Intense competition is affecting harvest, prices
Morel pickers are popping up like the proverbial mushrooms, combing burned slopes in the Twisp River drainage for the prized fungi.
This year, the Methow Valley is the heart of the morel harvest, one of the few places in the Northwest open to commercial picking. The ephemeral morel has attracted hundreds of pickers.
The morel business is almost like a mini-stock market. In the scarcity of the early season, prices in the Methow started at $18 a pound and soon surged to $22 as more buyers arrived.
Wet weather over Memorial Day weekend — followed by days of sunshine — improved the harvest, but it also affected the prices. After the weekend, morel prices started at $8 per pound, but dropped to $7 before landing at $6 by the end of the day, said buyer Jessica Cruz of Oregon-based Wild Mushrooms.
Cruz is one of half-a-dozen buyers who’ve set up shop in Twisp. The buyers truck shipments of mushrooms several times a week to Portland and Seattle to supply restaurants and specialty grocers around the country. Many also sell directly to locals and to grocery stores in the valley.
A huge crop in Canada has also depressed prices here. Most buyers in Twisp are paying within 50 cents of one another, said Charlie Wiley, who owns PNW Wild Mushrooms with his wife, Dena.
“The money doesn’t seem fair for the work they’re going through,” said Brian Bond, a buyer from Portland who specializes in dried mushrooms.
Average is down
This year, most of the biggest buyers are purchasing 500 to 800 pounds of mushrooms a day, said Wiley. In ideal conditions, a good picker can gather 65 to 100 pounds a day, but this year, the average is just 10 to 12 pounds, he said. A skilled picker can carry three to five baskets a day, but the pros carry two more baskets on their head, said Bond.
Bond, who bought mushrooms in Okanogan County after the Tripod Fire in the mid-2000s, recalls a haul of 18,000 to 20,000 pounds of morels each day. This year, he predicts just 5,000 pounds a day.
Pickers have to compete with harvests in Canada, Europe and Turkey. And about three years ago, China developed a cultivated morel, which is sold inexpensively both fresh and dried. Although the cultivated mushrooms have a bland flavor, they look beautiful, said Wiley. “That really put the hurt on the market,” he said.
Although there are some “natural” morels, which grow in established patches every year, the prized “burn” morels grow only in certain conditions in the year following a wildfire. With the right balance of moisture and warm days, the mushrooms will regrow every few days for months, said Wiley.
The several varieties of burn morels all have a slightly different taste and texture. In addition to the earthy flavor, burn morels command a premium because, unlike natural morels, they have no worms or bugs.
The mushrooms on the market this week tend to be small, because pickers are snatching them every few days, as soon as they regenerate. “Everyone’s walking over everyone’s footprints,” said Wiley.
Not only has Twisp lured hordes of mushroom pickers, but last weekend, documentary filmmakers descended on the town to shoot footage of pickers in the forest and of buyers’ tents in town, said Wiley, who was hired to show the filmmakers around.
What about permits?
This year, pickers and buyers say the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is about the only forest in the Northwest that’s selling commercial permits. The Okanogan-Wenatchee has issued a total of 337 permits, more than half at the Methow Valley Ranger Station, according to Public Affairs Officer Holly Krake. Commercial permits are $100 for the brief season, from May 1 through July 30.
Early in the season, interest was so high that people had to wait in line to buy a permit, she said. Areas open to commercial harvest are the Crescent Mountain and McLeod fires in the Methow and the Cougar Creek Fire near the Entiat.
Compared to the Diamond Creek Fire, which was in steep, inaccessible terrain and largely in wilderness, which is off limits to pickers, the Crescent Mountain Fire has attracted a lot of pickers, said Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr.
Pickers and buyers still talk about last year’s highly profitable harvest in Montana, where mushrooms flourished after three large wildfires. Although there were “some really nice fires” in Montana and Idaho, no one is selling commercial permits there, said Wiley. So pickers who’d normally be spread across two or three states are all coming to Twisp, he said.
“It’s a shame when there’s a forest fire that burned and they don’t sell commercial permits — it cuts down on their revenue,” said Cruz.
I don’t know why the Forest Service won’t open in Montana and Idaho — the mushrooms will rot and be gone in a month. They don’t realize how much money the pickers and buyers bring into a small community.
— Charlie Wiley, PNW Wild Mushrooms
“I don’t know why the Forest Service won’t open in Montana and Idaho — the mushrooms will rot and be gone in a month,” said Wiley. “They don’t realize how much money the pickers and buyers bring into a small community.”
While many in the mushroom business are frustrated that more areas aren’t open to commercial picking, some locals are disappointed that there are no areas reserved for personal use.
Leaf Seaburg, a Methow Valley native who owns Methow Fishing Adventures, said commercial picking only started in earnest in the past five years. Even when the commercial pickers began coming, after the Carlton Complex Fire, the Forest Service set aside “personal pick zones,” he said.
That wasn’t the case this year, he said. People who pick morels for personal use are having a hard time finding their maximum allotment of 5 gallons per day.
Attractions of foraging
People are drawn to mushroom harvesting for the money — in a good year, people can earn $500 or more a day — but many have a passion for the work.
Cruz started in the mushroom business more than 25 years ago, leaving behind a career as a legal secretary for outdoor work. “The mushrooms are so delicious, I don’t even eat store-bought mushrooms anymore,” she said.
Wiley has been picking mushrooms for years. At first, he fit it around his regular job running ocean-going tugboats while Dena ran the company. Now they both work year-round in the mushroom business.
Megan McLaughlin was one of the first pickers to arrive in the valley this April. McLaughlin fills the time between morels and fall mushrooms by picking huckleberries and doing odd jobs. “I like it better than being inside. And I get to be with my dogs all day,” she said.
Many pickers work almost year-round, foraging for different types of mushrooms, such as chanterelles and truffles as the seasons change. Some also gather wild foods such as huckleberries, fiddlehead ferns or clams.
Some pickers at the two designated camps set up by the Forest Service on upper Twisp River were growing discouraged last week.
Everything was picked over at lower elevations, said one man who hiked so far up into the burned hills that he reached the snow line. “You pick a handful, then walk a couple of miles,” he said. Like many pickers, he found the local crop a disappointment after the copious harvest in Montana last year.
Cruz enjoys gathering for meals and music at the picker camps. Pickers are a diverse lot, many from the Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian and Cambodian communities, and others from Mexico and Central America, she said.
“Mushrooms bring you together. I love working with all the different cultures, too — it makes it interesting,” she said.
“It’s really nice camaraderie — it’s like a family. Just like you miss the mushrooms, you miss the people,” said Cruz.