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Why These Die-Hard Nature Lovers Want You To Eat The Plants They Find On The Forest Floor

Foragers are quitting their day jobs to turn an extreme love of the wilderness into a profit

Cool-looking mushroom or money-making opportunity? Image of a Morel mushroom via Flickr user Mike Kempenich (cc)

Like a many-petalled goblet, chanterelle mushrooms are prized by chefs the world over, fetching as much as $25 per pound, and yet they grow free for the taking in forests everywhere. The delicate and aromatic mushrooms are a mainstay of Pittsburgh’s Wild Purveyors, a rust-belt firm that offers foraged wild edibles and organic produce across Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. “We go into the woods and there’s a huge bloom of mushrooms that unfolds across the whole forest floor,” says the firm’s cofounder, Cavan Patterson. “I can’t even see to the end of it.” They collect a few thousand pounds a year in spots they now know by heart.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]I see myself as an ambassador for apples.[/quote]

Since 2009, Cavan (a former mortgage broker) and his brother, Tom (who has degrees in horticulture and mycology), have been foraging and selling wild edibles of every variety—including fifty different species of mushrooms, ramps, and Japanese knotweed. “We have access to over 15,000 private acres where we’ve been given permission to forage,” Cavan explains. “If it’s edible and prolific, we’ll collect it and sell it.” They supplement the seasonal edibles with artisanal and organic produce from local farmers. “The business brings customers an appreciation for the bounty that is literally growing right in their backyard.”

He’s not alone in melding foraging and profit. The locavore, farm-to-table movement is now embracing forage-to-table as well. Foraging has moved increasingly from home kitchens to trendy restaurants—at world famous Noma in Copenhagen, much of the menu stars foraged edibles like moss, scallops, leeks and even crickets; at Gentleman Forager in Minneapolis, owner Mike Kempenich not only offers sustainably harvested seafood and woodland edibles—but classes in mushroom identification and commercial foraging as well.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]We’re putting these incredibly nuanced, neglected plants that people don’t even care about into their lives and they’re enjoying them immensely.[/quote]

In Menton, Alabama, the tip of southern Appalachia, Pete Halupka and his wife Lindsay Whiteaker of Harvest Roots Ferment forage heirloom southern fruits and plants and offer a series of ever-changing kombuchas on tap and in bottle at farmer’s markets. Says Halupka: “We’re putting these incredibly nuanced, neglected plants that people don’t even care about into their lives and they’re enjoying them immensely.” Harvest Roots rotates the flavor and content of their local kombuchas twice a month, using plants like wild elderberry, persimmon, plums, muscadine grapes, and a berry called Autumn Olive, which contains high levels of the antioxidant lycopene.

“I joke that I’m the worst farmer in the world,” says Halupka, “because I don’t like to weed out nutritionally dense plants like purslane and chickweed so I can grow and eat kale. I want to eat the wild edibles.” Halupka and his wife plan to soon emulate a craft brewery or cidery. “We’re going to make our kombucha completely local, with foraged local tea, local sorghum and honey, and local plants. Why sit down to a $200 dinner at a high-end restaurant and drink a Coca-Cola, when you can drink a craft, local kombucha?”

Relying on the wild to earn one’s living can, however, be a bit of a financial rollercoaster. Andy Brennan, owner with his partner Polly Giragosian of Aaron Burr Cidery in Wortsboro, New York, forages wild apples for his nationally available homestead ciders. Many wild apples are aromatic and sour and transform into delicious ciders, and many hail from old, abandoned orchards that have survived centuries of neglect. Now they are being rediscovered and repurposed. Brennan’s ciders are unpasteurized and unfiltered, and each year’s “vintage” is fermented with wild yeasts naturally growing on the apples, along with a starter culture of cider from the previous year. He sometimes adds other foraged edibles—such as elderberry or home-tapped maple syrup. The ciders are carried in New York, California, Maryland, Rhode Island, and are available online at Mouth.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]When I’m out in the wild, I’m having a conversation with all the plants.[/quote]

As popular as the ciders are, Andy still supplements his business with cider made from commercially grown and purchased apples. “You can't rely on nature,” he says. “Some years are great for wild apples, and others are not. Last year was a huge apple year and we made over 2,000 gallons of homestead cider. Still, we make a more reliable living fermenting cider with apples from a commercial orchard, and we both still have jobs at night as well.” Why does he persist in gathering unruly wild apples? “I see myself as an ambassador for apples. I want people to drink the cider and then come to the trees themselves, to see the beauty in wild apples.”

Rachael Young, a full-time forager who provides wild edibles to local chefs, would agree with that sentiment. Taught to forage as a child by a Native American friend of her father’s, she offers local chefs everything from escargot to peaches, sunflower buds, green grapes, wild walnuts, yarrow, and many other plants. She calls this “regenerative harvesting,” which means she harvests at a time that encourages regrowth. To do that right, Young must pay close attention to the health and needs of her future harvest.

“When I’m out in the wild,” she says, “I’m having a conversation with all the plants.” Sounds like a delicate process that’s good for the plants—and bodes well for the quality of the food that ends up on the plate.

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