story by David Thompson
photo by Peter French
"Hawaii’s gourmet fungal jungle," Bob Stanga’s Big Island mushroom farm, sits high on Mauna Kea’s steep eastern flank overlooking the deep blue of the Pacific. The farm is just outside the town of Laupahoehoe, and ever since Stanga harvested his first batch of gray oysters there in March 2003, his Hamakua Mushrooms brand has been popping up in restaurants and produce sections around the Islands.
Stanga cultivates six varieties of ‘shroom on his fungi farm: white and brown shimeji, gray oyster, king oyster, nameko and shiitake. The first five sprout from wide-mouthed plastic bottles packed with nutritious mixtures of sawdust, wheat bran and water; the shiitake grow on spongy blocks made from the same stuff. Stanga soon plans to add the indigenous Hawaiian pepeiao to his mycological line-up.
The growing operation occupies a cavernous 16,000-square-foot building at the end of a rough gravel road. Thousands of bottles and blocks fill shelves from floor to ceiling in the farm’s three well-lit growing rooms. An autoclave the size of a midget submarine sterilizes materials entering the building’s inoculation room, where workers in breathing masks and blue lab coats inject mushroom spawn into the sawdust blends. Ultraviolet light also bathes parts of the process, zapping any non-gourmet microorganisms. "We kill everything that might get in and compete with the mushrooms," Stanga explains.
Like the mushrooms themselves, Stanga’s weekly harvest has been multiplying rapidly. His goal is to harvest 7,000 pounds a week, which, not coincidentally, is roughly what Hawaii imports in gourmet mushrooms each week. Because mushrooms have such a notoriously short shelf life, those grown locally have a big edge over imports. "The beauty of our facility is we can harvest and ship in a day," Stanga says.
Stanga came to mushrooms out of the clear blue sky, so to speak. He previously owned and flew for Makani Kai Helicopters in Honolulu. "All the pilots rib him about giving up helicopters for mushrooms," says Stanga’s wife, Janice. But Stanga has no regrets. "I don’t miss the helicopter business at all," he says. "I like mushrooms."