Slumping mineral prices have meant that some Yukoners usually engaged in mineral exploration have instead spent their summer hunting for morel mushrooms.
It’s been a good summer to do it. Morels thrive at the sites of forest fires, and last year’s burn near Carmacks led to an explosion of morels in the area. Hundreds of pickers converged on the site a few weeks ago, while local transportation companies kept busy flying pickers in and mushrooms out of remote locations.
The price for mushrooms is right. The field price, that which pickers are paid for a pound of morels, has doubled in the past three years, topping at $12 per pound. Good pickers can come out of the woods with 80 pounds strapped to their backs daily. Morel prices are buoyed by high demand from the kitchens of Europe and beyond.
Jeremy Budd is a Vancouver-based commercial buyer who helps get the mushrooms to market. A mushroom picker since childhood, Budd and his business partner, Austin Glenn, travel across Canada to find and export wild mushrooms to the world market. He says northern Canada is one of the best places in North America to find morels.
The asymmetrical, ace-shaped fungi only thrive after a good forest fire. This year the area surrounding Carmacks is benefiting; a year earlier, it was a spot south of Watson Lake. Due to Yukon’s small population areas, wildfires are often allowed to continue to burn if there is no danger to people and property.
The result is large swaths of land that have a good potential for morels. That’s where Budd and Glenn go to work.
As soon as the snow melts, the burned land is researched for premium mushroom growing. Soil type, tree types and elevation are all considered. Buyers are then sent in and set up camp to receive mushrooms from pickers. The majority of mushrooms are then dried according to the duo’s specifications. While these are trucked down to B.C. for export, the shorter shelf life of fresh morels necessitates air freight.
Transportation is an important part of the operation. The outfit has partnered with Manitoulin Transport to truck the mushrooms to B.C. while Tintina Air uses floatplanes to fly pickers in and mushrooms out of remote locations. Once back in Whitehorse, Air North transports the morels to Richmond, B.C.
Budd estimates that 400 pickers were harvesting morels at the peak of the season. Dave Sharp, operations manager of Tintina Air concurs. When mining exploration was booming, 97 per cent of Tintina’s revenue came from providing air transportation services. But with the recent slump, a lot of his business this season is coming from mushrooms, not mining. Sharp’s pilots have been flying thousands of pounds of mushrooms to waiting trucks daily.
Not everybody is pleased with this Gold Rush-like response to the harvesting of morel mushrooms. Chief Eric Fairclough of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation wants to see more oversight.
“The mushrooms are there, the opportunity is there for people to make money. I have nothing against that at all,” says Fairclough. “If we had some regulations in place to properly deal, for example with the buyers and the type of camps that get set up, what’s needed out there for proper facilities and so on, and the safety of people walking through the bush.”
Fairclough says about 1,000 pickers may have come into the area, and he worries some are camping for the summer. Many hadn’t obtained permission to pick on settlement land, and Fairclough says this influx has resulted in trails being cut, trees being felled for firewood and garbage left behind. He also worries about alcohol being consumed at picker camps and the potential for boating or ATV accidents.
“We need some guidelines so that they don’t leave here and we end up with a big mess out there,” he says.
Budd insists the industry can be both sustainable and environmentally friendly. While he says his company can’t control the behaviour of pickers that sell them their mushrooms, it does have policies and guidelines in place to respect the land. “We urge all of our pickers to never leave garbage in the forest and to be respectful of the local boundaries that are there.”
As for respecting First Nation settlement land, that goes into the planning process for the setting up of buyer camps.
“There’s no permitting process, there’s parks to avoid, there’s traditional native lands to be conscious of. With our fly-in camps, we studied the maps and put our camps that were outside of those boundaries. If there’s a rule in place and they’re not supposed to go into that area then to be respectful of it. But there is no way of controlling it from our end.”
Contact Alistair Maitland at firstname.lastname@example.org