Jan. 14—LIVERMORE FALLS — The vast tracts of forest land in Maine and its potential for farming chaga and other mushroom products has brought the chief executive officer of Chaga OÜ, who says it is the largest chaga farming company in the world, for a firsthand visit.
Silver Laus traveled over 3,800 miles from Estonia to meet with his company's U.S.-based partners, Justin Triquet and Nikki Leroux, the owners of Just Niks Mycosilva in Livermore Falls. Last year, the couple started tapping into the growing demand for chaga by forming the partnership with Chaga OÜ, which developed a process of inoculating birch trees with special wooden dowels to eventually produce natural chaga. The technique has been used in Finland and Estonia for the past five or so years and the first harvests are proving successful.
"We have the business model, we have the knowledge, we have a system that's kind of tested out," Laus said, explaining the partnership. "We are supportive financially, but we need people on this side taking care of things," which is where Just Niks Mycosilva comes in. They will handle virtually every aspect of the business here in Maine — from soliciting potential investors and landowners to distributing the finished product, which is already manufactured in Estonia and widely available in Europe.
Chaga grows naturally when airborne chaga spores penetrate a wound or split on a birch tree. A mycelium mass begins to grow within the tree and within five to seven years a charcoal-like growth, known as a conk, protrudes from the side of the tree. Chaga, which is a parasite, can grow on other hardwoods, but does not contain the same beneficial compounds as the chaga on birch trees.
Forestry is big business in Maine, worth well over $8 billion and accounting for more than 31,000 jobs, according to a 2021 University of Maine economic impact study, with 94% of forest land privately owned. For forest landowners, both private and public, the prospect of growing chaga on existing tracts of birch is tempting. Once inoculated, nothing needs to be done until the chaga is ready for harvest, which can take between five and seven years or slightly longer.
The reward? Each dowel costs $3 and each tree gets five or six dowels. When harvested, a chaga conk can produce about 15 pounds or more in as many as three harvests. Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of trees and it's easy to see the potential to earn a significant income.
Like Maine, Estonia is in the far reaches of the northern hemisphere and is one of the places chaga grows naturally. Maine is about 90% forested and Estonia is about 50% forested. Estonia is roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined, but land — especially forested land — is very expensive and in high demand, as it is across northern Europe. The average price for forested land in Estonia, for example, runs anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 per hectare, which equals 2.47 acres. An acre of forested land in Maine starts at about $1,000 an acre and goes up.
"The forestry situation is kind of ideal here," Laus said. "People are looking for the best possible value for the forest because they don't know what to do with it. You actually have a saying here that people are land poor — where a lot of people are owning land and forest but they don't have money and they don't know what to do with it."
That's not the case in Europe, Laus adds, where COVID-19 and Russia's war in Ukraine have created a timber crisis. Many Europeans are turning to wood as a fuel source and like here in the U.S., the pandemic created a tight supply of lumber products, which sent prices skyward.
Chaga OÜ was formed in 2014 and it took several years to convince the government to drop its rigid opposition to their plans and allow them to establish the chaga farming business. The company has worked closely with Swedish and Finnish scientists and forestry officials to get their stamp of approval on their methodology, because the countries are at the top of the list when it comes to sustainable forestry practices.
When Laus, Triquet and Leroux set up a meeting with Aaron Bergdahl, a forest pathologist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry, and Gary Fish, a state horticulturist and others, scientists from Chaga OÜ and Mycelia, the Belgian lab which produces the dowels, were part of the conversation.
"They have concerns and they have very legitimate concerns — but they were curious," Laus said of the meeting, which he called positive. He said they told him, "Tell me about those things, tell me about how you're going to preserve the forest, how you're gonna make sure you're not going to screw up."
Laus is very optimistic about the prospects of success for chaga farming in Maine. There is a massive source of untapped forest available and a base of knowledge that is years ahead of the operations here.
"There's a lot of forest here we can use and offer that next-level income for forest owners," Laus explained. "We're using a system like we have in Estonia. A customer calls, says I'm interested — we're not just going to throw them the dowels," the chief executive explained. "We still need to see the forest, we need to make a best decision here — we need to take care of your forest, you have to rely on us."
Laus said they must also set reasonable expectations for customers, because it is a longer-term investment. "It's our name on the line," Laus said. "If expectations are not right, five years down the road the customer is like, 'Where's my money, where's the chaga,' it can go wrong on so many levels."
Laus added they have an obligation to educate landowners by visiting the forest property to evaluate the stands of trees before committing to an inoculation plan. "We go there, we talk, we see the forest — this area we should skip over — this is high value timber — you as the landowner need to decide what you want to do with it — what's better for you."
Just Niks Mycosilva has made presentations to the town of Jay and Livermore Falls and is talking with owners of very large tracts of forest land and landowners with small tracts of land who are just looking for some extra income. They have signed deals with some and have ordered another batch of 500,000 dowels to meet demand.
Laus said they need to ramp up operations here in Maine quickly.
"Coming in, I had the understanding that things were starting to ramp up, but honestly I had no idea how fast the wheels are spinning — in a good way," he said. "Look, five days I've been here and during this five days the meetings we've had, the responses, phone calls I've heard — thanks to your article as well — I'm like whoa ... I'm trying to give that emotion back to my team back home and like this is what happened ... it's amazing!"