By Caroline Farley
After more than two decades of a close relationship with gourmet mushrooms, a Lawa‘i resident and former restaurant chef turned a unique hobby into a business that just keeps mushrooming.
“I realized I needed to fulfill my passion and make a living out of what I love,” said Keith Silva, owner of Lawa‘i Valley Mushrooms, the only commercial mushroom farm on Kaua‘i, and one of only two in the entire state.
Lawa‘i Valley Mushrooms may be less than two years old, but has already earned a solid reputation. Its initial production has more than quadrupled to roughly 280 pounds a week, which quickly sells out. The next goal is to reach 1,600 pounds per month by the end of the year.
Silva’s long-standing affair with mushrooms started in 1986, while working as an executive chef in Northern California. That was when he learned how to pick dozens of different varieties of gourmet mushrooms. Since then, he researched mushroom foraging and production out of pure curiosity, while continuing to work on the Mainland and then on Kaua‘i, where he was an executive chef for 18 years.
In 2011, Silva leased 4.5 acres in Lawa‘i Valley from his father-in-law, taking over a nursery and fruit-shack business. For him, who firmly believes in sustainability, it was a dream-come-true. With more than 18,000 plants on the property, Silva drastically reduced his grocery bill by growing his own fruits and vegetables.
Yet, something was missing. So Silva purchased Kaua‘i Fungus and converted it to Lawa‘i Valley Mushrooms.
“It all seemed so convenient, since I had already inherited and leased the land from my family,” he said. “I already understood food handling from all the years I spent as a chef. I also really wanted to continue and improve the family business so I would have something to pass onto my children.”
From the beginning, Silva said he challenged himself to learn more and comprehend the “difficult science” behind his hobby-turned-business. With less than 5 percent of success rate for mushroom businesses in the United States, he said he took a considerable risk, but he was determined to succeed.
Generally, Kaua‘i’s average climate is not suitable for growing mushrooms. But Silva said he found the perfect microclimate in Lawa‘i Valley. The stream flowing through his property helps to keep the area’s temperature at a steady 80 degrees Fahrenheit; cool enough for mushrooms.
Lawa‘i Valley Mushrooms has been an instant success since going into full commercial production in early 2014, according to Silva.
“A lot of the produce that comes in to Kaua‘i takes a week or two to get here, and by the time it arrives, the mushrooms in particular are ravished and burnt after being exposed to the heat for so long,” he said. “I had this idea that if I could create a high quality product and get it to the people faster, I would be successful.”
From the beginning, Silva started supplying mushrooms to various restaurants and farmers markets on the island. The farm quickly increased production to 250-280 pounds weekly from the initial 60-80 pounds per week. Silva said he estimates he will be putting out 350-400 pounds per week by the end of the year.
The farm produces a wide variety of mushrooms. Their main product is the grey oyster mushroom, but they also grow pink oyster, pearl oyster, and pioppino mushrooms. In August, they’ll start producing shiitake mushrooms. The whole process takes place on the property.
The first stage involves making compost out of albizia tree woodchips. Then, the compost is cooked in medical sterilizers in the farm’s laboratory, before being sealed in clear plastic bags.
The bags are stored in shelves in the incubation facility, for a process that can take a few to several weeks, depending on which type of mushroom. Inside the bags, the mycelium — an organism grown from spores — feeds on the compost, slowly changing the content from brown compost to white mycelium, where the mushrooms will grow.
From there, the solid mycelium bricks are transferred to another enclosed facility, where they sit on several rows of shelves and are constantly sprayed with a fine mist. It is there that the mushrooms — the stuff we see in stores — pop out of the mycelium bricks.
“I used to carve ice sculptures during my time as an executive chef, so switching to wood carvings was no problem,” he said. “I place the wood carvings around the property to give the farm a Willy Wonka/Alice in Wonderland feel.”
Lawa‘i Valley Mushrooms is at 4951 Kua Rd., and can be reached at 639-0497.