Kennet Square grower breaks ground on Chinese mushroom plant

Participants at the ground–breaking of a new mushroom growing house in Funan County, Anhui Province, near Shanghai, China, wait for festivities to begin.
Participants at the ground–breaking of a new mushroom growing house in Funan County, Anhui Province, near Shanghai, China, wait for festivities to begin. Submitted Photo
Chester County Commissioner Terence Farrell, left, and  Michael Grigalonis, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Economic Development Council, flank a Chinese official during the recent ground-breaking ceremony of a mushroom house in China.
Chester County Commissioner Terence Farrell, left, and Michael Grigalonis, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Economic Development Council, flank a Chinese official during the recent ground-breaking ceremony of a mushroom house in China. Submitted Photo

Chis Alonzo’s newest venture is taking him far from his southern Chester County roots. But it is keeping him in the roots of the area’s deepest agricultural roots.

Alonzo, an owner of Pietro Industries in Kennett Square, is now also the chief operating officer of a company that recently broke ground on a fresh mushroom growing facility near Shanghai, China.

The milestone is being touted as the latest positive event in Chester County’s efforts to form partnerships in China.

“This is a major step forward for the Chester County China Initiative, a joint program between the Chester County Commissioners and (the Chester County Economic Development Council) tasked with developing relationships between China and Chester County to bring lasting benefits to businesses and residents of Chester County,” Chester County Commissioner Terence Farrell said in a prepared statement. “A portion of the funding for this project will be poured back into future initiatives for local businesses in China.”

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Farrell and Michael Grigalonis, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Development Council attended the ground-breaking for the mushroom house earlier this month.

“As a family mushroom grower here in Kennett Square I’ve hosted many groups from many countries over the years,” Alonzo said in a phone interview after returning home. “One of them was from China that I met through Terence and Mike. They were looking for a more modern facility that could produce fresh mushrooms with better quality and better safety standards.”

Demand for fresh mushrooms is up in China due to the rise in the middle class there, Alonzo explained.

The venture is separate from Pietro’s and involves Alonzo and partners Chris Bailey and David Law. A group of investors is putting $25 million in an initial investment to start the growing operation. It will employ 200 people and grow 12 million pounds of fresh mushrooms a year. The farm plans to become one of the larger single-site producers of mushrooms in the world.

Chinese investors are looking to Alonzo for his expertise on how to build the mushroom operation, the team to run it and how to manage the raw materials used in the growing process.

The enterprise won’t require his presence in China full time.

“With technology, I will have to go over there four or five or six times a year. I can do the rest from here,” Alonzo said, adding the Chinese operation won’t compete against growers in Kennett Square, billed the “Musrhoom Capital of the World.”

“This is for the fresh market for domestic consumption in China,” he said. “They are completely separate from one each other.”

Farrell and Grigalonis introduced Alonzo and his management team to Chinese entrepreneurs after the pair hosted 12 delegations in the last three years in Chester County. It’s the latest success story for Chester County businesses expanding to China, they said.

“This is an impressive development as we prepare, in Chester County, to host two more delegations from China in early November and in December,” Grigalonis said. “The ramifications are substantial not only for this local business leader, but also for the network of local businesses that support the mushroom industry in our region and now in China.”

Almost 400 people attended the extravagant ground-breaking ceremony that concluded with the firing of canons last week in Funan County, Anhui Province, near Shanghai. The event occurred on Oct. 10 at 10:18 a.m. (The number 18 is associated with prosperity in China.)

In May, the Chester County China Initiative sent its largest delegation yet to China, with Chester County government and business leaders exploring business opportunities during visits to Beijing, Xi’an, Chongqing (Yongchuan District), Shanghai and Yangzhou. The trip was also designed to identify possible Chinese investors for projects in Chester County. At the time, Alonzo was on the verge of signing the agreement with Chinese entrepreneurs that resulted in last week’s ground-breaking.

Farrell has been a longtime advocate of looking for ways to partner with entities in China. Chester County companies like Bentley Systems, QVC, Genesis Healthcare and CTDI are doing business in China, he noted.

“I don’t buy that characterization — that they’re a bitter enemy,” Farrell said when asked if the county’s efforts are at odds with the views President Donald Trump, who has often blamed China for economic problems in the U.S.

“They are the second-largest economy in the world, after ours,” Farrell said. “It makes sense to get to know one another better. It’s always best to assume there can be a friendship.”

That has been the case for Alonzo, who expressed a deep fondness for the people he has met in his four visits to China over the last year.

“They work very hard just to get by,” Alonzo said. “The people are endearing, very welcoming.

– To contact Business Writer Brian McCullough, call 610-235-2655 or send an email to bmccullough@21st-centurymedia.com.