By Moira Blazi
After a fire, the forest renews itself beginning with fast growing, nutritious plants and fungi that feed its returning residents and build back the soil. Nowhere is this more evident than in the amazing morel mushroom. Right now, in local burn areas left after last summer’s wildfires, morel mushrooms are growing with such abandon and vigor that lots of people are picking. Some are local and some packed up and travelled thousands of miles to hike up the steep, charred hillsides and singed creek beds to find them.
Morels are big business. Buyers from all over the west have set up scales and shade canopies on private property around the area and they are handing over thousands of dollars in cash per day to pickers for the uncut, wrinkly Morchella Conica, better known as the black morel.
Larry and Vicki Banks are two such entrepreneurs, driving up from Burns, Oregon to set up shop at Joanne Fry’s Garden of Eatin’, out on Bobtail Cutoff. After picking for over 20 years, the pair decided to use their knowledge and connections to become buyers, earning the trust of a large distributor who gives them up to 20 thousand per day to pay out to pickers. Payng $6-10 dollars per pound, the pair then turns around and sells them for a very small markup to “a big company in Oregon which shall remain nameless,” Banks told the Montanian with a grin. This “big company” is among a handful of fresh produce suppliers who then distribute the morels to grocery chains, fresh markets, and restaurants all over the world. “Most of these will probably go to Europe,” the pair said.
Like anything else, the mushroom market is driven by supply and demand, and now with hundreds of pounds being plucked from the mountains, the prices are hovering near the low end, some are too small or otherwise unfit to make the grade to fresh produce and will be dried, a process which takes seven to ten pounds of fresh morels to produce one ounce of dried product which typically sells for $10 to $15 per ounce.
The Banks’ are quick to help pickers with tips like “Don’t use bags, plastic or paper, because they sweat in the bags. We try to tell people to get a plastic bucket and punch or drill holes in it, or a basket so the mushrooms can breathe,” they said.
One of the pickers, Linda Buff, told the Montanian that she can now get “eight pounds in about two hours,” but it’s “real hard work.” Buff can make a couple thousand dollars in a season like this, “and,” she said, “there’s still lots out there.”
Up on the mountain, locals pickers Theresa Covey, Gin Wayland-Smith and Bree Covey were taking a rest in the back of their red pickup when they talked to The Montanian.
“My dad was a logger, he’d go out and scout a good place and then haul me on his back, I’ve been picking since I was old enough to walk in the woods,” said Teresa.
Her daughter, teenager Bree, a budding photographer, is in it as much for the photography opportunities as for the mushrooms.
“I got 500 bucks for selling my horse and used it to buy a camera, and I try to tell a story with my pictures,” Bree said.
Wayland-smith added with a laugh, “A lot of times we go out looking for morels, and we come home with corals, never pass up a good coral.”
A bit further up the mountain, Katie Garrett and Cain and John Binette were getting ready to head down to their camp at Fireman’s Park in Libby. The three drove all the way from New Hampshire and are part of a team casually headed by Quebecois Pom. Speaking English with a French accent, he told the Montanian that the group, including Minda from Lithuania and Mira Musow from Israel, are all part of a 30-acre Eco Village in Costa Rica.
Along with Garrett, and the Binettes, and others, the group found one another through a shared interest in a pure, raw, completely unprocessed diet of mostly fruit; something they can achieve in the tropical jungle of Costa Rica. “I grew up in Alaska,” said Garrett “eating steak every day.” Now she eats mostly what nature directly provides, picking chanterelles, oysters, and chicken of the woods mushrooms in the eastern forests of New Hampshire. “Fruit is the most nutrient dense food there is,” said Cain Binette, “too much protein is not utilized by the body, it just gets discarded.”
Self-described “fruitarians,” the group eats mostly familiar tropical fruits like pineapples, papaya, and mangos, but also durian. One variety of durian “tastes like caramelized onions, another like peanut butter,” Pom told the Montanian.
Planning to stay for most of June, the multi-national group is here to pick morels.
For the folks camped out on Bobtail Rd., picking mushrooms is a job. When The Montanian visited, delicious smells of evening meal preparation filled the air as pickers came in with ten-gallon buckets brimming full. Pam Sisopha from Tacoma, Wash. and Teeno Chhorn from Calif. were among the group of about 30 which includes “about 15 Cambodians,” Chhorm told the Montanian. They follow the season, picking other crops as they can. Sam, the camp buyer from Washington state had thousands of smaller mushrooms spread out on drying racks destined to become gourmet seasoning enjoyed by diners the world over.
We are truly blessed here in northwestern Montana with the abundant gifts our forests provide. Huckleberries are ripening, and the fall assortment of berries and mushrooms are coming. Get out there and enjoy.
For more information check out the Kootenai National Forest website at https://www.fs.usda.gov/kootenai/.