Mushroom haul a cash cow for pickers, buyers

Following the wildfires, parts of the region have seen an explosion in mushroom growth, and the arrival of dozens of mushroom pickers.

The main species sought by pickers is the morel, which looks like bulbous honeycombs and grow in burned areas. The ground in some areas, such as around Nadina Mountain is carpeted with morels.

They’re a delicacy item on gourmet restaurant menus but for the many pickers they’re a cash crop.

A good day of mushroom picking can yield at least 40 pounds of morels, which currently sell for $5-$6 a pound.

Pickers can take them home and cook them up, but most sell them to buyers who have set up small camps for receiving, weighing and drying the mushrooms.

One buyer from Saskatchewan set up a camp near Grassy Plains last week.

“This is my first time here. Reason is because you chase the fires, the reason for the mushrooms to grow,” he said.

“In 2016 I found myself unemployed and became a buyer. My hobby has been picking wild mushrooms for 40 years and then it turned into a sideline business. I was picking pine mushrooms in Alberta in the early 80s.”

He points to the morels sitting on drying racks, which he said contain 250 lbs of mushrooms sold to him over two days.

But on a good day’s haul he can buy 1,000 lbs from pickers.

He buys morels for $5 a pound and then ships and sells them to West Coast Wild Foods in Burnaby for $8 a pound.

Since mushrooms are more than 90 percent water, he dries them out and they shrink and become brittle. He runs his fan all night to counteract nighttime moisture.

“Fourteen pounds becomes one pound once they’re dry,” he said.

He plops down a plastic bag full of morels. “This is 20 lbs dried. Worth a couple grand.”

He plans to stay here for at least a few weeks and later in the summer will head to Saskatchewan for the chanterelle mushroom season.

Some communities in British Columbia, such as the ?Esdilagh First Nation between Quesnel and Williams Lake have banned picking in certain areas and started a permit system to regulate the activity.

READ MORE: First Nation band bans mushroom harvest in West Fraser Complex fire area

READ MORE: Mushroom picking in Tsilhqot’in territory to require a permit

That was done out of concern for ecologically and culturally sensitive areas, and because some pickers are known for leaving behind a mess.

Mushroom picking currently operates in an economic and legislative grey zone. Prices aren’t set or controlled by a central authority and government rules state that picking is permitted in provincial forest lands.

Permission is required to pick on First Nations reserves, tree farm licenses, leased Crown land and private lands.

Picking is prohibited in parks, defense lands, ecological reserves and recreation areas.

The removal of the mushrooms itself, however, appears to have little effect on the environment, according to Professor Keith Egger, a microbiologist at the University of Northern British Columbia.

“I’ve seen no evidence that harvesting morels negatively impacts the mushroom,” he said.

“The morel itself is the fruiting body of the fungus, so it’s no different harvesting morels than it is harvesting apples, for example. It is the fruiting body that is being removed while the main part of the fungus, the mycelium, is growing below ground and continuing to carry out ecosystem services.”

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A mushroom buyer near Grassy Plains shows a bag of dried morels, worth a few thousand dollars. (Blair McBride photo)

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