to be a really good place to work for farms,” Reitnauer said. “Now it’s getting tougher. The minimum wage is very, very difficult. It’s over twice our competing areas.”
Under Maryland’s $15 minimum wage law, there are some exemptions that apply for the agriculture business, but it was a little unclear where that fell for Warwick Mushroom Farms. Wages at the farm are already a little under the state’s forthcoming $15 minimum wage. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
Schultz said she would ask the Maryland Department of Labor to take a look at the formula to give some clarity. She expressed her interest to continue working with the farm as the “coin was still in the air, deciding what side to flip on.”
From there, Reitnauer led a quick tour of the growing facilities. Each room showcased towers of mushroom shelves, each in a different state of growth. It takes eight weeks to grow the mushrooms to harvest, and within that time frame 18 days are used for the actual picking.
“Mushrooms basically double in size in 24 hours. So that’s where once it starts, you can’t stop, which is one of the issues in why we pick 24 hours a day,” said Steve Phillips, one of the owners of the farm’s parent company, Phillips Mushroom Farms.
Each room is controlled for temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and oxygen. The “right” size mushroom within a sea of white caps is harvested, with trained workers to spot and trim and drop it into a bin.
“I can pick mushrooms four hours after we water them, if we take all the humidity out of the air and raise the temperature,” Phillips said.
Most of the workforce at Warwick Mushroom Farms hail from Guatemala and Cuba, and are offered full benefits and a retirement plan. Reitnauer acknowledged that the company is fortunate with the workforce market in the county compared to Pennsylvania.
“Big picture, we really have appreciated what the local and state government has done for us,” Phillips told Schultz.
At the end of the tour, Reitnauer presented Schultz with boxes of freshly picked and packed mushrooms, which the secretary was all too happy to accept.
Schultz, who started her tenure in December, recognized that a close partnership between the state and local officials was critical to put rural communities on the path for success.
The secretary continued to foster those relationships with other stops along her tour. She had a private meeting with members of the county’s business community in the County Administration Building, including McCarthy, County Economic Development Director Chis Moyer and County Tourism Director Sandy Turner.
She also went on for a private tour of W.L. Gore’s facilities in Elkton and ended the day with a walkthrough of Maryland Beer Company.
“Cecil County is absolutely beautiful, and as the county executive pointed out to me, it’s Maryland’s fourth fastest growing county,” she said. “With the unique challenges that rural counties face, we need to continue to work together as a team to advance our shared goals for Maryland.”