Magic Mushrooms 

The dirty little facts and underground clashes surrounding Montana's biggest little cash crop

“One thing about mushroom hunting,” Wendy Garrett tells me, “is that you’re always looking down.”

“That’s true,” says her fiancé, Glen Babcock, “If you pass a group of people out here with their eyes all glued to the ground, chances are they’re looking for mushrooms.”

We’re about 12 miles up in the Nine Mile Valley, poking around in the duff at the southern edge of some 20,000 acres burned into a mosaic by one of last summer’s countless forest fires. We’ve been told by practically everybody—told ourselves, even—that we’re not going to find what we’re looking for today. Too cold, too early in the season. But within five minutes of getting out of the truck, the first cry goes up: “Here’s one!”

Everyone comes running, and sure enough there it is, timidly peeking out from under the lip of a little dent in the forest floor. The first one of the year, its pale cap glowing fresh like the skin of a newborn, no bigger than the last knuckle on your little finger: Morchella elata, the black morel. And we all coo like we’re looking at a baby. Almost immediately, Glen spots another one just a few feet away.

Welcome to the first succulent dividends of last year’s fire nightmare. If any number of soil, temperature, moisture and sundry x-factors overlap just so, within a few short weeks much of the land scorched by last summer’s forest fires will burst forth with the tastiest of proof that even the bitterest, most eye-watering clouds can come with a silver lining. For weekend hikers, mycologists, amateur mushroom enthusiasts, leisure pickers and the commercial harvesters whom area officials expect to pour into Montana by the hundreds or even thousands this year, spring 2001 is shaping up to be morel heaven.

Why all the fuss over one little mushroom? That’s a fungophobe’s question, friend, and a question you needn’t be asking if you’ve ever sliced up a handful of these honeys, sautéed them with a little butter and black pepper, and eaten them not an hour after plucking them from the forest floor. With that firm flesh and mildly nutty, sublimely delicious flavor, it’s simply not a question of why, or even if. The question is: how much fuss is there going to be, and, perhaps even more pressingly, when is it going to start?

Because there’s more to the matter of Montana’s potential bumper morel crop than just the flavor. Morels mean big bucks to mobile crews of commercial harvesters who make oil-rig money picking them for companies that turn a tidy profit in lucrative across-the-country and overseas markets. In the past, things have sometimes turned ugly in places where burned-over lands have suddenly come back to life, not just with tasty mushrooms, but with the promise of fast cash and lots of it. Without meaning to sow the spores of fear up and down the valley, it’s possible that a morel boom in western Montana could make for one wild ride. A Tale of Two Mushrooms

But an equally germane question might be: With such a bull market for morels seemingly all the time, why hasn’t anyone taken to raising them commercially? Simply put, morels can’t be cultivated like other crops; they just have to happen. And to better understand the favorable alignment of myriad conditions that conspire to produce a morel boom, it might prove useful to examine mushroom cultivation at its most scientific and streamlined, if not always entirely predictable.

The tour starts at Garden City Fungi, a small mushroom farm which owners Glen Babcock and Wendy Garrett have operated in the Nine Mile for the past four years. The operation, housed in two beige aluminum-sided buildings, primarily produces four kinds of edible fungi: oyster mushrooms (also known by their Japanese name, hiratake), the shaggy-looking lion’s mane (yamabushi-take), a third kind called namako, and the more familiar (to the part-time mushroom fancier, anyway) shiitake. The shiitake is Garden City Fungi’s biggest seller, and currently most of the couple’s energies are devoted to the clockwork-regular regimen required to condense its annual life cycle into several harvests per year, and babying hundreds of pounds of shiitake from one end of the growing process to the other every month. It’s in Garden City’s incubation building that our morel questions also begin to take shape.

Glen and Wendy’s shiitake begin their journey as spawn clinging to impregnated rye. To provide a nutrient vehicle for each lot, 7 to 8 pounds of hardwood sawdust, mixed with wheat and oat bran and speckled with millet, are autoclaved for five and a half hours in individual heat-resistant plastic bags fitted with one-way “breather patches.” Once these enriched sawdust “blocks” have cooled, each one is inoculated with a tablespoon or two of the spawn-permeated rye, crimped at the top under a heat-sealer and arranged with other new blocks on a system of shelves in a separate room that is kept at almost exactly 70 degrees year-round. Under these carefully-controlled conditions, the shiitake spawn spend the next three months munching away inside their sterile, hermetically sealed bundles of nutrient-rich sawdust.

“As you can see here,” Glen points at the white fuzz spreading down the inside of a recently placed bag, “The spawn is trying to capture its food source.”

We examine the different stages. At 10 days or so, the spawn have already begun to blossom into mycelium, the weblike future fruiting body of the mushroom itself, the white fuzz creeping away on all sides from the small handful of inoculated grain in each plastic bag. After about a month, the bags look as though someone had opened them and poured in a quart of heavy cream. Next come what look like dollops of soy sauce and apple jelly as the mycelium begins to oxidize and harden into a protective shell around its hoard of nutrients. Somewhere between the cream and the soy-sauce stages, the mycelium begins “popcorning” into the individual nodes that will eventually produce individual mushrooms.

“It’s kind of like people in a race,” muses Babcock, tapping one laggardly bag that still shows the creamy white mycelium in a row of others that have already developed the thick brown coating. “Lots of them start, but not everyone finishes.”

Ironically, for as beneficial as they will probably prove to be for this year’s morel crops, last summer’s fires very nearly put Glen and Wendy out of business.

“Mushrooms are also like people in that they breathe oxygen and release carbon dioxide,” Wendy says, lightly brushing one of the special fabric breathing patches. “As opposed to green plants, which do just the opposite. … The air that got in here was still so smoky that our mushrooms were having trouble breathing just like us. When the fires started, we went from picking 50 pounds a day to about 3 pounds a day.”

“And,” adds Glen, “almost three months to the day after the smoke finally cleared, everything shot right back up. In the space of a week we were right back to normal.”

Our tour of the incubating room over, we move to the fruiting rooms, housed in the second, similarly high-ceilinged building just across the driveway. The malty-smelling air of the incubating room gives way to air of a different kind—heavy and moist, fresh but definitely fungal in nature. Sheets of plastic VisQueen hang from a scaffold of two-by-fours some 12 feet high. Pulling aside the plastic, we peer into one of four compartments where a grotesque bake sale appears to be in progress: loaf-shaped blocks of chocolate-brown medium, each of them crusted with a dirty white scurf of mycelium, and each overtaken to varying degrees by clumps of young shiitake.

“It’s like the boy in the bubble,” Wendy says. “When we open up those blocks, we open up a completely sterile environment.”

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Glen and Wendy pick between 150 and 200 pounds of “first flesh” from new arrivals in the fruiting rooms. After giving up its first crop, each lot of blocks is allowed to rest for 10 days before being treated to a thorough soaking in a galvanized steel tub with the coldest water possible.

“The mushrooms think it’s rain,” she says, indicating the racks of sawdust bricks awaiting submersion. “All we’re doing is playing mother nature in here, trying to make it spring and fall all year round.”

After a good soak, each block undergoes the process at least two more times. After three fruitings, it has become a bantamweight version of its former 7- or 8-pound self—smaller, darker and considerably lighter—and is now ready for one last fruiting in the compartment that Wendy refers to as the Retirement Room, its last stop before being run through a wood chipper, mixed with fresh sawdust and grains, and doled out into plastic bags to be sterilized for a second go-round.

Garden City Fungi is certified organic by the Organic Crop Improvement Association, making it one of 31 such operations out of an estimated 300 mushroom farms nationwide. It’s also the only organic shiitake farm in Montana. At peak production, Glen estimates they pick about 1,200 pounds of mushrooms every month.

“It’s just like any other farming endeavor,” he says with a shrug. “There’s ups and downs, and no guarantees. The only difference is, we do it year-round.”

Still, compared to the rather more turbulent life of the morel, the shiitake lends itself comparatively well to cultivation. Morels, as we shall see, appear to thrive on chaos. The Fungal Jungle

Our woodland tour begins after we leave the fruiting shed. Having already spotted the only two morels we will see all day, Glen continues to scan the ground with an expert eye as he begins to discuss the habits of this wild child of the fungal kingdom. This area was only lightly burned by a quick blaze that tore through the understory but left most of the larger trees undamaged.

“There’s a lot of studies going on right now to find out why fire seems to produce so many morels,” he says. “I don’t necessarily think it’s the burn; it’s the disturbance. The mycelium is here all the time. It’s just that the morel is a very opportunistic mushroom.”

So why do we so often see such profusions of morels in burned-over areas?

“Well,” Glen reflects, “I guess I kind of heed the theory that when a fire comes through an area, it kills a lot of the stuff—the microorganisms—in the soil, and the morel is the fastest one to get back in the game and get that food. But they’re not strong enough to keep it, so they only have it for a year and then everything gets back into balance again.”

Our survey of this lightly-burned area complete, we get back into the trucks and continue beating along a rust-colored ribbon of sopping spring road until we reach Ground Zero of the Nine Mile burn, an area that sustained much heavier fire damage than the one down the road. Although we don’t see any morels, we find many of the same indicator species that grew around our precocious finds back at the light burn: a shyly pretty trillium, a cocoa-colored fungus we can’t immediately identify, and a smaller cuplike species that grows in little patches, like a miniature drinking party of upturned goblets. More importantly, in the burned-out stumpholes and underneath deeply-charred longs, we find the same chalky coating of mycelium. Even on this scorched patch of earth, volunteer armies of fungus have already gotten the rehabilitation process underway.

“Fungi are the premier recyclers on the planet,” Glen says, “Eighty percent of the Earth’s biomass is something in the fungal kingdom. So you see they’re really important—and we’re just in the infancy stage of understanding a lot of important things about them.”

“Good ethical harvesting means leaving some of the young ones and some of the old ones,” Glen says. “The young ones so they’ll grow and the old ones because they’re putting off the most spores at any given time. You can’t really damage the morel mycelium too much, although I guess if I went and kicked that log over, it would disturb things a little.”

That said, both Glen and Wendy still harbor some reservations about an influx of busy-fingered, heavy-booted pickers combing the area for every morel. The burned areas in the Nine Mile probably won’t hold a candle to the huge swaths of potentially morel-rich burn in the Bitterroot, but Wendy’s concerns merit consideration from the Nine Mile all the way to Montana’s southern border with Idaho.

“I mean, look at this,” she says. “It just burned last summer. It’s got to be a pretty touchy time for our forest, so it worries me for people to come here in long lines and big crews and just tromp through everything.”
Preparing for the Pickers

In the Bitterroot, miles to the south, the Forest Service and local law-enforcement agencies have been incubating their own plans for dealing with what they expect to be a record number of commercial pickers traipsing through national forest land in search of profit. A fee system for commercial pickers is already in place, and permits have been drawn up in English, Khmer and Laotian, with Spanish and Russian translations on reserve should the need arise. Translators have been hired to smooth over any dispute on the language and cultural interface between various ethnic groups. To judge from interviews with some of the agencies’ spokesmen, officials are prepared to handle the anticipated flow of pickers into the valley with the typical Bitterroot blend of cautious optimism and stalwart preparedness for anything that just might go gunnybag. Forewarned is forearmed, in other words, and worry when we get there. Bill Fox, special agent for the Region One Forest Service, sounds characteristically cool about the situation.

“We don’t know what the problems are going to be per se,” he offers, “other than that commercial buyers of mushrooms have told us that this is a banner year because of last year’s fires, and that they’re expecting hundreds of commercial harvesters to come into the national forest areas to pick mushrooms. We need to make sure we protect the resources and other forest users from the impacts of that many people.

“I don’t want to alarm people in thinking that with these people are coming all kinds of problems,” he continues, mentioning that the Forest Service has designated many new camping areas to house the overflow. “Because that may not be the case at all. I think that this region has gotten ahead of the curve, communicating with one another on how best to manage this program. We’ve been in contact with commercial buyers. I think all is going very well, and the region and I are feeling very good about it. We’ve been communicating, and I think we’re prepared to deal with whatever comes up.”

Perry Johnson agrees. The affable Sheriff of Ravalli County (“You call me Perry, how’s that?” is the second thing he says to me) reports that his agency has been in conference with the Forest Service since late winter, and that the situation should remain firmly in hand.

“We have kind of a plan, if you can call it that,” Johnson says. “And I think it’s a good plan. They’ve identified a lot of things in regards to licensing and collecting fees for licensed mushroom pickers, and to piggyback with that plan, the number of commercial permits they put out there will trigger some things in our office. When we reach a certain number of permits, we’ll start adding some patrol into the forests. We have a co-op agreement with the Forest Service that allows us to do that and to be able to function still in our office. Any mushroom picking that goes on on private property, those folks will be able to respond by calling us if they have a problem with people trespassing.”

“Or maybe they can make arrangements to pick the mushrooms themselves,” he says with a hint of slyness. “There’s quite a market for them, I understand.

“Over 700,000 acres burned over in Montana alone, and you can double that by going into Idaho,” Johnson continues. “I don’t know if that’s going to help us or hurt us. You can look at other years, where there have been 2,000 people on 20,000-acre burns. This year, if we put 2,000 people on a million and a half acres, I think that’ll help us a little bit. At least I hope so. But then again, I don’t want to discount the fact that we don’t have a baseline to come from. We’ve never seen this.”

As Johnson reluctantly admits, there has been trouble in the past. Reports of mushroom-related crime ranging from hold-ups to homicide surface almost every year, both in places with more or less seasonal influxes of large numbers of pickers and ones with brief, boom-and-bust windows like the one now facing western Montana. Two years ago, in a similar climate of morel fever, a field buyer in British Columbia was robbed of $800. And that’s chump change compared to a $75,000 hit on a mushroom-buying station in Oregon the year before that. Reports of territorial disputes turned violent and shots fired in anger abound.

“The other side of all this, of course, is that those buyers are aware of the nature of the business they’re involved in, and I think that they also take steps to make sure that they don’t become one of those statistics in British Columbia or wherever else and lose tens of thousands of dollars, too,” he says. “I think we’re setting the stage for people who want to make an honest dollar, but there’s always people who follow that who would rather not work for that money. I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t concerned, because I am. We don’t want to see people getting stabbed and shot and beat up for money. We don’t want that exposure in our community, and we certainly don’t want the people who live here all the time to be exposed to that kind of jeopardy out there, and I just pray that they don’t.”

In the meantime, there isn’t much to do but wait. And hope that nothing stupid happens to tarnish Montana’s mushroom spring.

For more information on morel picking in Montana, look up www.fungaljungal.org

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