This article first appeared in the July 31, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.
By Virginia Dean, Standard Correspondent
There is nothing new about the recent technique of foraging or, as some would rather say, wild gathering or plant collecting.
After all, and according to most social anthropologists, this method of subsistence stems back to prehistoric hunting and gathering societies that were classified as being mobile, territorial, egalitarian and fluid.
What is novel, however, is the quick popularity and creeping controversy that the modern approach is currently bringing, if only in the name itself.
According to local plant gatherers Les Hook and Nova Kim of Fairlee for instance, foraging is a derogatory term, suggestive of European forests and feudal lords of the Middle Ages.
“We call ourselves wild crafters,” said Kim in a recent interview. “Foraging was a term used for animals and today book writers and publishers are promoting it. It’s like the difference between hunters and poachers. It’s the same thing.”
This difference in terminology is one of the aspects that distinguishes the couple from others who may wander in search of food or forage.
Yet whether it is called foraging, gathering, collecting or even stalking as 20th century wild food gatherer, naturalist and author Euell Gibbons once coined, this means of picking wild plants, roots and shrubs has recently spread prolifically among magazines, books, websites, newspapers and even word of mouth.
Resting alongside the powerful and current movement of farm-totable, many adventuresome individuals are tromping into woods and through fields and pastures seeking roots, mushrooms, wildflowers, wild greens, and berries.
Most bring the edibles home but more and more are carrying them in their aerated baskets to local markets and restaurants.
Hook and Kim, for example, are regular contributors to Pane e Salute in Woodstock and Twin Farms in Barnard. The couple has more than 80 years of combined experience hunting the woods and fields of Vermont for wild foods and medicines. They encourage and educate the public in a formal and informal way to the benefits derived from usage. They are perhaps best known for the 150 varieties of wild mushrooms they have brought to the northeast culinary trade.
“We’ve used wild crafters Les and Nova for approximately 5-6 years,” said Michael Beardsley, general manager of Twin Farms. “The products they deliver are of high quality, and our chefs can develop dishes around the flavor profiles. Clients are very in tune to where their food is coming from and to be able to let them know that the ingredients of the dishes are produced/harvested within, say, 30 miles is of great interest to them.”
Most of the food on the Twin Farms daily menu is also grown on its property as well as sourced from local farms and cheese makers, Beardsley noted.
“Les and Nova are fantastic,” said Deidre Heekin, co-owner of Woodstock’s Pane e Salute. “They bring us all kinds of things including mushrooms, sweet gale, bark, juniper, fir tree tips, angelica, sedum, and cattail hearts. They’re fantastic. We’ve worked with them for years.”
The fun and free nature of wild gathering in addition to the intentional rebuffing of the American industrial system of processing foodstuffs is clearly part of the latest draw of this old-age but revived method of nourishment.
“Wild gathering goes hand-inhand with the recent push toward small farming, homesteading, and home gardening,” said Heekin. “People are just becoming more aware and interested in these because of the swing toward tradition and old ways.”
Yet the motives and accompanying rewards for wild gatherers can be more than just a satisfied palate. It is not unusual, for example, to obtain up to $60 a pound for wild mushrooms, with the average per pound price settling in at around $20, according to Patrick Bartlett, owner of Bartlett Forestry & Wildlife in Woodstock.
“Half of the people will start off gathering, and about 15 percent will actually continue to do it on their own,” noted Bartlett who graduated from the SUNY-ESF Ranger School with a degree in Forestry and from SUNY Cobleskill in Parks and Recreational Land Management. “Most people do it because they want to learn and of course they’re very interested in the whole organic movement.”
Bartlett has contributed some of the findings of his gatherings, especially mushrooms and fiddleheads, to Cloudland Farm in Pomfret, among several other area restaurants for the last 30 years including the Prince & Pauper, the Woodstock Inn, and the Hanover Inn.
“We have a couple of suppliers who are foragers,” said Cloudland co-owner Cathy Emmons. “Ninetyfive to ninety-eight percent of our ingredients are locally sourced, including wild blackberries from our own property when they’re in season.”
If one isn’t interested in working with such professional gatherers as Bartlett or Hook and Kim, however, it is easy to open one’s own back door and do it oneself.
Will Dodson, proprietor and chef at The Barnard Inn, for instance, is the primary collector for his restaurant.
“You don’t have to go far in Barnard or Pomfret,” Dodson said. “There are also a lot of fiddleheads along the White River which takes you through Bethel and South Royalton. There are lots of windows of opportunity.”
Gathering is based on the seasons, Dodson noted.
“It depends on the time of year and what you’re looking for,” he said. “With morel mushrooms, there’s a small window in the early spring. In the late fall, oyster mushrooms can be found on trees, specifically distressed sugar maples, after the first real cold snap.”
Dodson uses a variety of tools including a shovel for digging up ramps (of the onion and garlic family), a pocketknife for mushrooms, and his hand for snapping off fiddleheads. It is also essential to carry an open-air basket, especially for mushrooms, so that as one walks and continues to forage, the spores can fall out and re-propagate for the next season.
“People want to get away from processed foods,” Dodson said. “There’s a huge return to a simpler cuisine and living off the land, to be aware of what is literally in one’s own backyard.”
Even though there is little negative impact on the environment, foraging can take its toll in eroding the soil or even removing foods essential for the well-being and survival of animals. Gatherers must be vigilant to care for the environment as well as be knowledgeable about safe places to collect, avoiding private properties and such public places as riverbeds, concentrating more on hilltops and knolls that are less likely to be littered with dog feces and trash, Kim explained.
For Susan Moegenburg, ecologist and adjunct faculty member at the University of Vermont, when it comes to foraging, ethics comes first.
“Responsible harvesting means not taking all that you see,” said Moegenburg. “Some species, such as fiddlehead ferns, have been studied so we have harvesting limits based on science. In the case of ferns, it is OK to take one or two fiddleheads per plant without affecting its growth or survival. But many species have not been studied so it is best to harvest only a small fraction of what you see.”
Hook and Kim also relate that an essential part of the symbiotic relationship between the land and its people is collecting with respect.
“You need to understand and appreciate that plant and know that you have a common sharing,” said Kim. “That something’s going to die for something else to live. If something’s dying before its normal time, whether it’s for food or medicine or for sale, there’s only one word and that’s war.”
Currently, there are few federal rules or regulations on foraging, she explained. Most national forests, for example, require permits for commercial harvest of mushrooms or plants, or even pine cones, Moegenburg noted. Some species are threatened or endangered and require a permit if one intends to sell any of them.
Loose guidelines imply that gatherers need to know what they are collecting.
“If you don’t know mushrooms, for instance, don’t pick them,” said Dodson. “A very miniscule amount can cause liver damage or, even in some cases, death.”
Thus, with ample education, potential collectors can at least begin to appreciate the what, where and when of the thousands of species of plants in the area and put that knowledge to good use.
“It’s not necessary to know every plant in the woods and fields,” said Moegenburg, “but you must know the ones that you intend to harvest and use. It is essential to know, however, how to identify species of plants and mushrooms with certainty. This holds, of course, whether one is harvesting for personal use or to sell.”
For those interested, credited courses will be offered by Hook and Kim, who will be at Green Mountain College on Sept. 6-7 and Vermont Technical College in Brattleboro on the first three weekends in October. They will also give public walks and workshops in August and September in New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. Refer to their website www.wildgourmetfood.com.