When and how did you get into picking mushrooms commercially?
I’ve been mushrooming probably since 1988. I had a few friends who were doing it. I heard about it and got some ideas from them. I already had some ideas of where to look because I kind of grew up in the woods, hunting and fishing. I went out and tried it.
Chanterelle courtesy of Sue Dawson
Originally I looked for chanterelles and picked them almost exclusively with my mother and brother for a couple of years. At that time the job that I had was seasonal, and work was pretty slow in the fall. I had extra time on my hands to make extra money. I didn’t make a lot of money but it helped.
The price of chanterelles hasn’t changed much since then. In 1988 I think I was selling them for $4.00 - $4.50 pound. They’re still selling chanterelles at that price. In some years it doesn’t even get that good. I did better then. There was less competition, less pickers, and a little better price. It really was better picking in '88 and '89 than it is now.
I started picking the matsutake about '94. I went with a friend that I worked with who had had some success. He wasn’t real good at it but was trying it and had a rough idea of the ground and exposure. I went with him one day, and we did pretty well. We both made about $120 a piece which was enough to get me hooked. It was late in the season. Then it rained pretty hard and the snows came. I only went out twice that year. The following year my mother, brother and I stumbled onto a real good patch of matsutake and made good money. I thought this is the best: I could make $10,000/year doing this! I found out later that '95 was a bumper crop. We had a unique situation with a lot of good mushrooms at a very high price. People around here made a lot of money that year. Since then I’ve learned that maybe I’ll make money and maybe I won’t. But at least I’ll have fun and spend a day out in the woods. It’s probably not for everybody but I like it.
I buy a seasonal permit every year. It used to be a $100/year and now they’ve raised it to $150. In a year like last year, 2006, I’d be lucky to pay for my permit. I didn’t get a chance to get out much. Work was pretty demanding, and I couldn’t take many days off to go mushrooming. There was an early frost that wiped out the chanterelles. Matsutake didn’t do well, plus we didn’t get a good price. Lots of problems, bad year.
What I mean is that it was a bad year locally. The majority of the chanterelles come from Washington. Their winter comes a lot earlier than ours dose. Some years it’s as early as September. In a good year they can literally flood the market. If that happens, we can’t get a good price. The buyers will have bought everything that they need. That’s what happened last year. Washington had a bumper crop; we had poor crop. That happens quite a bit. The only saving grace is (this happened year before last) that we will get a late run. They’ll be all wiped out up there, snowed out because their winters are more severe than ours are. So, if we get a late run, we’ll do better and get a better price. In those cases, I’ve seen prices as high as $6.50 a pound, like in 2005 right before Christmas. That’s the highest that I’ve ever been paid for chanterelles. That’s kind of a rare thing. It just happened for a couple of weeks. A little spike.
Look what's popping up in the duff!
As a commercial picker, do you encounter much competition?
Yes, there’s competition, especially in the matsutake market. They are finding matsutake growing where no one ever dreamed they would be growing. I guess the matsutake have been there forever but nobody knew it, like in Russia and Romania. We are definitely seeing a lot of mushrooms from the foreign countries which drives our markets down.
How about problems with other commercial pickers?
No, I’ve never run into any problems with other pickers in the woods. Mainly you might find that someone beat you to your spot. You go there and you find it’s already been picked. As far as confrontations go, I’ve heard of some people who’ve gotten into arguments but I never have. I’ve never had an issue.
I’ve run into a lot of people in the woods. They’re friendly people. They say “hi, how are you doing?” and that includes Asians. I have gotten to be pretty good friends with some Asians. I meet them every year. They come here just for the season. Very nice guys. I know one fellow who comes up from Mexico to pick. Very good picker! And just the friendliest guy in the world. Has a smile on his face every time you run into him. So, the only competition that I’ve seen is friendly competition.
How about encounters with animals in the woods?
I’ve never had any incidents with animals. Cougars, bears – I’ve seen them and it definitely makes you look over your shoulder. I don’t take any protection with me. It’s too much trouble packing it, trying to keep it dry and clean and all that. I usually don’t pick alone, although sometimes I do. I think the best protection is probably a large dog. They’re a lot more aware of what’s going on around you.
Like I said, it just doesn’t worry me when I am in the woods. I kind of grew up in the woods, going with my mom when she was picking ferns. My little brother and I were both there. He was five and I was four. I literally grew up around the woods, and I feel very comfortable there. I feel more secure there than I would walking the streets of Gold Beach after dark. I think you will have more threats from people than you ever will from animals. Statistics will bear that out. The chances of a problem are inconsequential.
What kinds of mushrooms do you usually pick?
Hedgehogs have "teeth" rather than gills.
Photo courtesy of Sue Dawson.
Mainly I pick chanterelles, matsutake, yellow feet - I’ve messed around with hedgehogs a little bit - and lobsters. That’s about it. The lobsters come on in the late summer. Some rain in July can bring them on. The chanterelles and matsutake you won't see until late October when the winter rains hit. Usually they’ll be done around Christmas, sometimes before then. I have found a few matsutake later than that but they are pretty hard to sell. What happens is that they export most of the matsutake. When the quantity gets down low, the buyers can’t afford to export them. The hedgehogs, the black trumpets - what we call the winter mushrooms - I’ve messed around with them a little bit but not much. I know a lot of people who do very well with them. I’ve seen some pig’s ears but I’ve never really picked them. You see a lot of oddball mushrooms - cauliflower mushrooms come to mind – that you pick if you see them, but that’s about it. You just run into them when you’re after something else.
Do you sell to retail establishments like restaurants or exclusively to buyers?
Yes, some local restaurants buy from pickers like me, but they typically have their own pickers who supply them. I usually just go to my buyer. It’s a lot cleaner, and you develop a relationship with your buyer. They count on you, and you count on them. If the price is anywhere competitive, I’ll stay with the same buyer. The buyers certainly understand if you can get more money elsewhere. I usually trade vehicles before I go to the buy station. That prevents someone from spotting my vehicle in the woods and locating my spots.
Do you have to do anything special with the mushrooms before you sell them?
You need to sell clean mushrooms. The trick is to keep mushrooms as clean as you can when you pick them and that keeps the cleaning to a minimum. With chanterelles, I try to keep a lid on the bucket, and then I usually blow them off real quick before selling them. With matsutake, if you use a little care when you pick them, you don’t have to clean them at all.
Do you enjoy eating mushrooms?
Mr. Slug's enjoying his bolete!
I’m not much of a mushroom eater. I’ve tried them, but I don’t really eat them.
What are the negatives about being out there in the woods?
Nothing comes to mind other than the expense of buying a tank of gas. I usually ride by motorcycle or ATV so I don’t spend much on fuel. Oh, yes, some days can be pretty cold or miserable in the woods but I take it all in stride. There really aren’t any negatives that I can think of.
Any last words of advice?
If you are new to mushroom picking, go with someone who knows that they are doing! There are a lot of woods out there. Just to go out there blindly is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. You need to know the climate, the altitude, the type of trees, the brush, the exposure, the habitat that the mushrooms favor, and stuff like that. If you go out there unprepared, you can cover a lot of miles before you find anything. It’s really better to go with someone who knows what they are doing, buy a book and read it…but there’s really nothing like seeing it and doing it!
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For more information on commercial mushrooming on this site, please go to other category sites, including the post entitled Some Thoughts on Commercial Mushroom Picking and "Commerical Mushroom Picking on the Southern Coast" found in News (both old and new), Notes and Commentary.