Harvesting the Forest?
Mushroom buyer counting money
Introduction
Plentiful Pickers
Plentiful Profits
Plentiful Product?
Plentiful Profits
"Following the money" can be difficult in wild-harvesting. Because the industry developed from the act of simply walking out into the land and picking what was already growing there, tracking wild-harvesting sales and profit margins is more elusive than for, say, a dairy farmer whose costs are all on paper. Secrecy is the tradition — no picker wants to disclose where they found the fruit of their labor or how much they were paid for it. Buyers don't want to identify their pickers, and distributors don't want to identify their buyers. The only way to create an estimate of sales is to track permits and exports.
To illustrate with mushrooms: The wild mushroom business is one of the fastest-growing produce industries in Oregon, with an annual export that exceeds $6 million. Countries like Germany and Japan lost most of their native forestlands to agriculture hundreds of years ago, and what forest remains has been over-harvested, and some suggest polluted, because of population and industry growth over the last hundred years. Most of Oregon's wild-harvested mushrooms end up in these two countries.
What does $6 million mean to Oregonians? Depending on the year, the product and the individual, mushroom-picking is usually characterized as a marginally successful endeavor — you can get by, but you won't get rich. Even buyers complain of barely "making it" from year to year — as with other industries, the slave-labor wages of less-developed countries make Western-priced goods difficult to sell. "Think about someone in India who picks for 25 cents a pound, compared to someone here who wants $5 or $6 a pound," illustrates a buyer in Southern Oregon. Mushroom pickers in Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Spain, Turkey, most countries in Eastern Europe, Korea and China compete for the same market.
Harvesters are at the bottom of the "food chain." Prices depend on a number of variables — quality and moisture content of product, and the quantity being provided. More experienced mushroom pickers can process more product and have the most beneficial personal relationships with buyers, and consequently are able to make a living, upwards of $10,000 per season. They may have the capital to invest in their own land lease, a Global Positioning System or aerial inspection of a promising tract of land. Less experienced or motivated pickers often operate with a marginal gain or even a loss. Two hundred dollars per day is generally considered an acceptable minimum.
If anyone is making money, it's not federal landowners. In 2000, the Bureau of Land Management sold almost $150,000 in permits, ranging in value from one permit for 300 pounds of Pacific silver fir boughs ($45) to 702 permits for 564,459 pounds of salal (approximately $54 each, or $37,918 total). U.S. Forest Service officials estimate that only a third to one-fourth of the material being removed from their land is done with a permit. And permits, when they are acquired, don't go far to fund the services provided, including the training of new pickers, maintenance of high-use areas (garbage detail) and law enforcement. When the federal government loses money, we the taxpayers lose money: permit proceeds are forwarded to a general fund.
Most of the profit of selling raw, wild-harvested material is made once it is shipped out Oregon. People are figuring out ways to change that. See some examples in the section, From Mountain to Market.
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