Foraging for Fungi

Hunting the wily mushroom is fuelling
a thriving underground business.

Foraging for fungi - Douglas magazine (Power Issue - Jun/July 2024)
Fresh, wild-gathered morels dry at Port Alberni’s Forest for Dinner. Morels are highly desired by chefs for their earthy, nutty flavour and the fact that they only grow in the wild. Photo from: Forest for Dinner.

Of the 3,000 mushroom varieties that grow in Vancouver Island’s forests, those in most demand are chanterelle, oyster, lobster, porcini, matsutake and morel. Every year, mycology-savvy entrepreneurs can earn cash — sometimes lots of it — by picking and selling these delicacies. For prime-condition edible mushrooms, chefs and groceries are paying as much per pound for a filet mignon.

There are no foraging restrictions on Crown land in B.C. Picking everywhere else requires permission. Foragers don’t need a permit, and there are no rules about who can buy foraged mushrooms. “It’s an underground industry,” says Bill Jones, a Cowichan-based chef and cookbook author, who also teaches guests at his Deerholme Farm how to forage for mushrooms. “The government has zero control.” 

Unwritten rules govern the act of foraging. For example, the first to arrive at a patch — a place where mushrooms grow in abundance — has priority. Foraging can be highly competitive and, at times, confrontational. “Any job that pays piece-rate and not hourly always triggers some weird behaviour,” says Benjamin Patarin, who co-founded Port Alberni-based foraged foods company Forest for Dinner with his wife Célia Auclair. He’s heard of people arguing and fighting over mushrooms, even slashing tires.

Many foragers sell their haul directly to restaurants. However, Patarin estimates that most of foraged mushrooms are sold to brokers. Stable brokers base themselves in places where foragers work the Cowichan Valley is a prime spot. Mobile brokers move from place to place buying mushrooms. These middlemen can shell out thousands of dollars a day in cash — Patarin has seen foragers make $1,500 in one day of picking morels — and robberies aren’t unheard of. Brokers ship purchased mushrooms to wild-food companies, which package and prepare them for sale in Canada and abroad.

Because it’s cash-based, it can be hard to quantify the size of the industry. Jones estimates there are hundreds of foragers on the Island. On the mainland, the industry is even larger. In 2019, Patarin estimates that Canada exported about 25 to 30 tonnes of dried morels to France alone. Fresh, that’s about 300 tonnes. At an average price of $6 a pound, that amounts to $4 million to $5 million distributed among 1,500 to 2,000 pickers.