‘Shroom for Improvement

Out of the remnants of the Haleakala Dairy just above the paniolo town of Makawao, something good is sprouting.

It’s part of nature’s grand design to nourish new life out of the vestiges of something once alive but now decaying. In that mode, entrepreneur Rocky Chenelle of Makawao Mushrooms has developed unique and innovative techniques to raise a healthy, gourmet food for local consumption.

For the past six years, Chenelle has been cultivating oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), a mild-flavored variety commonly used as a delicacy in Asian cooking. He has devised a way to propagate his mushrooms, found in nature growing on decomposing wood, in bags of sugar cane fiber residue, known as bagasse.

The result of his labor is a fast-growing business, with a product so prolific that twice-a-day harvesting is necessary. Hundreds of pounds are sold weekly to Maui restaurants and markets. And Chenelle seeks to follow recycling, sustainability and renewable energy guidelines in nearly every facet of his operations. On top of that, he leads a popular farm tour, capitalizing on the advancing edge of agri-tourism.

All of this seems unlikely for an electrical engineer transplanted from Southern California. In his straw cowboy hat, muttonchop sideburns and jeans, Chenelle looks like he’d be at home as a fiddle or mandolin player in a bluegrass band. One might be surprised to learn he has become a practicing mycologist of sorts—that is, one who specializes in the study of fungi.

“When we finally moved here,” says Chenelle, “I didn’t do anything for the first year except sit on the lanai and watch the sunset. Then one day a friend from the Mainland came to visit and we got to talking. He said, ‘You know, mushrooms would grow really well in what’s left over after they process sugar cane.’ It got me to thinking.”

Chenelle says he initially investigated growing shitake mushrooms, one of the staples of Japanese cooking. He discovered, however, that they were very slow growing, taking months to fruit and mature. Chenelle found that oyster mushrooms, on the other hand, could produce in as little as 17 to 25 days. His research revealed that there were no mushroom farms anywhere in Hawaii. 

There’s nothing easy about starting a new business, and the same is true about farming in general. Several farming operations have closed in recent years, including the Makawao Poultry Farm egg business, Maui Land & Pineapple Cannery and Maui’s last dairy operation.

Haleakala Dairy, a fixture on the grassy slopes above Makawao town—known as much for its POG drink (passion-orange-guava juice) as for its milk products—closed its doors in 1999, shipping 1,750 cows to Oahu. Chenelle brought new life to the old milking barn, taking months to refurbish the building and devise a number of contraptions vital to his success in raising edible mushrooms.

One of those devices is a large commercial mixer/pressure cooker custom made to help sterilize his growing medium. Chenelle describes his mushroom cultivation as “a race between the mushroom mycelium [the unseen, vegetative part of the fungus that derives nutrients from its environment] growing on the inside, and everything else, particularly bacteria that would contaminate it.”

Chenelle runs his mixer/sterilizer once or twice every day, in cycles that take five hours. Climbing on a ladder to load the bin, he adds more than 100 pounds of bagasse, sawdust and grass clippings (to provide more nitrogen). Steam is injected, bringing the cellulosic mixture beyond the pasturization point at 140 degrees and on to full sterilization at 160 degrees.

Chenelle says the boiler that supplied the steam was running his electric bill through the roof. To solve that problem, he now operates a boiler unit capable of running on biodiesel, and finds it requires less than 10 gallons a week.

After the growing medium is sterilized, it’s cooled to 80 degrees and the mushroom spawn, or starter cultures, are introduced to inoculate the mixture. Chenelle orders from companies in Nevada and California and the oyster mushroom mycelium is shipped in sterile packages of grain, usually millet.

The mixture is then bagged in plastic columns, some 3 feet tall and weighing 50 pounds with the added water weight. For the first three weeks, the columns are hung in the dark of the old milk storage room, as the growing mycelium doesn’t require any light.

Chenelle punctures as many as 50 holes in each bag, from which the fruiting mushrooms will emerge and grow. Initially he had trouble finding a sharp instrument that could poke the right size hole without introducing bacteria to the sterile growing medium. Eventually, he drew upon his previous career and found the perfect implement—a soldering iron.

After 21 days, the bags are carried across the hall to the old milking parlor. There, air temperature is controlled, an overhead misting system activates every few hours and skylights allow just enough natural light to induce mushroom growth. 

Once the fruiting bodies of the mushrooms appear, the growth is  rapid. Chenelle must pick twice daily, seven days a week. Once picked, each hole in each bag will fruit again in another three weeks, up to as many as 10 times. Over its lifetime, an individual bag may yield 15 pounds. Chenelle averages more than 300 pounds a week, all sold to local markets and restaurants.

At the end of their yield, bags are moved outside. The weed-free bags of compost, sold for $5 each, are a favorite of organic gardeners; Chenelle says farmers sometimes report the mushrooms will emerge yet again in their vegetable gardens.

Outside the old milking barn, the composted bagasse dumped in old concrete feed troughs is bursting forth with nasturtiums, rosemary, oregano and an array of other herbs and veggies.

Thus the byproduct of one agricultural industry winds up in a perfect cycle, nourishing other crops. Chenelle says the only thing he doesn’t recycle yet is the plastic bags. He’s looking at the possibility of using cellophane bags, which are usually made from cotton or wood fibers, rather than plastic, a petroleum product.

Once a week he drives his truck down to the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar mill in Puunene and picks up a one-quarter ton load of bagasse, and the process begins anew.

Like any farm, Makawao Mushrooms has had to be innovative and learn how to adapt. Oyster mushrooms can grow in a temperature range from 55 to 90 degrees, but Chenelle found that on sunny days the metal roof was heating the interior beyond that range.

He installed a solar panel, hooked to a pump in a rainwater collection tank. When the sun shines, the panel powers up and kicks on the pump, which delivers water to spray and cool the roof. The water runs into the rain gutters and back into the tank. Problem solved—and without the need to install costly air-conditioning.

Makawao Mushroom Farm is a family operation. Rocky’s wife Paulette helps with harvesting, bookkeeping and deliveries three days a week. Their son Corey, who manages a store in Kahului, comes up to help on weekends.

Mana Foods in Paia, Paradise Market in Kahului and Kapalua’s Pineapple Grill are among their many happy customers. When they have extras, fresh mushrooms may be available for those visiting the farm to purchase.

The farm’s Web site (makawaomushrooms.com) summarizes their philosophy:  “The farm was started with the idea of fresh mushrooms for Maui instead of imported. It has gradually morphed in philosophy from providing fresh mushrooms grown locally to a sustainable philosophy as well. We are committed to utilizing and conserving our resources with a ‘green’ approach to the farm.”

Rocky Chenelle clearly is having fun at his work, and is doing well enough to stay afloat even if he’s not getting rich. But sometimes doing things the right way provides a richness or satisfaction that money can’t buy. Makawao Mushroom Farm puts Maui one small step closer to sustainability, and that in itself is laudable. MTW

Makawao Mushroom Farm conducts tours Wed.-Sat., 11am to 2 pm (by reservation only, 298-8480) for $10 per person. They will also be at the second annual Maui County Agricultural Festival, to be held Sat., March 14, 9am-4pm at the Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu.

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