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Fiddlehead fears: Worries of toxic floodwaters dry up sales of New Brunswick’s spring staple

A field of fiddleheads is seen in Tide Head, N.B., on June 1, 2018. Driven by statements from provincial emergency officials, the fiddlehead scare has had a negative impact on growers, pickers and distributors in a region already hit by hard economic times.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The worst flooding to hit New Brunswick in nearly a century has unexpectedly spread ruin and misfortune to parts of the province hundreds of kilometres away from the high-water mark.

May’s historic flooding swamped southern parts of the province, decimating homes, businesses and cottages that have been passed through families for generations. But none of that occurred in Tide Head, a tiny village more than 300 kilometres north of Moncton that is known as “The Fiddlehead Capital of the World.” Yet, their entire crop of wild fiddleheads, a lucrative spring staple foraged for just three weeks each year – one so beloved that it appears on New Brunswick’s highway signs – has been tarnished.

That is because of a widespread belief among consumers that the flood rendered all of New Brunswick’s fiddleheads, which shoot up after the spring thaw on moist riverbanks, poisonous. Driven by statements from provincial emergency officials, the fiddlehead scare has had a negative impact on growers, pickers and distributors in a region already hit by hard economic times.

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“That is so wrong,” said Cathy McDavid, Tide Head’s deputy mayor. She and her husband also run the area’s largest fiddlehead operation, which means buying from an array of local pickers who harvest for a frenzied three weeks each year on Long Island in the Upper Restigouche River. The McDavids resell the fresh greens at their convenience stop but also at grocery stores and markets across the province and in Ontario.

“We have had no flooding. Our fiddleheads are growing the same way they have done in the last 100 years,” Ms. McDavid said, adding: “Our fiddleheads aren’t contaminated.”

Curtis McDavid picks a handful of fiddleheads along the Restigouche River in Tide Head, N.B.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Curtis McDavid travels up the Restigouche River to the island where he picks fiddleheads to sell in his family's store in Tide Head, N.B.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

A bucket of fiddleheads rests in Curtis McDavid's canoe on the Restigouche River in Tide Head, N.B.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Fiddlehead season in New Brunswick usually takes place around the last two weeks of May and the first week of June, depending on the spring thaw. Harvesters across the province attribute this year’s fiddlehead chill to a warning put out by the province’s Emergency Measures Organization and the Department of Health in early May that fiddleheads were at risk of contamination from raw sewage, fuels and chemicals leaked into rivers during the flood.

“Due to the extent of flooding in private and commercial properties, we do not recommend harvesting or buying wild edible plants which would have been … exposed to the floodwaters,” Na-Koshie Lamptey, the regional medical officer of health, said at a Fredericton news conference. She went on to say the province did not have a mechanism to determine which areas were in the clear.

“If it’s an area where there’s been flooding, the safer option is not to consume it,” Dr. Lamptey said.

Daniel Boudreau, of Silver Valley Farms in Silverwood, west of Fredericton, said the blanket nature of the warning ended the fiddlehead season before it started, despite the fact that the areas he harvests from are all upriver from the flood zone.

“It definitely screwed us,” he said. “Nobody’s buying anything. Everybody’s afraid.”

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Up north in Tide Head, orders for fiddleheads from the grocers, farmers’ markets and other wholesale buyers who have for years fuelled this seasonal cottage industry have been slow to come in. Some annual buyers are simply taking a pass altogether, said Ms. McDavid, who said the most pain will be felt by pickers, who can usually make between $500 and $800 daily.

“That’s a nice little chunk of money,” Ms. McDavid said. “It’s good extra income for a few weeks here.”

In this province, which has its share of socioeconomic struggles and in which many rely on seasonal employment, opportunities for extra income are critical.

Graham Lyons runs a large fiddlehead outfit out of Doaktown, about 100 kilometres north of Fredericton, and has three pickers on his payroll this season. Usually, the number is 30.

“Two major buyers backed out because of the press before the season even started,” said Mr. Lyons, adding that another major buyer has yet to submit any orders. A fourth buyer has asked for 75-per-cent fewer fiddleheads than usual.

Now, Mr. Lyons has begun to worry that more produce will be at risk as the growing season advances if consumers aren’t educated about which local food is safe to eat.

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“They don’t take into consideration that, as producers, we conduct due diligence,” he said. “If a product wasn’t safe, we wouldn’t be putting it out there.”

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