Down a muddy road in Waimanalo, half an hour from bustling Honolulu, Fung Yang cuts airy portobello mushrooms from miniature landscapes of white mycelium inside of a temperature-controlled shipping container. He plucks them from composted wood chips nestled in cardboard boxes, and carefully puts them in a clean new box. Emerging from the discarded container — one of five at Yang’s Small Kine Farm, a no-frills plot abutting a succulent nursery and a range of salvage and waste reclamation businesses — he takes a big bite out of a larger portobello: quality control.
Yang smiles as he shows off his heaping compost pile: He says he reclaims three to five tons of organic green waste every few weeks to produce substrate, the woody equivalent of soil, for his mushrooms. It took Yang years to fine-tune turning local green waste into mushroom substrate. Other growers in the state rely on imported straw and prepackaged mixtures that basically rule out contamination. When Yang first started, he had to throw out entire crops when rogue mushrooms sprung up from his substrate. “I’ve learned a lot,” he says.
Yang grows wide-brimmed “tūtū” (grandma) and their younger incarnation “keiki” (child) portobello mushrooms for around 30 chefs, specialty grocers, and CSA members. Every three months — the length of a full grow cycle — Small Kine Farm produces 1,200 to 1,600 pounds of portobello. Before he started selling them in 2012, local portobello were virtually nonexistent in Hawaiʻi. Now, Yang is part of a burgeoning group of farmers making it possible for chefs and home cooks in the islands to use an array of locally grown mushrooms, from trumpet to pearl oyster, shiitake to lion’s mane. “I think nowadays people really want to buy local mushrooms — they are fresh, and they taste better than mainland mushrooms,” he says. “I love eating them.”
Hawaiʻi is the most geographically isolated population center in the world, and for decades, upwards of 85 percent of food has been imported. But mushrooms are now grown widely enough that anyone, from a Costco shopper to a fine dining-seeking tourist, is likely to come face-to-face with local funghi. Last time the state did an agricultural audit, the number of local farms producing mushrooms had tripled, from three in 2012 to nine in 2017, and funghi farmers say that number has continued to grow. In 2021, nearly 290,000 pounds of mushrooms were grown and sold in Hawaiʻi, routing $2.6 million to local farmers, rather than to megafarms on the U.S. mainland. And every ingredient that becomes locally available moves the needle towards self-sufficiency, lower environmental impact, and arguably higher-quality food.
Mushrooms made their commercial debut in Hawaiʻi in 2000, when retired helicopter pilot Bob Stanga filled an empty warehouse on the north coast of Hawaiʻi Island (the Big Island) with plastic bottles sprouting trumpet mushrooms — a Japanese technique that forgoes the thick single-use plastic bags common in mushroom cultivation. Stanga started small and eventually sold to acclaimed chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and a host of local grocers. Now, his mushrooms line the chilly shelves of Costcos throughout the islands.
Stanga’s success paved the way for a diverse bunch of farmers. Benjamin Lillibridge, CEO and founder of Mālama Mushrooms, cultivated his first Hawaiʻi-grown shrooms in 2015 in a lava cave on Hawaiʻi Island. He now sells his superfood products in health food stores everywhere from Vancouver to Puerto Rico. Charles Tresidder, co-founder of Mother Mushrooms, grows gourmet varieties on Maui and sells mushroom cultivation supplies to other Hawaiʻi farmers.
For chefs like Dave Caldiero and Ed Kenney of Honolulu restaurant Mud Hen Water and its now-closed but much revered sister establishment, Town, mushrooms aren’t on the menu unless they are local. Caldiero and Kenney started using Yang’s mushrooms in 2008, when he first began testing his methods and giving samples to chefs he knew. “They are just more mushroomy,” says Mud Hen Water head chef, Alika Chung, of Yang’s crimini, Small Kine Farm’s more popular petite portobello. “Sometimes buttons from the mainland have no flavor to them, but these definitely have a pronounced mushroomy umami-ness that is not the same as crimini that are shipped in,” he says.
Until recently, Caldiero and Chung pickled crimini from Small Kine in a shoyu brine and served them with a fried half chicken from Oahu farm J. Ludovico; the tsukemono mushroom flavor gave a subtle vinegary snap to the lightly crisped chicken. Small Kine Farm’s mushrooms have also appeared in favorites like a Japanese-inspired burrito stuffed with rice, and udon cooked in a dashi broth.
Caldiero and Kenney, pioneers of farm-to-table dining in Honolulu, have long inspired other chefs to source locally as much as possible; these days, about half of their ingredients are locally produced. Despite the fertile soil and year-round growing season, sourcing locally in Hawaiʻi is no easy task for most restaurateurs. The islands’ valleys and coastlines once sustained over a million native Hawaiians. But as the economy turned to exports, then tourism, food preferences changed with Americanization — and downright indoctrination in the 1800s. The amount of locally grown food consumed in Hawaiʻi dwindled as sugar and pineapple production flourished for a time, then moved westward across the Pacific to cheaper shores.
By the start of the 21st century, only around 10 percent of food consumed in the islands was locally produced. The rest of it traveled more than 2,500 miles from the U.S. mainland, incurring a premium, and losing quality and shelf life, as crates of produce and meat sat on cargo ships for anywhere from five to nine days between the West Coast and Hawaiʻi, depending on the port.
Micro mushroom operations came and went throughout the years, but inconsistency and prohibitive costs made it difficult to integrate them into a menu. “At one point we were buying mushrooms from a guy who was growing them in his apartment in Waikīkī,” says Caldiero of the years before more established funghi farms sprung up.
Though Hawaiʻi-grown mushrooms have been available in a limited way since 2000, Chung says they weren’t approachable until more recently. “The different varieties make it easier for people to add local mushrooms to their repertoire, and the price point has to be at a place where people are willing to take that leap,” he says. (They are still not entirely approachable, fetching an average of $9.04 per pound, compared to the U.S. average of $1.45 per pound, but oyster and shitake mushrooms, which hover between $3 to $4 per pound nationally, made up more than two-thirds of Hawaiʻi sales.)
Back at Small Kine Farm, Yang emerges from one of his temperature-controlled containers and hands me a crimini. I take a bite out of the delicate keiki mushroom. Its gills are pale pink inside, rather than brown, and the flavor is subtle, but distinctly “mushroomy” as Chang promised. I typically dislike the squidgy texture of raw mushrooms, but I am surprised by how pleasantly tender it is. Most commercial mushrooms in the United States are grown on straw or sawdust mixed with wheat or rice bran and fertilized with horse manure. Straw and sawdust are easy to sterilize and store, and mycelium spreads quickly across the diffuse fibers, making for a quick growth cycle. Yang’s are grown on composted tree trimmings and fertilized with organic chicken manure, which he says makes his portobello more vegetal and less musty than most imported ones.
Straw, the dried stalks of grain crops, is virtually nonexistent in Hawaiʻi because the climate and the amount of resources required to grow grain run contrary to the sky-high costs of land and labor in the state. Maui farmer Michael Marchand, co-owner of Lapaʻau Farm, says he’d have to grow 40 acres of rice to make enough straw substrate for his mushroom operation. So, most Hawaiʻi mushroom farmers compromise by using mainland substrate, bearing the brunt of the shipping cost to use a tried and true method.
At Lapaʻau Farm, perched 2,500 feet up Haleakalā, Maui’s towering dormant volcano, Marchand and his wife Lauren are able to grow their mushrooms in a non-air conditioned greenhouse, where they mist their shelves of oysters periodically throughout the day to keep them cool and hydrated. They’d like to grow their mushrooms on local organic matter, but for now they use straw from Idaho. Since 2018, when they started inoculating bags of straw by adding mycelium spawn and cutting holes for the mushrooms to escape, their tender, pearly mushrooms have become indispensable to some of the island’s best chefs, from Emmanuel Eng of Lineage to Marc McDowell of SixtyTwo MarcKet and Jeff Scheer of newcomer gem Marlow.
Scheer started using Lapaʻau mushrooms on his pizzas when he and his wife Kaili were selling them out of their house in 2019. Both the restaurant and the farm have since become essential to much of the Upcountry Maui community. And for Marchand and Scheer, connections like theirs have been essential to their success. “That’s the reason we farm, because we want that interpersonal relationship — between the consumer who’s eating, the chef who’s cooking, and the farmer who’s growing — to deepen people’s connection with their food,” says Marchand.
Like Caldiero and Chung, Scheer sources nearly all of the vegetables used at Marlow from local farms. Marlow goes through 40 pounds of Lapaʻau’s organic oyster mushrooms a week. They are tossed in olive oil and sea salt, and roasted in the wood-fired oven for five minutes to render out some of the water so that they caramelize and crisp when they go back in atop a pizza. The “funghi,” a Neapolitan-style pizza topped with confit garlic, fontina, and an abundance of oyster mushrooms from nearby Lapaʻau Farm, is the most popular white pie, and some nights it trumps the reds. Scheer says if he couldn’t procure mushrooms locally, he’d probably uncouple them from the menu, but it stands Lapaʻau oysters are one of his most prized ingredients. “It’s just a mushroom punch, and the freshness and tenderness are unbeatable,” he says.
There are still ingredients that well-meaning chefs like Scheer and Chung have been unable to source locally, namely dairy, grain, beans, and vegetables in need of longer growing days than equatorial Hawaiʻi can provide. But the ingredients that chefs can source locally has broadened substantially in recent years. After decades of paucity, farmers are growing an abundance of canoe plants — ʻulu (breadfruit), ʻuala (sweet potato), and kalo (taro) — a category of foods first brought to the islands by Polynesian voyagers more than a millennium ago. And Hawaiʻi’s chefs are preparing these culturally significant foods alongside newcomers, including mushrooms.
The resurgence of both old and new crops is, in some ways, a result of the failure of sugar and pineapple. As these crops left swathes of farmland vacant, new farmers big and small took up plots and began growing more diversified foods that chefs like Caldiero and Scheer, and a growing number of consumers, are elatedly eating. For Yang, people who taste his mushrooms at restaurants like Merriman’s and Mud Hen Water have sought him out, confirming his conviction that people in Hawaiʻi want to eat local food, and will support local farming when given the opportunity to do so.
“We have found over the years that the story is what sells the dish, whether it’s about the farm or the ingredient or the origin of the dish — that is what people want,” Caldiero says. And for a growing number of Hawaiʻi restaurants, relationships with farmers — and using fresh, sustainable ingredients — are the central storyline.
Viola Gaskell is a writer and photographer based in Honolulu, where she writes about food, our interaction with the natural world, sustainability, and design.