"There aren't a lot of women mushroom growers, but I didn't do this to be the next female Latina grower," says Farmer of the Year, Sonya Beltran of First Generation Farms and Masda Mushrooms. "I am honored to do this work and expand my parents' dream."
Sonya was initially nominated on her own for the award by the American Mushroom Institute for excellence as a mushroom grower and industry advocate, but when she was told about the award, she insisted that her family also be recognized. "I wouldn''t be where I am today without my parents' hard work and sacrifice," she says.
The Beltran family grows fresh white and cremini mushrooms for restaurant and food service customers up and down the East Coast. From humble beginnings, the Beltran's farm now encompasses over 50 growing rooms with an average production of around 11 million pounds of fresh mushrooms a year.
Chester County Commissioners Marian Moskowitz, Josh Maxwell and Michelle Kichline, along with representatives from the Chester County Ag Council and American Mushroom Institute, presented the award to Sonya and her family at their farm in Avondale in October.
"It was my pleasure to recognize Sonya and her family as the county's 2020 Farmers of the Year," says Chester County Ag Council Chairman Chris Alonzo. "Sonya brings so much energy and entrepreneurial talent to her family's business and the wider mushroom industry as well."
From left to right: Commissioner Marian Moskowitz, Commissioner Josh Maxwell, Scott Taylor, Sonya Beltran, Avril Beltran, Daniel Beltran, Maria Beltran, Commissioner Michelle Kichline, Ag Council Chair Chris Alonzo.
Sonya's parents, Daniel and Maria Beltran, came to Chester County from Jalisco, Mexico in 1980. Daniel worked his way up through every job in the mushroom industry. After many years of hard work and on-the-job education, he was able to buy his own mushroom houses and start First Generation Farms (retail side of the business) and Masda Mushrooms (growing side of the business).
"My dad doesn't consider himself an expert but he has done every job from harvester, compost layer, water man and now owner in his 40 years in the industry," says Sonya.
The name "First Generation" speaks for itself but the name "Masda Farms" is also tied to the Beltran family. Masda is an amalgam of the family's first names. "M" is for Maria; "A" is for Alberto, Daniel and Maria's son, who is studying mechanical engineering at Purdue; "S" is for Sonya; "D" is for Daniel; and the last "A" stands for Avril, their teenage daughter.
Nowadays, Sonya works alongside her father as they navigate the fluctuating market for fresh mushrooms and look for ways to increase efficiency while maintaining strict quality standards.
"Though this industry requires you to work untraditional hours, we have tried to maintain our focus on the quality of our product at all times," she says. Sonya officially joined the business eight years ago after receiving her BA in retail management and MA in organizational leadership. She is currently the Director of Operations, overseeing worker safety, product marketing and sales. She has a strong affinity for safety oversight which has served her well throughout the pandemic.
"Food and worker safety involves understanding and coordinating multiple kinds of regulations. I can walk through a growing room and pinpoint what needs to be fixed right away," says Sonya.
Although COVID-19 has been extremely challenging for the food service supply chain, Sonya says that worker safety is always their number one priority. To that end, she partnered with LCH Community Health and Human Services, a nonprofit health center that provides care to southern Chester County, to offer voluntary onsite testing, and has worked with employees when they needed flexible schedules due to childcare disruption.
"Without all of our hardworking employees and the people who have supported us, we would not be here," Sonya says.
Rachel Roberts, the Executive Director of the American Mushroom Institute says, "Sonya exemplifies the very best of the Pennsylvania mushroom farming community. Her love and commitment to her family farm is coupled with her innovative spirit and desire to learn in order to continue her family's legacy."
Sonya doesn't hesitate when asked what she would recommend to youth interested in pursuing careers in agriculture: "I would recommend persistence and being able to adapt. You need to be able to put aside the plan you made and address the problem. No day is the same."
Those characteristics of flexibility and innovation have also been valuable assets in her work as a mushroom industry advocate.
Sonya currently serves as Chairperson of the Mushroom Council, the national mushroom trade promotion group geared towards expanding the consumer market for fresh mushrooms.
"I'm excited about promoting 'The Blend,' a cooking technique that combines chopped mushrooms with ground meat to make recipes more delicious, nutritious and sustainable," says Sonya. "Mushrooms add Vitamin D, which is critical for healthy immune systems, and they are very cost-friendly for a pandemic budget."
With growers like Sonya and her family leading the way, Chester County's top agricultural industry is in good hands now and in the future.
Each year the Chester County Board of Commissioners and the Ag Council select a Farmer(s) of the Year. Learn more about our ag awards program and past winners.