As a hardworking young person trying to start a business that is considered unique and unfamiliar by the general public, I get very little criticism in regards to my ventures. Most people lack the necessary knowledge on the subject of wild foods to give me much feedback on how I run my budding business. I get a lot of "Wow! Wild mushrooms?” and "You're such an entrepreneur!” but the constructive advice and negative responses have been nonexistent. That's why I was so surprised when I recently saw a highly critical post in the comments section of my TEDxTalk that read:
While I can agree that collecting your own food from the wild will foster an appreciation for conservation and desire to preserve the sources of potential food, I am appalled by your need to monetize foraging, especially for fungi. As a forager (I eschew the tag "professional") and wild foods educator, I would much rather teach 100 people how to forage for themselves and their families in a sustainable manner than pillage a forest to supply raw ingredients for 100 privileged patrons of upscale, overpriced and over-hyped restaurants for money. Sad."
Ouch. What makes it even worse is that the commenter has a very good wild foods blog that I have been reading for years. For the sake of comparison, that's like being an aspiring guitarist and having Jimi Hendrix tell you that you're not only awful at guitar, but so bad that you are ruining music for everyone else.
This comment illustrates a divide within the realm of fungally oriented people. Yes, believe it or not, not everyone obsessed with mushrooms gets along. There are recreational foragers who enjoy picking mushrooms for themselves, as well as sometimes educating others on foraging. Then there are the commercial pickers, who forage and sell mushrooms for a living. As seen in the comment above, recreational foragers tend to think commercial pickers are a destructive presence when in the woods. This negative perception is pretty spot-on in many cases; lots of commercial pickers tend to be totally driven by making money, and lack any sort of care towards nature. Commercial pickers usually aren't too fond of recreational pickers either, and are often angered by the idea of competition in the form of these part-time pickers (Check out Langdon Cook's book The Mushroom Hunter for more on this mysterious world). I find myself squat in the middle of these groups, as I love sharing my knowledge with as many people as possible, but am also trying to make a living off of the land. However, I think what I've created with Walker's Goods From The Woods is far more than just a commercial foraging operation focused on raking in cash. I've actually been meaning to post about the type of community-supported entity my business is becoming, and this critical comment seems to be the perfect opportunity.
For starters, my primary reason for being out in the woods picking mushrooms day in and day out is not because I make money doing this. Quite frankly, it is because I'm at my happiest when exploring the woods. Every mushroom I pick is as meaningful as the last, and filling a basket with chanterelles or lobster mushrooms really is the most fulfilling feeling I've felt to date. The ticks and mosquitoes would have run me out of the woods long ago if I didn't feel this way. I don't think anyone would argue that trying to make a living doing what you truly love is a bad thing. I'm also certainly not bulldozing my way through the woods destroying everything in my path. I make sure to forage sustainably, never wiping out the entirety of a patch as to ensure its future perseverance.
Personally, I think it is a misconception that harvesting larger quantities of mushrooms automatically makes it an unsustainable practice. People in cultures all over the world have been commercially foraging mushrooms for hundreds of years. Fungi are inherently a sustainable food source in that they reproduce both sexually and asexually. The "mushroom" is really just the sexual organ of the underground fungus. If you remove it, the organism can still reproduce asexually. There have actually been a few studies, including this one that took place in Switzerland, which found the long-term harvest of edible fungi does not negatively affect the future growth or diminish the population size of fungal populations. Nonetheless, I try to leave as small an impact on the natural world as I can, and do as much as I can to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the patches I forage.
This comment not only called me out, but also called out high-end restaurants. I understand the stigma against fancy restaurants that seek out wild foods, as many of these places are elitists in many respects. However, I've found that the chefs that I sell to are truly remarkable in the kitchen. They think of inventive ways to cook the ingredients I bring them that I would never be able to think of myself. With that being said, restaurants are my secondary outlet for selling, with farmers' markets being my primary priority. I understand that not everyone has the money to go to these venues, and that's why I'm dedicated to getting my products directly to the public.
Establishing myself at the local farmers' markets has created a direct link to the local community, which has been the perfect opportunity for me to share my knowledge with the general public. Every week people bring pictures of mushrooms to the markets for me to ID, and people are constantly telling me that they've started to notice fungi everywhere after enjoying my mushrooms. While I do also lead educational mushroom forays around the area, I think the farmers' markets have been the most successful way to spread awareness about wild foods. I've become the go-to person for everything fungal in my area, which has really helped to make my business more of a community-oriented enterprise. Another way I have gotten the community involved has been by seeking out individual agreements with landowners in which I forage their land, and in return give them a portion of my findings. This has turned out to be a great way to open up the world of wild mushrooms to people who are interested, but may not be able to actively forage themselves. For example, many of the elderly members of my community have asked me to explore their properties. Of course, I always offer to bring the landowners out with me to teach them what is growing in their woods.
A big part of becoming a foraging business with a community focus has been to buck the image that commercial foragers are secretive, sketchy, and even unlawful people. Foragers have been known to trespass, and are often found lurking around nature preserves and conserved lands. Instead of actively deceiving the conservation groups maintaining these lands, I've chosen to support them. I'm currently working on multiple agreements with local land conservation groups in which they will let me sustainably forage their land in return for a portion of my profits. In turn, this money will go back into protecting these areas by helping to pay property taxes and management fees. It is important for me to be a part of the solution instead of the problem when it comes to conserving the beautiful ecosystems of the Adirondacks.
As the summer has progressed, I've honed in on three distinguished themes--touching on all three in the above paragraphs--that can be used as a framework for my business. They are as follows: the local sale of wild foods, public education, and land conservation. All three themes revolve around the local community, which made me realize that my vision is somewhat like a community supported agriculture venture (CSA). Instead of supporting me with money, the locals are supporting me with the access to their land and their willingness to learn. Instead of receiving a share, they receive wild foods either directly from me or at the markets, as well as an opportunity to learn about foraging. So in a way, my vision is really a community supported foraging business, or a "CSF". So here's to all the progress so far this summer, and a new vision for Walker's Goods From The Woods!