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Economy | Environment

Mushroom Harvest Transforms Oregon Outpost Into Multicultural Mecca

Forecasters say the weather this week will cool down a bit, and bring some precipitation to parts of the state, including central Oregon.

That’s good news for firefighters trying to contain the Tumblebug Complex near Oakridge.

And more good news — a year from now, it's quite likely that mushrooms will sprout where the Tumblebug fire raged.

As central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey reports from Chemult, mushrooms are a big business in this part of the state.

For most of the year, Chemult isn’t much more than a truck stop on the lonely road between Bend and Klamath Falls.

But from early September through November, the town and surrounding region might very well be the mushroom capital of the world.

The population of Chemult booms from about 150 – to over 1000.

The mushroom pickers camp near Odell Lake in the national forest is home to hundreds of families that come every year to hunt matsutake mushrooms.

And the south side of town grows into a combination campsite, shanty-town, and outdoor mushroom market.

Gidget Flanagan: “We’re looking at a lot of pop-up trailers, covered in canopies and tents and canvasses.”

Gidget Flanagan runs the Featherbed Inn, a small roadside motel with more than a dozen rooms. Right now, she’s the unofficial mayor, sheriff, and innkeeper for 100 people camping on her property.

The U.S. Forest Service runs another busy campsite near Odell Lake.

Most everyone is of southeast Asian ancestry, where harvesting the forest is part of traditional culture.

 Water Stop
Mushroom harvesters fill up with water at the end of a long day of picking.

Gidget Flanagan: “I primarily have Hmong in the back, Mien over there, on this end there’s Lao, at times Hispanic. Right now it’s all quiet, everyone is out in the forest gathering. But in about five hours, it’s going to be bustling, people going back-and-forth getting water, getting ready for their dinner and then you’re going to smell all the foods, and that’s amazing, all the spices. It’s incredible at night, a living-breathing community that just doesn’t stop.”

You can find lots of mushrooms in central Oregon. But the big prize here are matsutake mushrooms.

Matsies, as they’re called, are a prized delicacy in Japan.

In the 1980s, the matsutake harvest in traditional Asian forests began dying out.

Oregon shares a similar climate to Japan, and Oregon Matsutakes look and taste remarkably similar.

So when the Japanese market collapsed, wealthy buyers there looked west - to a place where mushroom-picking was already in full swing.

Tie dye shirts, vegan burritos, and organic produce are just a few of the typical items sold at the Eugene Saturday Market.

Pickers make mushroom soup after a long day of mushroom hunting.

Cheshire Mayrsohn is a recreational picker, and a botanist.

She’s been hunting mushrooms for 30 years.

Cheshire Mayrsohn: “Western Oregon is one of the most diverse areas for mushrooms on the planet. I, personally speaking, pick and eat 44 different species.”

Mayrsohn says the central Oregon matsutake scene is just a bit too crazy for her.

Mayrsohn remembers at one point, in the mid-90s, Oregon matsutake mushrooms fetched $750 per pound on the international market

But pickers haven't seen prices like that for years.  This year is dry — and a lot of the mushrooms are wormy.

Cheshire Mayrsohn: “This is not an easy way to make money. It’s hard work. You are going out in the woods, walking up and down 60-percent slopes, carrying 75 pounds of mushrooms in a pack.”

This year, a pound of good, quality matsutake mushrooms will sell for about 20 dollars.

Still, advocates say as long as the mushroom prices remain above $17 per pound, the harvesters make money.

Ethan Lindsey: “I’ve walked about 15 minutes into the forest, in an area where some pickers told me to check out, although maybe they were trying to throw me off the scent. I don’t think I’d be very good at this. I have seen a couple of bumps near tree stumps, that’s an indicator that there could be a matsutake there. But none of them turned out to be mushrooms. But it has been a pleasant walk.”

Gidget Flanagan, at the Featherbed Inn, says the pickers that are successful here are highly skilled.

Gidget Flanagan: “Many of them will follow the Matsutake specifically. But like migrant workers, they’ll do huckleberries, they’ll do chantarelles, they’ll do morels. And then after matsutakes, they’ll go and do something else. They see it as a job, it’s just a job.”

That job-first mentality has caused a bit of tension over the years, between the locals – and the commercial harvesters.

Pickers, mostly from California but with southeast Asian ancestry, listen to a presentation by advocates and interpreters and the U.S. Forest Service.

Cece Headley is with the Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters.

One of the biggest things, Headley says, is providing interpreters and translators for the Asian language pickers to help educate them.

Cece Headley: “There are ways that you can harvest mushrooms sustainably, and there are ways that are very, very destructive. And that’s probably the main issue we deal with, is destructive practices.”

Headley’s group sends monitors into the forest to educate workers – and the forest service requires all permit-holders to first view a PowerPoint on correct practices.

Tami Kerr is with the Crescent Ranger District on the Deschutes national forest.

Tami Kerr: “A single mushroom can weigh up to a pound, and if they are $600 a pound, the level of greed that happens can outweigh the resource. And people may not harvest in ways that are best for the land when that greedy mindset takes over.”

Matsutake mushroom prices are hovering around $20/pound this week, although fluctuations in price on a single day can jump from $24/pound and drop to $12.

Harvesters might pick baby mushrooms that still need time to grow — or they might bring leaf blowers in to clear debris.

Mushroom pickers are even alleged to have started a small wildfire this week. But Kerr says things could be worse.

Tami Kerr: “Our sales, and the number of harvesters, and the prices at the buying stations has definitely shown that it has very much stabilized.”

She says that’s good news because it gives the Forest Service, and others, a better chance to manage mushroom season.

At the mushroom picker’s camp near Odell Lake, the pickers say they are grateful for the increased calm and safety.

But they also say that what’d they really appreciate, is a good mushroom season – and higher prices.

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