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Lorne Terry shows off $130 worth of dried mushrooms. (Ian Brown for The Globe and Mail/Ian Brown for The Globe and Mail)
Lorne Terry shows off $130 worth of dried mushrooms. (Ian Brown for The Globe and Mail/Ian Brown for The Globe and Mail)

Ian Brown Eats Canada

Mushroom-gathering isn't just a walk in the woods Add to ...

In addition to the 3,000 pounds of chanterelles he and Lois pick and sell to their customers in Saskatoon, at $8 a pound, Lorne buys from other pickers. He pays $5 a pound, a lot more than the big brokers who offer $3 "and $2 if you let them." He also purchases for Sunshine's Mr. MacLeod, at a commission of 50 cents per pound. Mr. MacLeod advances Lorne as much as $50,000 a summer to buy mushrooms. "There was one night we sold him $1,000 worth in one hour," Lorne said, shaking his head in disbelief at the money under his feet. "And I've never met the man."

But mushroom madness demands discipline. "There are people, we know some of them up in La Ronge," Lois told me, "who are into a lot of money with the mushroom broker. Because they didn't use the money to buy mushrooms, but went to the casino instead."

Does all this not seem astonishing? Every two and a half days, Lorne carts up to a ton of chanterelles, for three hours, in his pickup to Saskatoon and thence to Regina and Vancouver by bus and WestJet.

LUXURY ITEM IN A FUNGI FORM

It's interesting math: $2 a pound on the forest floor, $8 a pound delivered to chefs in local restaurants, and way, way more in the hands of specialty mushroom suppliers such as Vancouver's Mikuni Wild Harvest, operated by Tyler Gray. Mr. Gray is a regular on the Food Network and supplier of fungi and other fetishy fare to the likes of Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali in New York and Tojo's in Vancouver. At Whole Foods, chanterelles from Northern Saskatchewan are selling for $40 a pound.

All this from a business that began as an afterthought, when West Coast fish wholesalers realized the Japanese would buy mushrooms too.

Foragers like Lorne Terry wonder why they aren't seeing more money. "There's a few big buyers in the country," Peter MacLeod explained. "And there's a feeling in the bush that they're carteling the price." Or as Lorne put it, "We know that the mushrooms that come from Northern Saskatchewan are the best mushrooms in the world. So they're worth a lot more than $3 a pound."

"Last year, I sent to Vancouver 18,000 pounds - nine tons," he continued. "I would say Lois and I harvested 3,000 pounds more." He figures foraging can put $30,000 in his pocket in a good summer - all for a walk in the woods. And in an area where unemployment is 30 per cent, chanterelles are a huge boost. "Last year, I alone put $60,000 into the economy here," Lorne said.

So when a forestry company applied recently for a licence to log the Torch River Provincial Forest where the chanterelles grow, Lorne helped organize a protest. "Once it's cut, there won't be a mushroom come up in that damn strip for 50 years," Lorne explained. "An industry that'll put $60,000 into this depressed economy, and they want to destroy it." He shook his head. "And all they'll get out of it for the province of Saskatchewan is $6,000 in stumpage fees."

But the government of Saskatchewan is also interested in alternate uses for its forests. Lorne won the mushroom forests a three-year reprieve.

In a month, of course, the harvest will be over, and mycological madness will move south and west to B.C., Washington, Oregon and finally down into California. There are still blueberries to pick ($5.50 a pound from Lorne, $8 in the Saskatoon farmers' market), wild strawberries to harvest for jam, high bush cranberries, Labrador tea ($10 a pound) and ground ivy (good for the lungs) - and, of course, the fiddlehead dilemma waiting to be solved.

I could tell he was going to miss it when winter came on. "It's like gold on the ground," he said, but I think he meant that more than one way.

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