Rainy Karnes and Robert Zozaya have been perfecting their mushroom growing techniques together for the last 12 years.
But the inspiration for the co-owners of Raven’s Wind Farm to begin marketing their mushrooms to the public came from the unlikely source of the COVID-19 pandemic. Laid off from work, the couple decided they would view the extra time at their Toledo home as an opportunity to do what they had not had time for before.
“We were like ‘alright, we’re going to do this,’” Robert recalled.
And the leap of faith appears to have paid off. Mushrooms from Raven’s Wind Farm have been featured on menus at local restaurants including Boccata in Centralia and McFiler’s, Mackinaw’s and Jeremy’s Farm to Table in Chehalis. Shoppers at the Toledo Thursday Market, the Community Farmers Market in Chehalis and the Centralia Farmers Market are also snatching up such gourmet varieties as lion’s mane, pink oyster and wine cap.
“It’s amazing,” Rainy said of the growing popularity of their products.
A couple of 16 years, Rainy and Robert said they have always had an interest in living off the land. They raise goats (including the farm’s namesake, a black goat named Raven), quail, ducks and chickens as well as a variety of medicinal and culinary herbs and vegetables. Rainy makes body care items using the goats’ milk and they also make cheese from the milk.
“We both love nature and wanted to have a more sustainable life and live as much off the land as possible,” Rainy said.
Their interest in growing their own mushrooms was part of their passion for a sustainable lifestyle. Rainy, who grew up in a home where she learned to use herbs in both culinary and medicinal settings, said mushrooms are not just prized for their flavor but also for health benefits. Besides being a source of protein, fiber and antioxidants, Rainy said in places such as China, mushrooms are widely used for medicinal purposes. While the West has been slower in recognizing the benefits, people are starting to catch on. Some mushrooms used in common supplements include: lion’s mane for better brain function; blue oyster for help lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure; and maitake for anti-cancer benefits.
“We wanted to grow them because they are delicious, but we also wanted to be able to educate people on their health benefits,” Rainy said.
When they began growing mushrooms together, the couple actually used a closet for their fungi growing space. Today, the growing operation takes up a great deal of the kitchen, dining room and garage of their Toledo home, where they have lived for four years.
Growing mushrooms is a multi-step process that takes a month or more to produce harvestable mushrooms. The process starts with special growing bags that are filled with a growing medium made from wood chippings and soy, as well as a “secret formula” of all-natural, organic material the couple created to add to the commercial medium. Filled bags must be sterilized for two hours. Currently, sterilization is done with two pressure canners, which can sterilize two bags at a time. So, if they are lucky, they can prepare 14 bags of mushroom medium for inoculation in one day. On a recent afternoon, family friend Kevin Hawk, of Vancouver, was at the farm to help weld a pressure canning system that can accommodate up to 56 bags at a time, which will greatly cut down on the time sterilization takes.
Once the sterilized bags are cooled for about a day, they are ready to be inoculated with the spores that will cause the mushrooms to grow. After inoculation, the bags need to be in the dark for two to four weeks to allow the white, thread-like mycelium to grow throughout the bag. When the growing mushrooms begin to bulge against the walls of the bag, the block is moved to a temperature and humidity controlled growing room to allow the mushrooms to mature. Fans kick off every so often for a fresh air exchange in the plastic room because the mushrooms release carbon monoxide as they grow, which is neither good for the farmers nor the mushrooms.
It takes about two weeks in the growing room for a bag to “fruit” and they can often cut the first batch off and more will grow. Some bags will produce as many as 4 pounds of mushrooms. Still, to keep up with current demand, the couple must create mushroom bags nearly every day.
Toledo Market Fresh was the first local outlet to sell their mushrooms. As they were stepping up their mushroom growing operations last summer, Rainy and Robert initially used wood pellets for pellet stoves as the base of their growing medium. The manager of Toledo Market Fresh noticed how many bags of the pellets they were going through and eventually asked them what they were doing with it.
“He said ‘oh, I’d sell your mushrooms,’” Robert recalled.
For many Americans, their mushroom experience has rarely strayed from button style varieties. The couple said at first, they saw some hesitancy from shoppers for some of the more exotically shaped varieties, such as the puffball-like lion’s mane. So, they began offering recipes alongside their mushrooms in the store. The online shop on their website also offers recipes for different types of mushrooms.
“We wanted to say to people ‘don’t be afraid. Open yourself up to something new and you will like it,’” Rainy said.
In addition to mushrooms, Raven’s Wind Farm also sells mushroom grow kits and spent mushroom medium for compost. Rainy also sells her body care products most places you can find their mushrooms. The business has grown to the point that Zozaya’s son Braidin Zozaya and Braidin’s girlfriend, Karen Gonzalez, a seamstress who also sells handbags and hats through her business, A String Fling, joined Raven’s Wind Farm in April. Their goal is to grow their business enough that they can afford to move their mushroom growing operation out of their home and into a couple of outbuildings, which would include a clean room lab for the mushroom inoculation.
But they’re also hoping to grow more than mushrooms. Robert said they hope the farm will grow to the point that they can produce more jobs in the area. They plan to also eventually add some small cabins and a communal kitchen to their Toledo property that could be used for farm laborers as well as visitors. In addition to farming, both Rainy and Robert are artists and they envision creating a safe, creative space at the farm where people can learn, connect and grow together.
“Our main focus and goal is building community and giving back to the community,” Robert said.
“We want people to be able to come here and work and enjoy the area,” Rainy added.
Connect with Raven’s Wind Farm online at ravenswindfarm.org (mushroom and body care available for purchase) or @farmravenswind on Instagram.
Products can also be purchases at Toledo Market Fresh; through LocalLine for pickup at the Toledo Thursday Market or the Community Farmers Market at Chehalis; in person once a month at Toledo Thursday Market; in person at the Centralia Farmers Market; and soon in-person at the Community Farmers Market at Chehalis through a vendor.