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Registered: 10/27/98
Posts: 5,389
Loc: The Matrix
    #4555260 - 08/19/05 01:59 PM (12 years, 10 months ago)

Hot off of the press....


Cash crop for migrant workers, Oregon mushroom buyers

In 2004, more than 6.7 million acres of Alaska burned, mostly around
Fairbanks and north of Tok. That's why I'm walking through a dark
forest between Tok and Chicken, Alaska, my eyes scanning the ground 20
feet ahead, fine-tuned to discern a certain shape and texture. My
heart leaps when I spot it: a morel.

Larry Evans sorts and dries morels as mosquitos swarm.
I'm one of about 300 morel pickers along Alaska's charred Taylor
Highway, which stretches north for 160 miles from Tok to Eagle,
passing through three major burns. About half the pickers are
Alaskans; the rest, like me, have made their way from the Lower 48.

With the pickers come buyers from Oregon and elsewhere. They set up
stations in towns near the burns and pay in cash. Pickers cruise from
buyer to buyer, shopping for the best price. Soon the pickers have fat
wads of $100 bills in their pockets.

Morels are edible mushrooms in the genus morchella. They sport a
distinctive honeycomb pattern on the cap, and each individual has a
shape and a posture that's as unique as a snowflake's, but still
unmistakably a morel. While it's generally agreed that morels are the
edible members of the genus morchella, there is much debate about how
many species exist, and how many are edible.

What is certain is that there are two broad categories within
morchella: the so-called naturals, also known as yellows, which appear
each spring in habitat that's similar from year to year ? often near
rivers, for example, and beneath cottonwoods. And there are the
fire-following morels, which appear in great numbers and in great
variety wherever fire has burned the previous summer.

Within the fire-following morels there are the blacks, which have a
brownish cap and lighter stem. There are also grays, which are usually
black, sometimes gray, turning blonde as they age. Recently science
has confirmed what pickers have known for years: the existence of the
green, or pickle morel, which is blacker than the blackest gray, with
a greenish tint and an extra-solid build.

Morels taste like a distilled essence of the forest ? plants, animals,
fire, rocks, trees. Their potent flavor blooms when they're saut?ed
with sherry and butter. Hot out of the pan, they recall uneven ground,
melting snow and the occasional forest whiff that makes you stop and
say, "What was that?"

The global mushroom market translates into big money. Fresh morels
fetch up to $25 per pound at upscale grocers, and dried morels can
cost as much as $200 per pound.

In 2005's roughly seven-week season from May to mid-July, the price
for freshly picked morels in Alaska fluctuates between $4 and $10 per
pound. Many people pick 100 pounds or more in a day. At the end of the
season, some pickers bank more than $10,000.

The bulk of morels picked in the U.S. are shipped to Europe and Asia.
(Germany has the world's highest per capita consumption of wild
mushrooms, followed closely by France and Switzerland. The leading
Asian consumer, by far, is Japan.)

The temporary cash economies that sprout around morel hot zones can
rival the economies of the small towns, like Tok, where the pickers
and buyers make camp, eat, drink and gas up. It's a boom atmosphere,
Alaska style, all over again. All that's missing are the hookers. But
unlike the gold of another generation, morels are a moving target.


"This place is boring," Paco says.

A native of the Philippines, Paco is in his early 20s, and the only
non-Mexican member of the morel picking team known locally as the Red
Van Crew.

"But at least I'll leave here with enough money in my pocket to help
my family back home."

One of two unmarried pickers on the crew, Paco boasts that he can
spend his money any way he wants. "When I left Montana last year" ?
picking the burns of 2003 ? "I was broke," he says. "I spent all my
money on weed and strippers."

The locals don't consider their home turf boring, and they know the
landscape intimately. They also have the most gear ? ATVs, boats,
hovercraft and planes. You'd think they could find a respectable
fraction of the quantities of morels that Paco and company bring back.
Instead, it's not uncommon to see them by the side of the road, sourly
steering ATVs stacked with empty buckets. They'd heard you could make
good money doing this, but they can't find a damn thing.

Then there are the scientists, mushroom experts known as mycologists.
Several of them are in this Alaska valley participating in and
observing the morel harvest, but few are likely to see as many morels
as the Mexicans, or the Southeast Asian crews, or many of the other
circuit pickers who made the trip north.

Logic can work against you if you don't realize you're missing key
pieces of the puzzle. If you're from the Lower 48 and you don't know,
for example, that the presence of black spruce strongly indicates
permafrost, and that what you've read in the literature about morel
behavior doesn't apply on permafrost, you could be frustrated.
Likewise, if you don't have the legs to blast far enough from the
road, all you might see are 'shroom stumps that the pros leave behind.
Thus, the 2005 season turns out to be a boom for some and a bust for

"This isn't what I came to Alaska for," says Missoula's Larry Evans,
who came from Montana to buy mushrooms and dry them for later sale.
That early-season sentiment is echoed by many buyers, most of whom
come from Oregon and Washington state. While few buyers will lose
money in Alaska, few are able to buy as many morels as they hoped, and
the price they pay is driven up by the high number of buyers and the
scarcity of product. In other years and other places, buyers have been
known to buy thousands of pounds at $2 per pound.

Still, this year's "scarcity" is relative, created in part by
expectations based on the morel harvest following the 1990 Tok River
fire. In the 1991 season, more than 300,000 pounds of mushrooms were
harvested off 98,000 Alaska acres. This year, with 10 times the
acreage that burned in 1990 accessible from the Taylor Highway,
everyone expected a bonanza. The resulting influx of pickers diluted
the bounty.

Meanwhile, the experts forgot that morels are full of surprises. You
find them where you aren't supposed to, or you show up at the perfect
habitat and the only imperfection turns out to be ? no morels.

Competition is stiff along the Taylor Highway. The easy mushrooms are
picked quickly. Real success comes down to the ability to find virgin
habitat, because a million acres is only useful if you can get to it.
Of all the tools available to pickers, eyes and legs seem to be the
most useful, along with the ability to forget what you used to know
and learn quickly from scratch.

The leader of the Mexican team is a man in his early 50s. I'll call
him "Chalo." Most pickers choose to remain anonymous, and go by
nicknames. (The names of the Mexican team members in this story are

I ask Chalo if picking in Alaska is any different from picking in the Lower 48.

"The only difference," he says, "is the mosquito."

While the mushroom scientists fret about the effects of 24-hour
daylight, or if and when the northeast slopes will produce, and why
they can't find mushrooms, Chalo helps load a thousand pounds of
morels into his crew's red Ford van. Chalo's crew will take them to
their buyer and divide up thousands of dollars for their day's work.
They walked about nine hours today: three in and six out, heavy with
fresh-picked fungi.

Chalo's son Francisco started picking in the mid-'90s, during summers
off from high school. He, his dad and some of his uncles went
full-time in 1999, and they've been on the mushroom circuit ever
since, following morels, matsutakes, chanterelles, lobsters,
hedgehogs, black trumpets and other species of wild mushroom around
the North American West. Most of the action takes place in Oregon:
Matsutakes in central Oregon during late summer, and lobsters,
chanterelles, hedgehogs, and black trumpets along the coast in fall,
winter, and early spring. Not surprisingly, the majority of the buyers
come from Oregon too, and pickers and buyers alike all seem to know
each other from other places, other years.

The Red Van Crew poses along Taylor Highway.
While the other stops on the mushroom trail are predictable,
fire-following morels are the wildcard, appearing in different places
each year. Because the terrain varies from site to site, success at
morel picking requires the ability to adapt.

David Arora, a renowned mycologist and writer from Santa Cruz with
connections to OSU, is the author of Mushrooms Demystified, widely
considered the bible of wild mushrooms. Arora is the first to admit
that migrant pickers like the Red Van Crew can outpick experts like

"They are quintessential outsiders: figuratively, because they stand
outside the mainstream, and literally, because they spend most of
their waking existence outdoors. They are the latest (some say the
last) incarnation of a wandering community as ancient as humanity
itself ? one that is nature-immersed and moves with the seasons ?
Knowledge is acquired through days spent in the woods and is
communicated orally ? trust and camaraderie are cemented and sustained
through the exchange of nature ? the buying, selling, and bartering of
mushrooms ? and just as importantly, from the exchange of stories
about nature and mushrooms."

You won't find a shred of Gore-Tex or Capilene on the backs of most
pro pickers, or a map, compass, or plant book among them. Yet they
navigate the land comfortably and intimately.

"How do you figure out if habitat is good?" I ask Francisco.

"By looking at it," he says.

"It's always changing," he adds, after I roll my eyes.

"First we were finding them in burnt-out black spruce forests. Then we
started finding them in the needles below white spruce growing in
half-burnt aspen forests. Then we started finding them all over the
barely burned aspen groves ? even in green moss. They're always on
slopes, though, usually south-facing."

The core of the Mexicans' success, however, is simply the ability and
willingness to walk farther than anybody else. While most pickers try
to keep their rigs hidden from the road to hide their patch, the
Mexicans pull their red van onto the gravel shoulder in a brazen
cloud, and leave it there for all to see.

Anyone who sees that van knows there are mushrooms back there ? way
back there. Farther than anyone else will walk.

Hell, they'll even tell you where they're going. They truly don't care
if you know. "We walk 'til we find a big patch," explains Francisco.
"Then we pick, load up and walk out. That's it."

The terrain "accessible" from the Taylor Highway offers some of the
toughest bushwhacking I've ever experienced, but I'm determined to
pick like a Mexican. Each day I go deeper, across muskeg bogs, over
downed timber, underneath burnt snags (widowmakers) that remain
standing only by force of habit, waiting for the slightest excuse to
fall on my head. After a day of picking, I return torn and filthy,
humbled by the Mexicans' cleanliness.

We are on the bank of the Dennison Fork of the West Fork of the
Fortymile River, which empties into the Yukon east of Eagle. Paco
shivers with a blanket on his shoulders, recovering from an ill-fated
attempt to float 200 pounds of mushrooms down the river on an air
mattress. It seemed like a good idea at the time. They were picking
near the river, and floating beats walking. But Paco hit a submerged
log and spilled himself and his precious load. Accident
notwithstanding, the team still loads several hundred pounds of
mushrooms into their van. They drive into Tok to cash in, leaving me
to scheme a way to realize my dream: to go picking with the Mexicans.

Jay Southard is a buyer from Yamhill, Ore., who sets up next to the
flea market in Tok. Southard's setup consists of a canopied table with
a digital scale. A line of propane dryers stands behind him, ready for
his next purchase. Southard is known around Tok as "the Mexicans'

I ask him if I can go picking with the Red Van Crew.

Southard explains that the Red Van Crew belongs to no one. Even though
Southard helped with their travel arrangements, found them cabins with
kitchens and running water, secured their famous red van, and picked
them up at the airport, he has no control over their decisions, he
says, or even their choice of buyers; if another buyer offers more,
they'll sell to him. Southard lives in constant fear that another
buyer will bribe, charm or otherwise compel the Mexicans to switch.
Pickers compete for habitat, but buyers compete for pickers.

Further behind the scenes, the mushroom companies like Alpine Foragers
Exchange and S&K Holdings that hire the buyers have their eyes on all
the global hotspots producing morels. There are many productive burns
in Canada's Yukon, for example, and the quantities coming out of
Canada ? or Turkey, or India ? help determine the price brokers
authorize their buyers to pay for morels in Alaska.

Each day I push farther into the thick bush. I don't know if the
mosquitoes are afraid of me, or if I don't notice them anymore, but
they plummet from my list of concerns as I bring back more and more

It's addictive, this foraging for profit ? an ancient, powerful and
intoxicating feeling. When your eyes adjust to morel-vision, it's
amazing how far away you can spot one, and how large they loom.

You drop to your knees, one eye on the mushroom you're about to pick,
the other scanning for its friends. When that one mushroom turns out
to be the leading edge of a huge patch, you love your life. You never
want to be anywhere else. When you close your eyes to sleep, that
patch comes back to haunt you on the backs of your eyelids.

By day, the quest for unpicked habitat continues. Pickers partner with
locals, renting their ATVs and hiring them as boat pilots in order to
reach the innermost reaches of the burn. But there's not enough turf
to go around. A few pickers are successful, but most are barely
covering their expenses.

One morning, the red van pulls into my camp. It seems even the Red Van
Crew has reached the limits of what they can walk, and are trying to
rent a boat to take them farther.

They've come to negotiate with Dennis, Bryan and the Frenchman ? aka
"the Boat Boys" ? in the campsite next to mine. Dennis and the
Frenchman are here from Montana. The Frenchman is from France, but he
lives in Montana and makes his living selling morels and his paintings
in his homeland, exploiting the French fascination with the American
West. Bryan is from Bend, and in the mushroom off-season, he makes
snow in Sun Valley, Idaho. Dennis grew up in Switzerland, now lives in
Missoula and quit his day job to chase the morel harvest north.

The Boat Boys are monster pickers, up there with the Mexicans. They
recently emptied their pockets to buy a jet boat, to ply the rivers
into the heart of the burn. I went with them once, and saw more morels
than I'd ever seen in one place in my life. Even the Frenchman was
humbled by what we saw that day. "Normally, I try to stay organized
when I'm in a patch," he said. "I work my patterns and clean it out.
But this time I was just turning around in circles. I didn't know
which way to go."

The Red Van Crew, while legendary on their feet, are not known for
their savvy around water. First there was the air mattress fiasco.
Then, that very morning, they experimented with an inflatable kayak
from Wal-Mart that wouldn't even go in a straight line, much less up
the river. They dealt with the kayak with a .357 magnum. Now they're
searching for bigger guns.

They stand around, several of them wet up to their knees, waiting for
the Boat Boys to make a deal. "It's still early," mutters Chalo. "I
still want to go picking."

No deal. The Boat Boys conclude it wouldn't work to bring the
eight-member Red Van Crew up the river. It's at least two trips up,
and many more trips down to transport all the mushrooms the Mexicans
could pick. The Boat Boys would have to spend the whole day shuttling.
Even at $100 a head, it's not why they bought the boat.

That evening, I stop by the Mexicans' cabin. Chalo and Francisco
emerge, smiling. I explain that I'm a journalist who's pretty harmless
as a picker, and that I want to go out with them.

Chalo holds a can of Bud Light in one hand and points to me with the
other. "You don't bother me, man," he says. "If you want to pick, you
can pick. You want to take photo, take photo. You can do what you
want, man. You don't bother me."

Francisco confirms that it won't be a problem as long as I can keep up
with them. And tomorrow, it turns out, I'll be in luck. They've found
a jet boat pilot willing to take them up, and there won't be a lot of
walking. If I'm willing to spend $50 for the ride, I can tag along.

I ride the second shuttle, raging up a fast river. When we round a
bend in the chocolate-colored water, we hear the first shuttle's
riders on our two-way radios. They've already picked three crates
each. Each crate is worth about $70 at today's price.

The radios buzz with Spanish as the pickers dart around, looking under
logs, inside burnt-out stumps, and in every other place a mushroom
might hide. They fill plastic grocery bags with morels as they go.
When the bags are full, they set them on the ground and keep walking.

The crew moves quickly ? one minute I'm in the eye of the storm, the
next I'm alone in the woods. If the morels sit around too long
confined in plastic bags, they produce intense heat and cook
themselves, becoming worthless through a process colloquially known as

After about two hours, we head back, retrieving full plastic bags as
we go. The bags are dumped into crates and loaded six-high on frame
packs. We carry 650 pounds of mushrooms back to the river, where the
boat waits.


The next day, the Red Van Crew goes upriver on the boat again. That
evening I run into the pilot at the bar in Chicken. "That's it," he
says. "I'm not doing that again."

"Why?" I ask. "They seemed like nice guys ? good money for you."

"They picked over a thousand pounds today," he says. "The boat almost
sank. It was really, really scary."

By mid-July, the action seems to be ending; the pickers and buyers are
clearing out. Meanwhile, another wave of mushrooms is popping from the
ground. In a good year, the morels continue popping long into the
summer, long after the bulk of players has moved on.

"The competition has gone home, and the second flush is fat," says
Larry Evans, no longer frustrated, who is last seen selling fresh
morels at the Fairbanks Farmer's Market.

Those who remain are pickers who realize what the buyers already know:
The real money is in selling dried morels in the off-season. The
remaining pickers scour the empty burn, drying what they pick. They're
sleeping more and licking their wounds.

"Few people have the sand to finish the morel season," says the Frenchman.

The Red Van Crew left Alaska July 14. The Boat Boys sold their boat.
The Frenchman and Dennis are in Dawson's bars. Bryan still wanders the
burns, picking alone and learning to field-dry his mushrooms. He
considers himself a student in a game he's determined to master. "I've
got all summer," he says.

Ari LeVaux, aka Chef Boy Ari, writes a syndicated food and cooking
column that has appeared often in the past in Eugene Weekly and other
newspapers around the country. His home is in Missoula, Mont.

Sustainable Harvest?

Is commercial mushroom harvesting in Northwest forests sustainable and
ecologically sound? Environmentalists argue both sides: Wild mushrooms
add to the diversity and value of ancient forests, providing another
argument against clear-cutting; but the uncontrolled harvesting of
sensitive plants raises serious concerns about maintaining healthy

Yellow Chantrelle
Research on the topic is sketchy due to the many variables that
determine mushroom productivity, such as temperature, precipitation,
fire and human activity. Creating study areas devoid of mushroom
pickers is a challenge. And mushrooms themselves are astoundingly
diverse and complex in their life cycles and their relationship to
their environment.

Below are some of the considerations that can be found in a brief
survey of literature from the U.S., Canada and Europe on the subject:

A 10-year study on the effects of harvesting chanterelles by the
Oregon Mycological Society (1995) found no decline in productivity
following harvesting, regardless of the picking method. However,
chanterelles are typically cut at the base of the stem to keep them
clean, leaving the mycellium or roots intact.

The same study documented concern for the picking of pine mushrooms,
which are preferred by buyers with stems intact. Some irresponsible
pickers rake the forest floor to find the more valuable young fruit,
damaging the mycellium in the process.

Commercial mushroom pickers are notorious for leaving garbage and
human waste at their campsites and resting areas scattered deep in
wilderness areas. Direct impact? Unknown.

Tramping and compacting of mosses and other ground materials has been
shown to reduce mushroom production, primarily through damaging young
mushroom buds underground.

Destruction of fungi beds can damage trees, particularly Douglas firs.
Mushrooms called micorrhiza wrap themselves around tree roots and
facilitate the transfer of nutrients from soil to the trees. Likewise,
clear-cutting of forests can destroy fungi which are integral to the
survival of thousands of plant and animal species.

For more information on local mushroom harvesting, contact the Cascade
Mycological Society (http://cascademyco.org)or the Pacific Northwest
Research Station in Corvallis (www.fs.fed.us/pnw),or read Mushrooms
Demystified by David Arora, Ten Speed Press. ? Ted Taylor

The Shroomery Bookstore

Great books for inquiring minds!

"Life After Death is Saprophytic!"

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Registered: 06/14/00
Posts: 29,281
Loc: Shroomery B-list.
Last seen: 8 years, 1 month
    #4555294 - 08/19/05 02:08 PM (12 years, 10 months ago)

Good read. :thumbup:

"..all those molecules thrashing their kinky little tails, hot for destiny and the street."  Gibson

Nuke baby seals for Jesus!

(This has been a +1 production.)

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cyan goddess
 User Gallery

Registered: 08/28/03
Posts: 4,418
Loc: PNW
Last seen: 1 year, 6 months
    #4556085 - 08/19/05 06:40 PM (12 years, 10 months ago)

awesome :laugh:  thanks for that!

"Love says 'I am everything.' Wisdom says 'I am nothing.' Between the two, my life flows."

Puget Sound Mycological Society

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Registered: 12/24/99
Posts: 8,946
    #4556290 - 08/19/05 07:55 PM (12 years, 10 months ago)

long reading...

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Registered: 09/10/05
Posts: 126
    #4644876 - 09/11/05 05:08 AM (12 years, 9 months ago)

I made $1000 picking wild chanterelles.


And make $10,000 :smile:

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Up From Sloth

Registered: 08/28/05
Posts: 668
Loc: LA
Last seen: 7 years, 5 months
    #4645222 - 09/11/05 10:53 AM (12 years, 9 months ago)

That was great!

"A Bad Day for Pants"

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