KENNETT SQUARE — Kathi Lafferty just might have stumbled on, or stumbled through, the pet rock of the new millennium: Kennett Square Potpourri.
Packaged in a 2-inch clear green glass jar with a cork in the top, the “potpourri” is 1 ounce of mushroom substrate, an enticing mix of straw, horse manure, hay, poultry manure, cottonseed meal, cocoa shells and gypsum. It is the stuff mushrooms grow in.
Lafferty — the owner of The Mushroom Cap gift shop on Kennett Square’s West State Street, as well as event coordinator of the annual Kennett Square Mushroom Festival and the wife of a second-generation mushroom farmer — is hoping the gimmick will draw attention to the mushroom, its health benefits and its versatility.
Where did the Lafferty get the idea?
“I just don’t know what got it in my mind,” Lafferty said. Some resort towns “sell air, sunshine or sand from the beach” in a bottle.
So, Lafferty figured, why not mushroom soil?
“The area has tons of it,” said Lafferty, who has taken on the job of selling the odoriferous mix one ounce at a time.
Most difficult was finding the right jar. That took a lot of hunting.
Once she got the jar, she said she had to label and identify the product. At first she had a paper mushroom with the name of the product, its contents and the store’s address tied to the jar with baling twine.
When that didn’t hold up, she went to her “etching guy,” the owner of IOM Woodworking in Oxford. The woodworking company, using the paper mushroom as a pattern, produced an eye-catching wooden label.
Lafferty said last week a woman customer, who was purchasing a jar of Kennett Square Potpourri, wanted her to autograph and date the wooden mushroom.
Choosing a price point was another problem for the store owner.
“We thought about $5 and $3 and $4 and picked $4.79,” Lafferty said.
So far, the gimmicky bottles of mushroom soil seem to be a hit.
Just last week, a man who said he had an upcoming speech at the Department of Agriculture in New Jersey placed an order for 10, Lafferty said. A woman, a public relations specialist from England, not only bought one, but told Lafferty she should alert the media.
Lafferty gets the mushroom soil from P.A. Lafferty & Sons, a mushroom farm founded in 1946 by the father of her husband, Thomas Lafferty. The farm has operations in New Garden and Hockessin, Del. Her son, Christopher, is a third-generation mushroom farmer.
The shop’s location in Kennett Square, the Mushroom “Cap”ital of the World, inspired its name, though few people get the play on words, Lafferty acknowledged. In addition to mushroom-themed gifts and souvenirs at The Mushroom Cap, Lafferty recently installed a refrigerator case so she could sell fresh mushrooms brought in from the family farm.
It seemed a shame to send people out of Kennett Square to a supermarket chain to buy mushrooms, Lafferty said.
Lafferty did not start out to be all things mushroom.
In 1984, she opened The Growing Tree, a baby clothes and toy store, at her New Garden home. Three years later she moved The Growing Tree to West State Street in downtown Kennett Square. In 2004, she put the Growing Tree in the back of the shop and opened The Mushroom Cap up front.
In addition to running the mushroom specialty store, Lafferty likes to share her enthusiasm for the fleshy fungi in her volunteer job as Mushroom Festival coordinator. As such, Lafferty has included a one-hour seminar on mushroom nutrition as part of the annual Mushroom Festival to be held this year on Sept. 9 and 10.
She also promotes the mushroom industry’s partnership with the Washington D.C.-based National Prostate Cancer Coalition, an education group that publicizes the mushroom’s relationship to prostate health.
According to a pamphlet published by the coalition and paid for through a grant from the Eastern Mushroom Marketing Cooperative, mushrooms contain the mineral selenium, which may help protect against prostate cancer. At the Mushroom Festival, the coalition provides prostate screenings.
Lafferty said she is currently working with the industry officials to bring the breast cancer organizations onboard with the health benefits of mushrooms, as well.
“Why aren’t we out there as an industry?” asks Lafferty.
In Chester County the mushroom industry is sizable, reporting annual sales in the neighborhood of $310 million, according to the American Mushroom Institute headquartered in Washington D.C.
In the meantime, Lafferty continues her commitment to the mushroom, shipping 12 portabellas to a customer in North Dakota last week.
Thanks to a June 11 travel story about the Brandywine Valley — highlighting Kennett Square and its “famous fungi” — that appeared in the New York Daily News, Kennett Square’s No. 1mushroom cheerleader is seeing a new influx of tourists at her store.
“There are a lot of mushroom enthusiasts,” said Lafferty, who vows to continue to “promote the product, promote its freshness.”
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