Harvesting the Forest?
Mushroom Picker
Introduction
Plentiful Pickers
Plentiful Profits
Plentiful Product?
Plentiful Pickers
The Northwest is considered to have the most diverse collection of forest workers in the world. We'll look at different subcultures below, but some things do transcend: Harvesters work the land from light until dark. They live, at least while they're harvesting, in various states of "camping," for weeks or even months at a time. They get dirty, sometimes wet and always tired. Wild-harvesting can be dangerous: they can be hit by wayward branches, fall on the uneven terrain or have an unpleasant encounter with a wild animal, with no one nearby to help. They can lose their way in an effort to find an undiscovered area. And the last thing you'd think to find in the forest — racial prejudice — is there too.
Recreational Harvesters
These harvesters do not rely on wild-harvesting to make a living, rather, they harvest for personal consumption or a bit of extra cash. Mostly, they just like to be outside, alone or with their families. Many are retired, traveling in RVs. They generally pick mushrooms or berries; something they can eat. Some casual harvesters, especially of mushrooms, have recently complained of being intimidated or chased off tracts of land by commercial harvesters, or else that the professional pickers clean out their favorite stands during the week and leave nothing for them on the weekends.
Asians
The subgroup that most people refer to as "Asian" pickers is actually made up of a number of nationalities and cultures, including the Hmong and Mien, the mountain people of Laos; Vietnamese; urban Lao; Thai and Cambodians. Many fled their native countries during the political strife of the early 1970s. Many Hmong and Mien pick mushrooms in the forested mountains with a large group, usually including family, as it almost exactly mimics life before they came to the United States. Capitalizing on their nomadic history, they wind around California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, following different wild-harvesting seasons.
Asians seem to currently evoke the most derision from local residents, who feel that "their" land is being taken over-some Asian pickers report having their campsites and cars vandalized, and themselves threatened. A few years ago, there were even shots fired.
Hispanics
Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and other Hispanic pickers began migrating to wild-harvesting from other farmworker jobs in the late 1980s, supplanting Caucasian and Cambodian pickers. They tend to hear of the opportunity to pick brush via word-of-mouth. As with agriculture, Hispanic wild-harvesters — both legal and illegal residents of this country — have to deal with an industry that at the same time depends on them and exploits them. A lack of familiarity with the industry, culture or English language can make negotiating permits and manipulating the market to their best advantage problematic. Because Hispanics are rarely landowners, they don't control their working conditions or terms of commerce. See the story of Salal for more about this topic.
Native Americans
The tribes of the Cascade Mountains have lived off the land for thousands of years, hunting, fishing and gathering foods like roots, mushrooms and berries. No permits, no concerns about over-harvesting. As Caucasian explorers began noticing the bounty available in the West 150 years ago, Natives were chased, cheated and cajoled out of hundreds of thousands of acres in the mountains, valleys and on the coast. Today, the situation is not much improved. Most Caucasians give lip-service respect to the "old ways" but have yet to give Natives a say in what happens to the land or to them. As a picker points out in a special study by the Jefferson Center for Education and Research, Voices From the Woods, "How come they don't have Indian people on these [decision-making] boards?"
Tribes are starting to be more interested in the economic potential of gathering wild products on their reservation lands, but struggle with the idea of selling their culturally significant "first foods." Many Natives are working toward collaborating with local agencies to have their voices heard.
Ex-loggers
Loggers may not have thousands of years invested in the forest, like Native Americans, but they have as many as six generations invested. They speak of "their" trees and "their" land, just as Natives do. "[My father and grandfather, who were loggers] didn't destroy the land like they are nowadays. They didn't believe in the clearcuts," says Chuck, a mushroom harvester. "I have a lot of respect for the land." Consequently, the decline of Oregon's logging industry did not simply require job retraining — many former loggers had lost their identity.
In the early 1990s, government officials hoped that wild-harvesting might totally supplant the lost income of the declining logging industry. While that has not come to pass, wild-harvesting does provides some income, and it gives ex-loggers a way to maintain a relationship with "their" forests.
"Free Spirits"
Buyers and forest rangers speak of another cross-section of non-timber forest product worker, one which might intersect with any of the preceding subcultures as well. They are the lone wolves, the dyed-in-the-wool hippies, people who would never survive the 9-to-5 world of fluorescent lights and close shaves. "Harvesters are interesting," says June, a mushroom buyer in Southern Oregon. "There's a lot of decent people and a lot of crooks, just like anywhere. But harvesters aren't like other people."
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