As a starting point, let me use the “bully pulpit” that having our own blog allows us to make some general points about commercial harvest of wild mushrooms. I realize that this is a controversial topic, and I don’t expect that everyone who reads this will agree with everything I have to say on the subject. The option of starting their own blog to disseminate their opinions is always an option if they disagree strongly enough. Here, for the record, is my own opinion.
When we began mushrooming over twenty years ago, commercial picking was not yet a “problem.” A few people leading somewhat unconventional lives engaged in it for income, either primary or supplemental, and they hunted singly or in pairs, never in large groups. There were not many well-established buyers, and some pickers sold directly to restaurants. Seeing wild mushrooms in the average supermarket was highly unusual. The pickers were mostly folks who had a strong environmental ethic and behaved in the woods accordingly. While we didn’t care to do this as a business ourselves, we didn’t resent the presence of these pickers and rarely crossed paths with them. If anything, we admired them in many ways - their independence, woodcraft and hard work.
Matsutakes are a popular choice
among commercial pickers.
That all changed in the ‘90’s. A few entrepreneurs discovered that there could be big money in commercially-harvested wild mushrooms, particularly in the export markets like Japan. There was a parallel awakening of demand for wild mushrooms domestically, as American and Canadian consumers became increasingly sophisticated in the kitchen. Suddenly, the demand far outstripped the ability of the established “pickers” to fill, and cultivated a whole new group of pickers new to the activity. Many of these pickers were immigrants – initially Asian, later Hispanic – and they found in commercial mushrooming a way to derive income in a land that was not always friendly and welcoming to them; it was a way to survive. Their lack of language skills and education was not an impediment in the woods, and as soon as they learned the basics, they could make good money. In many cases, it also resonated with their cultures, as people who had been hunter-gatherers who lived off the land at least to some degree back home. I don't blame them for being drawn to mushrooming, and my objections to it have nothing to do with immigration issues, but rather the way it was done and the scale on which it was done.
Just as increasing population inevitably results in crowding and in the end, less for the individual, so it is in the woods. As larger groups of pickers, related by family and friendship, descended on the woods in the Spring and Fall, contention between groups over prime spots began to occur. With immigrant peoples, an “us vs. them” attitude is understandable, and tales of gunshots fired began to be heard. Just as bad, the "singly or in pairs" methods so familiar to those of us who gather mushrooms recreationally fell by the wayside; it simply wasn’t efficient enough. Where once you would have a hard time knowing that a commercial picker had been through an area (other than the fact there weren’t many remaining mushrooms!), this new way of mushrooming left no doubt they had been there; brush trampled, non-commercial mushrooms stepped on or kicked over, litter and waste left behind, and virtually every single “good” mushroom found and taken. Picking wasn’t done by wandering any more, but rather systematically, in grids, like a deer drive. Virtually nothing was left untouched.
Before you conclude that I am a closet bigot or xenophobe, I want to stress that I don’t blame these people for doing what they can to survive and build a life in a strange new land. And I actually do subscribe to the belief that each new wave of immigration has ended up making us a stronger and, finally, better nation.
What this is about is the environment, and a resource that is not only critical to that environment but also one that we believe needs to be protected from commercial over-exploitation and from careless destruction of the environment it needs to survive. The environmental ethics that have developed in this country are not universal, and among people who are barely getting by, these ethics sometimes don’t matter quite so much. But understanding that fact doesn’t make me like it.
This new type of commercial picking upset us greatly, as it did many recreational pickers. Efforts made by some of us in the mycological community to enact regulation with the various government agencies to enact some reasonable controls on commercial harvest almost always had the improbable and illogical result of unreasonable new restrictions on recreational harvest, while leaving the commercial pickers essentially uncontrolled and unregulated other than being compelled to buy licenses – so that the agencies could grow their bureaucracies some more and create additional unproductive jobs.
Jake is a mushroom buyer
in Coos Bay.
For several years, I served as Legislative Liaison for the Puget Sound Mycological Society, then the largest such organization in the country if not the world. Representatives from other mycological societies and I sat in numerous meetings with state, Forest Service and BLM groups explaining our concerns in logical, clear terms, and their people would look earnest and nod understandingly as they dutifully took notes on yellow tablets or, better still, on white boards for all to see. We’d go away from these meetings feeling good about what we’d accomplished and confident that the regulations, when issued, would start to make things right again. Then the regulations would come out and if anything, make matters worse, while further restricting recreational pickers that had never been the problem to begin with. Here's just one example: in Mt. Hood National Forest, recreational pickers are allowed one – one! – Matsutake in possession, and it must be cut in half to prove that it is not for resale. No wonder so few have any respect for the laws!
At the risk of stating the obvious, recreational pickers will never pose a threat to the resource, because picking more mushrooms than you can use is quickly found to be not worth the work to do it. It is only when you are gathering something for resale that you are motivated to look and harvest until no more can be found. With the relatively few individual pickers of the early to mid-eighties and before, this wasn’t an issue; now, it was a big issue, and growing.
The entrepreneurs I mentioned earlier were far from blameless; increasingly, they would recruit and organize groups of pickers, and provide them with transportation to prime spots to harvest. Woe be unto you if one of those spots happened to be one of “yours.” Even if they never returned, your once-prime "spot" often never produced again at anything like its former levels. We've seen it.
More recently, the problem has eased somewhat. This is due, I am told, primarily to much increased competition from other parts of the world. The Japanese, for example, have found reliable supplies of their beloved Matsutakes in Korea at better prices than they were getting here. The Chinese have discovered the international trade potential and are beginning to participate; we had a fascinating chat over the holidays with a very bright lady from Hong Kong named Winnie Chow who is building quite a business in exporting Chinese mushrooms.
All this has served to reduce the problems here, but they were reduced not by any branch of our government, all of whom made a worse mess of things than existed before they did anything. And please, spare us the argument that with reduced timber sales, the Forest Service and other agencies need every source of income they can lay their hands on just to survive; the cost of administering mushroom regulations and issuing licenses is no more covered by current fees than timber sales covered the cost of supervision, administration and road building.
No, what has made the situation a little better is market conditions, pure and simple. Foreign competition and lower prices have made commercial picking less lucrative. For you students of history and economics, Adam Smith's "invisible hand" really does work. Now we see fewer people engaging in commercial picking for a quick buck, because the bucks aren’t as quick or as plentiful as before. The problems have not gone away entirely, but things seem to be moving in the right direction. We are seeing the return of the solitary, highly individual people who are committed to the activity for the long term, who think about what they are doing when in the woods and what effects the actions we take today will have five, ten years down the road. And it’s that kind of commercial picking I feel very comfortable about.
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For more information on commercial mushrooming on this site, please go to other category sites, including the posts in News (both old and new), News and Commentary and "B's Story" found in Meet the 'Shroomers.
Commerical pickers hunt the entire Oregon
coast, including near this spot in Astoria on
the northern coast.