Barters and Small Business: Finding and Selling Wild Mushrooms

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The portable buying station.
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The next generation of pickers with their mom
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Me with a mess of morels, 840 lbs: one day's buy
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One day's picking for a man and wife team: nearly $1,200 worth of pine mushrooms
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Morels on the tarp drying.
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Wild mushroom: Morels.
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1,800lbs of boletus edulus and local pickers
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Wild mushroom: The Chanterelle.
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Wild mushroom: Matsutake/Japanese Pine.
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Wild mushroom: The King.

The Barters and Bootstraps column shares success stories in barters and small business ventures. (See the photos and mushroom illustrations in the image gallery.)

Barters and Small Business Success Stories

If someone were to tell you that you could be making $200,
$300, or even $500 a day picking mushrooms, your first
thought might be: “Are these the same kind that were passed
around campus 20 years ago?” Not to worry. Commercial
trading in wild edible and decidedly non-psychedelic
mushrooms has grown tremendously in the last ten years. A
little research, attention to detail, a willingness to
learn, and some woods sense are all you need to become
proficient in this trade. The most prolific commercial
activity occurs in the Northwest, but there are marketable
mushrooms in virtually every area of North America, and
pickers at the height of the season can make thousands of
dollars in your own small business venture.

I am often asked, “If these mushrooms are so valuable, why
isn’t somebody growing them in their barn?” Some, such as
the shiitake mushroom, can be cultivated, however, the
mushrooms listed here are generally mycorrhizal in nature.
In other words, they are dependent upon the root system of
the trees that they are growing under. If you can figure
out a way to duplicate those roots in a barn, you’ll make a
fortune. Until then, we’ve just got to get out there and
find them.

Getting Started in Your Wild Mushroom Small Business

Do not attempt to go out and pick a mushroom to eat without
getting someone knowledgeable to confirm identification of
that species. Picking and eating without proper study is
literally a prescription for disaster, given the number of
poisonous varieties that often look perplexingly like their
culinary counterparts. If you do not know anyone who can
help, contact the North American Mycological Association in Ann Arbor, MI.
They have chapters all over the country with many people
willing to help out. Turn to the next page in this issue for a brief
guide to some of the market favorites.

If you are in an area like the Northwest where much
commercial activity occurs, it would behoove you to find a
buying station to see what species they are taking in. Most
buyers will purchase more than one species even though they
are in a particular area for a particular mushroom. These
buying stations are much like clearinghouses of
information, and good places to track down pickers coming
out of the brush to ask them some questions. Don’t bother
asking a mushroom picker exactly where his patch is; you
are likely to get directions to the local dump. Mushroom
patches are closely guarded secrets, especially as some
species produce in the same spot year after year.

Your equipment will consist of sturdy work clothes. Good
hiking boots or the lighter hiking tennis shoes are a must.
Get a handy Swiss knife for cutting stems and a few
five-gallon plastic buckets and you are ready to go. I also
carry a compass for terrain that I am unfamiliar with as
well as a USGS map. Permits for picking vary from region to
region. Be sure to check into this thoroughly, as a
confiscated bucket as well as a fat ticket is two days lost
picking time. The average price for a ten-day picking
permit from the Forest Service in the Northwest is $10. If
you are picking for personal use, permits are free. Private
lands are generally unregulated. Simply ask the owner for
permission and you’ll usually get it.

Selling What Wild Mushrooms You Find

So, we have a pile of mushrooms–what do we do with
them? You may have to do a little creative selling if you
are not in an area where there are established buyers. I
have gotten my best prices for wild edibles from chefs in
the higher priced hotels and restaurants. Any chef worth
his paycheck will jump at the chance to have a somewhat
steady source of wild mushrooms, and all are familiar with
the various varieties. This may necessitate spending some
time on the phone working out schedules. But the higher
prices you receive from direct marketing like this make it
the preferable method of sale. New York, Chicago, San
Francisco, and most other major cities have a variety of
places to market wild mushrooms. Even small towns with
enough local restaurants will have a buyer.

Drying before selling is a handy option that works well for
mushrooms like the morel. It’s virtually a given that
you’ll be able to sell them to a wholesaler or directly to
restaurants. Prices for dried mushrooms hover around
$75-$100 per pound, but find your market first before you
commit yourself to the lengthy drying process.

THE MOST POPULAR WILD EDIBLE MUSHROOM SPECIES

Morels
(Morchella elata/Morchella esculenta)

Morels are a spring mushroom and can be very elusive at
times. In the Pacific Northwest you can find them in great
quantities after major forest fires. From this
predictability they are subject to much commercial activity
and are well regulated by the USFS after fires that occur
on Forest Service lands. Private forest lands are a
different story and may require some artful speaking on the
pickers part to get permission. For most commercial pickers
of the black morel, research begins by monitoring the
forest fires that occur the summer prior to a spring
season. From the Cascade Range east to the western slopes
of the Rockies, from Northern California all the way to
southern Alaska, including British Columbia and the Yukon
Territory, any timbered country is subject to this
phenomenon as long as weather permits. Good snow packs and
a wet spring will generally produce an astounding crop of
morels on these fire lands. Aggressive pickers commonly
bring in 75-100 pounds a day. Commercial shippers are
particularly fond of the fire morel for the simple reason
that the fire that produces them in such numbers also
eliminates that year’s insect population that so love to
munch this tasty treat.

Michigan also has a well-known and much anticipated spring
morel season, with accompanying festivals. These morels are
of the harder-to-find variety called the esculenta, or as
referred to in the Northwest, the “natural.” Generally,
they are found in lower river bottomlands under leaf trees
such as elms. There are several offshoot varieties that
show themselves in areas such as old apple orchards.
Generally speaking, what the natural lacks in quantity, it
makes up for in size. The morel can be found nearly
everywhere in the United States, but it is well known for
being cagey and hard to find. Keep in mind that trees are
required as well as moisture.

Matsutake/Japanese Pine
(Tricholoma magnivelare)

Recently reclassified from Armilliria genera and
listed on older volumes as Armilliriaponderosa , the pine mushroom is the most valuable
of all wild edibles. The Japanese often pay unbelievable
prices for this imported delicacy. The 1992 fall season
recorded a price of $525 a pound for the number one grade.
Competition is fierce at buying stations, often with price
wars erupting between buyers vying for pickers’ products.
Most commercial activity occurs in the Cascade Range of
Washington and Oregon, with many pounds being harvested in
British Columbia also. This mushroom is not limited to
those areas, though. Southern Puget Sound has an excellent
crop, as does Michigan and the Adirondack Mountains of New
York. Granted, most commercial activity does occur on the
West Coast where consistent crops are expected, but this
should not prevent a picker from developing his own market
where the pine is found. Ninety-nine percent of all pines
are shipped fresh market to Japan within 24 hours, but
there are many and varied Asian communities throughout the
United States where produce stores and restaurants would
jump at the chance to purchase this mushroom.

Finding the pine does represent a challenge. The most
common method is looking under its namesake, the ponderosa
pine tree. It can be as easy as taking a walk and spotting
mushrooms that have already emerged from the ground.
Experienced pickers practice a method of looking for
unnatural humps in the pine needle beds, indicating a young
mushroom forcing its way to the surface. Since these
younger mushrooms are of a higher grade than mature
mushrooms, this method will certainly reap more profits.
And the pine is not limited to pine trees, as I have found
many pounds under fir and even hemlocks. This mushroom is
mycorrhizal in nature, which means that it has a
relationship to the root system of the tree it is growing
under.

Grading pines is relatively easy. There are five grades,
and all are dependent on the “veil” that attaches from the
cap to the stem. Grade one is a young mushroom whose veil
is attached 100 percent with no holes. Grade two has 50
percent attachment. Grade three has a veil varying from 50
percent down to a clinging piece. Grade four is a fully
mature mushroom that has flattened out. At the buying
station, grading can make or break your day, so finding a
buyer who is consistent with his technique is a must to the
commercial picker.

The Chanterelle
(Cantherellus cibarius)

This bright yellow variety is well-known the
world over. Once again, great quantities are shipped from the Northwest
with the bulk being harvested from private and national
forest lands in the southern Puget Sound region. It is,
however, a mushroom you can find across the United
States–a family friend has found good quantities in
the southern portion of Louisiana. The Chanterelle is a
fall mushroom that generally fruits after that season’s
first rains. In Northern California you can sometimes find
them in the spring in limited quantities. The astute
mushroom picker marks his patch carefully on his map, as
the chanterelle will generally show itself in the same spot
year after year.

There is a rule I apply to chanterelle picking that works
well for me. I call it the Triple D rule. Triple D refers
to three conditions that are very conducive to
chanterelles: deep, dark, and dank. These are heavy timber
conditions, but old growth timber is not a prerequisite. I
have found dozens of pounds in second-growth and even
third-growth timber stands. Their tree of choice is the
Douglas fir, but I have found them growing under several
varieties of needle trees, including spruce and hemlock, as
well as leaf trees such as the tan oaks in Northern
California.

The chanterelle is a mushroom that fares well in the cooler
and does not experience much weight loss from a week or ten
days in storage. It is a well-known mushroom, and selling
them to restaurants is relatively easy. Your largest
concern should be to pick the mushroom clean. One or two
dirty mushrooms in your bucket or basket can dirty up the
whole batch, necessitating a painstaking, time-consuming
cleaning process. Cut your stems while in the field,
preferably while the mushroom is in the ground.

The King
(Cep/Porcini)
(Boletus edulis)

The king is aptly named, for it is a giant among gourmet
edible mushrooms. I have come across specimens over 12
inches tall and weighing in at nearly two pounds. Like the
chanterelle, the fang is known the world over and is the
favorite of the Italians and Germans. Most boletes (and
there are many varieties) are found in the fall. I have in
fact found kings in the same area that I had found
chanterelles earlier in the spring. Generally speaking, its
tree of choice is the spruce. And, once again, people pick
it in great quantities in the Northwest, but there are some
kings that are found in the spring in higher elevations of
the Cascades and Rocky Mountains-most after the spring snow
melts.

The Triple D rule also applies to this mushroom, and so
does marking your map for further seasons down the road.
The king is also highly susceptible to worms. Before
shipping fresh to your favorite chef, I suggest you slice
the older specimens in half to check for these pesky
creatures. Even one single worm hole is enough for a chef
to reject that mushroom. Drying these tainted mushrooms is
the accepted way of salvaging these mushrooms and marketing
them. The king has three grades as far as a commercial
buyer is concerned. Grade one is the small, newly emerged
“button.” This young king has very white gills at this time
and all aspects of the mushroom are firm. Grade two reveals
slightly yellowish gills and a larger mushroom. Grade three
is a fully mature mushroom that is worm free.

I have heard reports of kings being found in the Northeast
as far north as Maine. Michigan has a fine fall season, as
does Colorado. The king is also a mush room found across
the United States wherever there is timber. Due to the
different varieties of the boletes, be sure that you have
identified the king positively.

These four species are by no means the only wild edibles
commercially marketable. A few others include the oyster
mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus), the hedge hog (Hydnum repandum), the early morel
(Verpa bohemica), the false morel (Gyromitra esculanta), the black trumpet (Canthereluus
fallax)
, and chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphurues).


A Picker’s Philosophy

Mushroom picking is a very non-intrusive,
non-environmentally degrading occupation. There is little
chance that one is going to affect future crops of
mushrooms since each mushroom releases millions of spores.
Problems do develop when pickers disregard property
boundaries and are disrespectful toward the environment.
“Pack it in, pack it out,” is a wise phrase coined by the
USFS. Come across a gate that you need to open? Then close
it after yourself. Be gentle; pick conscientiously. Don’t
pull mushrooms; cut the stems while in the ground so as not
to disturb the mycelium (the portion of the mushroom
submerged in the ground). Bear in mind that you are picking
the fruit of a mold.

Mushroom picking is also very addicting. Finding your first
patch can be quite a thrill. Even after picking hundreds
and hundreds of pounds over the years, I am still excited
beyond description when I stumble upon the ultimate patch.
What is the ultimate patch? One so thick that you can’t
take a step without crushing a handful. Possible? You bet.
Good hunting.


Suggested Readings & Writings

Income Opportunities in Special Forest
Products:
Bulletin 666, by the United States Forest
Service. Available free from the Forest Service, USDA, Washington, D.C.  This book is a
tremendous resource for the beginner. There are many
listings of commercial buyers as well as generic permit
forms plus much information concerning commercially growing
mushrooms that are domesticatable.

The Audubon Society Feld Guide to North American
Mushrooms,
by Gary H. Lincoff. (Alfred A. Knopf, NY,
1995).

The Mushroom Hunters Feld Guide , by
Alexander Smith. (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor,
1980).

Mushroom: The Journal of Wild Mushrooming, Moscow, ID. Back Issue #39 reviews all the
mushroom books published in the U.S., and #44 has the index
of all previous issues. $4 each, postpaid. $16 a year.

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