Wild edible mushrooms from the forests of America’s
Paul Vantomme is Forestry Officer (Non-wood Forest Products) in the Forest Products Division, FAO Forestry Department, Rome.
The Pacific Northwest region of the United States and Canada is famous for its forests and fine timber and for some tree species (redwoods, Douglas firs) that attain world-record sizes. Timber producing and processing companies contribute significantly to the region's employment and economy.
Yet these forests are also the base for a prospering business of gathering wild edible mushrooms, both for local consumption and for export. Edible mushrooms have long been part of the diets of indigenous peoples and settlers in the region, but in the past few decades, with rapidly increasing numbers of immigrants from Asia, the interest in mushrooms is expanding quickly.
In the Pacific Northwest as many as 36 species of mushroom are gathered and traded, but porcini ( Boletus edulis ), chanterelles ( Chanterellus spp.), morels ( Morchella spp.), truffles ( Tuber spp.), lobster mushroom ( Hypomyces lactiflorum ) and American matsutake ( Tricholoma magnivelare ) make up the bulk of the industry. The estimated size of the wild mushroom market in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho in the United States evolved from US$21.5 million in 1985 to $41.1 million in 1992 (Alexander, Weigand and Blatner, 2002).
Average prices paid to mushroom pickers between 1992 and 1996 ranged from US$5 per kilogram for porcini and morels to US$14 per kilogram for matsutake. The estimated average seasonal wage ranged from as low as US$830 for occasional harvesters to US$5 000 for a full season (Alexander, Weigand and Blatner, 2002). Experienced morel pickers were reported to earn an average wage of up to US$15 per hour in the Northwest Territories of Canada in 2000. (For comparison, the United States Federal Basic Minimum Wage is just over US$5 per hour.)
Pickers are immediately paid in cash by mushroom buyers, mostly small formal or informal businesses that supply both domestic and international markets. The commodity chain for distribution and export of wild edible mushrooms (fresh, dried or frozen) from the West Coast of the United States is particularly well developed.
Exports of edible mushrooms in general, both cultivated and wild, have grown in the past two decades, but wild mushrooms have surged in particular. For example, between 1989 and 1997, American matsutake exports to Japan climbed from US$2.5 million to $9.5 million (representing 275 tonnes). While the average export price of the cultivated Agaricus spp. remained around US$2 per kilogram during that period, the prices of wild gathered “speciality” mushrooms were three to four times higher (Oregon Agricultural Statistics Service, 2002). Seattle, Washington in the United States is also the principal shipping point for wild edible mushrooms to the European Union.
The surge of interest in wild edible mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest has led to an increase in the number of harvesters. Not only has the number of traditional and occasional mushroom gatherers from the region increased, they now also face stiff competition from migrant pickers from outside the region. In addition, inappropriate mushroom picking techniques that affect the sustainability of the supply, such as raking (and damaging) the humus layer, are becoming more common (FAO, 2003).
Efforts are emerging in the region to “manage” natural ecosystems in an attempt to maximize production. However, the impact of silvicultural interventions such as thinning or clear cuts on mushroom yields is still poorly understood (Pacific Northwest Research Station, 2000) and annual yields are heavily influenced by available rainfall and the right ambient temperatures at key times during the year.
Forest landowners, both private and public, are gradually regulating collection by restricting or regulating pickers' access to their forests, and are collecting income at the same time. For example, the sale of 3 733 permits for collecting matsutake in Winema National Forest, Oregon in the 1997 season brought in more than US$365 000 (USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region, 2002.). Regulation of access can be complicated and costly (especially as regards monitoring) and has serious social implications, including frequent violent conflicts among gatherers or between gatherers and landowners or timber contractors. Successful control will depend on a pragmatic approach that protects the natural resources while allowing equitable access to collectors and fair compensation to forest owners.
The many and often conflicting demands from different user groups for forest products (timber and a variety of non-wood forest products including also floral greens, natural honey, berries and medicinal plants) create a great challenge and a demand for conflict-management arrangements and innovative forest management and policies at all levels, from landowners, municipalities, user groups and non-governmental organizations to concerned state and federal agencies. In view of the high financial stakes of several of the uses involved, administrators in the region are hastening to fine-tune forest policy and regulations governing access and user rights and to promote forest management that accommodates a wide range of forest uses.
Alexander, S.J., Weigand, J. & Blatner, K.A. 2002. Nontimber forest product commerce. In E. Jones, R. McLain & L. Weigand, eds. Nontimber forest products in the United States . Lawrence, Kansas, USA, University Press of Kansas.
FAO. 2003. Wild edible fungi – a global overview of their use and importance to people , by E. Boa. Non-Wood Forest Products Series. Rome. (In press)
Oregon Agricultural Statistics Service. 2002. Oregon Agri-facts , Vol. 17-02. Available on the Internet: www.nass.usda.gov/or/AF17-02.pdf
Pacific Northwest Research Station. 2000. Symbiosis and synergy: can mushrooms and timber be managed together? Science Findings No. 28. Portland, Oregon, USA, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service. Available on the Internet: www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/Scifind28.pdf
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region. 2002. Special projects and programs – matsutake mushrooms. Internet document: www.fs.fed.us/r6/winema/specialprojects/matsutake.shtml