You're walking on a ridge about 100 yards off of a trail in the forest. It's early morning and the sun is filtering through the misty fog as it continues its efforts to break through for good and illuminate the day. You constantly scan the ground looking for a certain color and shape, paying extra attention to the stick piles under the pines and mossy beds. You hear the chatter of a territorial squirrel as you are passing under a tree he calls home and then you see it. The unmistakable orange caps popping out of the otherwise brown and green landscape are hard to miss. You fall to your knees, unfold your knife, and begin cutting the bounty from the ground. As you fill your bucket, you smile and hum softly to yourself.
Humans have been foraging for wild edibles since ancient times. Even today as you and I sit in front of our laptops and smart phones, someone somewhere is walking quietly through a primeval forest in search of a berry, tree fruit, edible root, or some other tasty delectable. One of the more diverse and interesting wild foods is the mushroom. Many people's image of this edible fungi consists of the white or brown round caps seen in your local grocery's produce section. In truth there are hundreds of edible mushrooms, many of which cannot be tamed and grown domestically. These mushrooms such as the chantrelle, king bolete, and morel can only be obtained by finding them in the woods or paying someone else to do it for you. Some describe the flavors of these mushrooms as exquisite and there is a huge market for them, especially in Europe and Asia. Flavor and money however are not the only reasons to look into wild mushroom harvesting as a hobby. I picked up this activity over a decade ago and I'd like to explore some excellent reasons why you may want to learn more about making it a hobby of yours as well.
The already mentioned, to eat and to sell
These are the two most obvious reasons to harvest wild mushrooms, and probably 99% of people who are pickers fall into one or both of these categories as far as their primary interest in harvesting. The specific mushrooms I mentioned are very sought after by high end domestic restaurants, specialty shops, grocers, and exporters that send them to overseas markets where the demand and reward is exponentially higher. Outside of the morel, I'm not a huge fan of the other wild fungi I have sampled. However, I seem to be in the minority in this opinion. To give an idea of how valuable some of these mushrooms can be, my mom recently sent me a picture of a price tag in her local organic market in Phoenix, AZ. It was for golden chantrelles from the pacific northwest, and the price was $39.99/lb! Boletes and morels can bring even higher prices, and the famed matsutaki or pine mushroom can go for hundreds per lb in Japan!
You may be asking "what does this mean to me?". Well, anyone can easily get a permit to harvest wild mushrooms if you live in an area where they are available. There will be mushroom buyers that have shops set up and are willing to buy what you find. They then sell to exporters who in turn sell to restaurants, markets, oversea buyers, etc. Because of the final price being so high, even the prices paid to pickers can be enticing during certain times(usually early in the season). For instance, chantrelle season here on the Oregon coast started around the first of July this year. For the first few weeks street level prices were hovering around 9 to 10 dollars per lb. I'm just a weekend warrior so I don't pick for a living or even to supplement my living really. That being said, it's not difficult to pick 4 or 5 lbs in a few hours in the coastal forests around here. That can be anywhere between 35 and 50 bucks for wandering around in the woods which is something I would do anyway! More serious pickers can easily bring in 150 to 200 dollars a day when prices are at their highest.
Now that we have established the edible and monetary reasons for mushroom harvest, here are some other good reasons often not thought about that can make this an enjoyable hobby.
One of the tricks to exercising is to find something that distracts you from the fact the you are well, exercising. Harvesting wild mushrooms accomplishes this by requiring your focus on what you are searching for. Additionally, walking off trail in the woods on uneven ground for hours will work muscles you definitely never knew you had.
You see more details of your surroundings
When you slow down and focus on the ground and land around you, you see things that you never would otherwise see on a regular hike. I've seen tons of plants and wildlife that I would have definitely missed. Once I even saw an endangered giant pacific salamander
My personal favorite, getting in touch with your inner caveman/woman
In the overall scheme of things, we're not that far removed from our ancient hunting/gathering ancestors. In my experience, there's something that happens to me when I spend time in the woods alone or with just a few others. I get hyper-aware of my surroundings and into a rhythm with my search. It's similiar to the feeling I get when fishing or hunting in wild areas. It's quite an instinctual, soothing experience.
Now that we've covered some of the reasons to learn more about wild mushroom harvest, here's how to go about getting involved. First, find someone that knows what they're doing. This is ultra important because there are wild mushrooms that can make you sick and even kill you. There are some great books on the subject. I recommend "Mushrooms Demystified", and the field guide that goes with it "All The Rain Brings And More" by David Arora. That being said, there is no substitute for personal instruction. No one should ever go out into the forest without prior experience and attempt to harvest wild mushrooms. Second, check into the permit system in your area. There may be different permit requirements depending on the ground that you are picking such as BLM, State land, private land, etc. If you plan on selling your mushrooms, get to know your local buyers. They can be the best resource of up to date information about picking in your area. Make sure you are familiar with the land you are picking on or are with someone who is. It's super easy to get disoriented when picking because your focus tends to be on what you're doing and not where you are. Finally, have fun, get healthy, get in touch with your ancient roots, and maybe even make a little cash!
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