Berks mushroom grower lays offs 161 workers

Donna Bella Farms will stop operating its mushroom-growing facilities in Muhlenberg Township, Berks County, laying off 161 people, a large number of whom – if not all – will be offered new employment.

That total includes 123 direct hires and 38 employees from a temp agency working at multiple transient locations who will be laid off as of June 30, according a Worker Adjustment and a Retraining Notification filing with the state Department of Labor & Industry. Donna Bella Farms’ primary address is 5A Mountainside Road, Temple.

All employees have been notified; none are represented by a union.

Donna Bella Farms, which is being dissolved, is a joint venture 50% owned by Giorgi Mushroom Co. and 50% by Monterey Mushrooms.

Joe Caldwell, president of Giorgi Mushroom, said in a phone interview that the current business climate, in which demand for mushrooms is low, prompted the decision. He said the growing rooms Bella Donna uses are owned by Giorgi or Monterey.

They are shut down temporarily and will re-open when demand improves, he said.

The WARN letter said Giorgi Mushroom “will continue and perhaps expand certain mushroom-growing operations currently undertaken by GMC at DBF’s locations. GMC currently anticipates that employment opportunities will be provided to a substantial number of DBF employees.”

An HR team from Giorgi is meeting with workers this week, Caldwell said. “I really expect the vast majority of (Bella Donna) employees will come on board.”

Giorgi Mushroom Co.’s website said the company “is a vertically integrated, family owned and operated agribusiness in Berks County. … GMC is the largest, single-location mushroom farm in the world, producing over 180 million pounds annually of the Agaricus bisporus varieties: White Button, Portabella, Cremini and Shiitake mushrooms. Our operations span 3.7 million square feet of growing space across six farms and 468 indoor growing rooms including several organically certified operations.”

A joint venture with Monte Blanco, the largest mushroom grower in Mexico, provides Giorgi Mushroom with 400,000 square feet more of growing capacity to service its Southwest U.S. markets with freshly picked mushrooms.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Shapiro signs executive order committing to creating economic growth

Gov. Josh Shapiro signed an executive order Tuesday creating the Pennsylvania Office of Transformation and Opportunity within the Governor’s Office and the Economic Development Strategy Group. 

The two offices will seek to create a unified strategy for economic growth and development, with a focus on disadvantaged and underserved communities. 

The Office of Transformation and Opportunity will help develop and lead an overall growth strategy and implement economic development projects – coordinating with Commonwealth agencies, expediting permit reviews, and ensuring the speed of business review and approval of key incentive programs. 

Rather than require business to go to multiple agencies for permits, approvals, and funding, the office will serve as a one-stop-shop to cut through red tape, bring state agencies together, support the growth of state businesses, and encourage out-of-state businesses to move to Pennsylvania. 

Pennsylvania business leader and entrepreneur Ben Kirshner has been named by Shapiro Chief Transformation and Opportunity Officer. 

The Economic Development Strategy Groupwill be driven by the Chief Transformation Officer, and will be chaired by the governor, consisting of the Chief Transformation and Opportunity Officer and the Secretaries of Labor & Industry, Community and Economic Development, Transportation, Agriculture, Education, and Environmental Protection. 

The group will advise Shapiro on economic development projects and processes to attract and retain employers, recruit innovation leaders, and create good-paying jobs in Pennsylvania, particularly in underserved communities. 

Shapiro said in a statement he’s heard from state business and labor leaders that government needs to work more quickly. He said Tuesday’s action makes clear that Pennsylvania is open for business and is looking to be an aggressive leader when it comes to economic growth, job creation, and innovation. 

“My administration will connect our business, our workforce, our world-class universities and research institutions, and the public sector to spur economic development, particularly in communities that have too often been left behind,” Shapiro said. “By helping businesses that are already here, encouraging new ones to move to Pennsylvania, and investing in our workforce, we can create real opportunity and build an economy that works for everyone.” 

Kirshner stated that Tuesday’s executive order signals the Shapiro Administration’s willingness to create transformational change in Pennsylvania. 

“Businesses of all sizes have been asking for economic development to be a focal point in his administration,” said Kirshner, “and (Shapiro) answered their calls by creating the Office of Transformation and Opportunity.” 

Acting Secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development Rick Siger said he looks forward to partnering with the Office of Transformation and Opportunity. The goal, said Siger, is “to support Pennsylvania businesses and workers and maximize the opportunity to attract game-changing economic development projects to our Commonwealth.” 

PA Chamber President and CEO Luke Bernstein said “regulatory and permitting reform continue to be among the critical issues that businesses would like to see addressed.” 

A long-standing deterrent to business investment in Pennsylvania has been the state’s slow permitting process and uncompetitive tax structure.  Recent reforms to Pennsylvania’s Tax Code – including the reduction of our Corporate Net Income Tax rate from 9.99 percent to 4.99 percent by 2031 – and Tuesday’s executive order look to make Pennsylvania more competitive and incentivize economic growth. 

Pa. Senate bills focus on firefighter shortage, Lemon Law, farmers

The Pennsylvania Senate Wednesday passed key legislation, which will now move to the House of Representatives for consideration. 

The approved bills target the state’s volunteer firefighter shortage, update the state’s Automobile Lemon Law, and make it easier for farmers to deliver products to homes and businesses. 

Senate Bill 114, sponsored by Sen. Michelle Brooks (R-Crawford/Lawrence/Mercer) addresses the severe shortage of firefighters by creating a pilot program for community colleges and universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) to provide training in firefighting to interested high school students. 

Pennsylvania currently has fewer than 37,000 volunteer firefighters, a severe drop from the 300,000 the state listed in the 1970s. 

The bill is aimed at awarding three grants of $150,000 each to three community colleges of PASSHE schools. One grant would be for the eastern part of the state, another for Central Pennsylvania, and the third for the state’s western part.  

Brooks said in a statement she added the regional components to the bill to ensure equal access to the pilot program. Having grants covering three regions also eases the time burden and expense Pennsylvanians would face by having to travel across the state to participate in the program. 

“Our volunteer firefighter community is struggling with both recruitment and retention of the heroes who respond at a moment’s notice to protect our families and communities,” said Brooks. “There are more demands on our firefighters than ever before, and this legislation builds on my continued efforts to help address the challenges our emergency responders are facing.” 

Brooks also reintroduced Senate Bill 155, which seeks to add motorcycles to vehicles protected by the state’s Automobile Lemon Law. The bill passed through the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure committee and heads to the Senate floor for consideration. 

The Lemon Law protects against manufacturer defects that diminish the safety, use, or value of a newly purchased vehicle. Under the law, defects must have occurred within warranty terms, 12 months from the date the vehicle is delivered to the purchaser, or within 12,000 miles driven. 

However, similar protections are not offered to those who purchase motorcycles, leaving the owner to either pay out of pocket to repair potentially dangerous manufacturing defects or fix the problem themselves,” Brooks said. “Last session, this legislation was revised and strengthened, thanks to the combined efforts of ABATE, motorcycle manufacturers and dealers, and other important stakeholders.” 

Currently, Pennsylvania’s Lemon Law applies to personal vehicles and not to motorcycles, motorhomes, commercial vehicles, or off-road vehicles. Motorcycles would be added as protected vehicles in Brooks’ bill. They would be eligible for refund or replacement within the warranty terms or 12 months of delivery, whichever occurred first. 

The Senate also approved Bill 95 to enable farmers who have a farm vehicle registration plate to deliver milk and agricultural products to residents’ homes or businesses. 

The legislation was introduced by Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Cambria/Centre/Clearfield), who emphasized that farmers are essential to the state’s economy and livelihood. 

“With the growing demand for at-home delivery services, farmers deserve our support – not bureaucratic red tape,” said Langerholc. “This bill will help farmers meet the rising demand for farm products delivered to homes and businesses, while giving consumers the opportunity to enjoy our state’s agricultural products with a more convenient method.” 

Current law limits farmers from transporting products from their farm to a home residence. While the vehicle code allows for home deliveries via a commercial vehicle registration, it also prevents the commercial vehicle from being registered as a farm vehicle. 

Farmers are thus required to purchase, register, and maintain a separate commercial vehicle for at-home delivery, while also maintaining a farm vehicle to deliver agricultural commodities to places of business. 

Langerholc’s legislation streamlines the home delivery of milk and other agricultural products and has the support of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. 

“With one less burdensome requirement, farmers can focus on what matters most – feeding Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Farm Bureau said in a statement.

Going solar? Pa. Ag Dept. has advice for landowners

Farmers and landowners in rural areas of Pennsylvania now have new guidance on using their properties for solar production. 

Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding released guidance on the issue on Thursday.  

The guidance outlines the Wolf Administration’s support for technologies that create jobs and generate farm income without compromising food and fiber production.  

He said that solar energy is climate-smart technology that meets those goals while reducing emissions and helping reduce the negative impacts of climate change. 

“Pennsylvania’s farmland is a precious resource for producing food, protecting our environment, and feeding our economy,” said Redding. “Solar energy production holds tremendous potential for generating electricity to power farm operations and furthering Pennsylvania’s transition to a clean-energy future. If carefully planned, well-situated and properly maintained, solar production will not compromise or diminish valuable farmland resources, rather it will enhance them.” 

Redding said issues that should be considered when considering solar generation includes sustainable site selection. That would mean placing priority on roofs, parking lots or brownfields rather than agricultural or forested land and avoiding premium quality soil locations altogether. 

He said landowners should also be mindful of maintenance that protects soil and pollinators through native vegetation free of invasive species and gives priority to grazing vs. Mowing 

Integration of energy and agricultural production in a way that is complementary rather than competitive is also desired. 

The guidance also outlines additional considerations for owners of farmland including the impact solar production would have on the farm’s enrollment in preferential tax programs, preserved farm status, local zoning, environmental permits and conservation plans and other issues. 

 Complete guidance, including a list of frequently asked questions and additional resources for going solar, can be found on the department website, agriculture.pa.gov. 


Ag businesses may be eligible for disaster relief

Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding encouraged farmers, small agricultural cooperatives, aquaculture businesses and other small businesses and non-profits to apply for low-interest federal loans to help them recover from losses due to excessive heat and draught between June 18 and Sept. 14 of this year. 

 Following U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s four disaster declarations for New Jersey counties, USDA Farm Service Agency disaster recovery loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) are now available in adjacent Pennsylvania counties Bucks, Delaware, Monroe, Northampton, Philadelphia and Pike. 

Farmers and other agriculture producers are eligible to apply for USDA disaster recovery loans. Nurseries are eligible to apply for SBA loans to recover from drought-related damage. Businesses not eligible for USDA emergency loans may be eligible for SBA loans. 

“These vital federal resources can mean the difference between surviving and going under after bouts of increasingly severe weather,” said Redding. “Just as we hope agriculture businesses don’t leave money on the table that helps them assess their risks, diversify revenue and plan for growth, we would encourage Pennsylvania businesses to take advantage of federal loans to help them recover from severe weather.” 

Loan amounts can be up to $2 million with interest rates of 2.935 percent for small businesses and 1.875 percent for private nonprofit organizations, with terms up to 30 years.  

Applicants in Pennsylvania should search for current disaster declarations in New Jersey – four declarations cover different PA counties and date ranges — and follow directions to apply online using the Electronic Loan Application (ELA) via SBA’s secure website at https://disasterloanassistance.sba.gov/ela/s/  



Production, promotion of Pa. beers and wines gets nearly $2 million boost from PLCB grants

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) has approved grants totaling $1,78 million for 21 projects to increase the production of Pennsylvania-made malt and brewed beverages and wines, Governor Tom Wolf announced. 

The grants are aimed at enhancing Pennsylvania’s beer industry via promotion, marketing, and research-based programs and projects, as well as increasing the production of state-made wines. 

“Since 2017, we have awarded more than $12 million to projects that support Pennsylvania’s growing wine and beer industries as they explore research, improve products and raise awareness,” Wolf said. “This is an investment that helps growers meet increasingly complex challenges, provides higher-quality and better-tasting products, and connects consumers with Pennsylvania wines and craft beverages that are among the finest in the nation.” 

Ranked second in the U.S. for volume of craft beer production, Pennsylvania produced 3.2 million barrels in 2021 for a $5.5 million economic impact. Pennsylvania ranks fifth in the country for wine production and annually welcomes more than two million visitors to state wineries generating tourism revenue of more than $476.5 million. The economic impact of wine in Pennsylvania is more than $1.4 billion. 

Act 39 of 2016 created the Pennsylvania Malt and Brewed Beverages Industry Promotion Board within the department of Agriculture and authorized the PLCB to approve up to $1 million annually for the development and marketing of the Pennsylvania beer industry. The Pennsylvania Fiscal Code also allows for unallocated beer grant funds to be made available in subsequent years. 

Act 39 also expanded the Pennsylvania Wine Marketing and Research Board and authorized the PLCB to approve up to $1 million annually for wine research and promotion. 

The PLCB regulates the distribution of beverage alcohol in Pennsylvania, operates 600 wine and spirit stores statewide, and licenses 20,000 alcohol producers, retailers, and handlers. The PLCB partners with schools, community groups, and licensees to reduce and prevent dangerous and underage drinking. Taxes and store profits totaling nearly $19.5 billion since the agency’s inception are returned to the state’s General Fund to finance Pennsylvania schools, health and human services programs, law enforcement, public safety initiatives, and other key public services. 

The Pennsylvania State Police, Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, and other state agencies and local municipalities across the state also receive financial support from the PLCB. 

Additional information regarding the PLCB can be found at lcb.pa.gov. 

PA dairy farmers encouraged to manage risk with federal coverage

Pennsylvania dairy farmers were encouraged Monday by Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding to enroll in USDA’s Dairy Margin Coverage Program and take advantage of federal risk-management protection. 

The USDA Farm Service Agency provides a safety net for dairy farmers when the price difference for milk and feed falls below the amount selected at enrollment by the producer. Dairy Margin Coverage was created under the 2018 federal Farm Bill. In 2021, one-third of Pennsylvania’s dairy farms were enrolled in the program and received $88,861,920 in payments averaging $51,936 per farm. 

“Protecting your bottom line against price fluctuations you can’t control just makes sense,” said Redding. “Dairy Margin Coverage is a smart part of every dairy producer’s risk management strategy.” 

Producers wishing to receive coverage in 2023 must enroll between Oct. 17 and Dec. 9. Those interested should visit Dairy Margin Coverage program information on the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) website, fsa.usda.gov. PA dairy producers can visit their county FSA office by Dec. 9 

Information on funding and additional resources to support financial planning for agricultural operations can be found at agricultue.pa.gov.

High priority placed on hemp sales, exports in PA

Proposals for nonprofit marketing and promotion organizations for projects designed to increase sales, export or consumer awareness of Pennsylvania hemp products were called for Monday by Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding. 

The minimum grant is $1,000. Eligible projects may include regional or national promotion, and those that leverage other funding and public-private partnerships will receive special consideration. Projects must have started on or after July 1, 2022, and must be completed prior to or on June 30, 2023. A competitive process will be used to select applications. 

“Hemp has presented a unique opportunity to grow an industry from the ground up, supplying seemingly limitless sustainable construction materials, fiber and food products,” Redding said. “These grants will feed a new industry that was once a staple of Pennsylvania’s economy and is again presenting opportunities for farm income and jobs as well as new possibilities for climate-friendly, environmentally beneficial products.” 

To apply for grants, qualified nonprofits can visit the PA Department of Community and Economic Development online application system. Applications will be accepted up to December 2, 2022, at 5 p.m. EST. Grant guidelines are listed in the October 15, 2022, issue of the Pennsylvania Bulletin. 

More than $157,000 was awarded in 2021 to three projects aimed at increasing consumer awareness of hemp products in PA and increase fiber and food hemp markets and opportunities in the commonwealth. The Wolf Administration has used matching grants to feed growth in the hemp industry. To date, hemp-specific grant investments total more than $923,000. 

Additional information regarding hemp in Pennsylvania can be found by visiting Agriculture.pa.gov/hemp.