Angela Gzowski
Angela Gzowski

ICYMI: Down Among the Morel Pickers

From the archives: Low prices and inexperienced pickers marked the start of 2015's mushroom-picking season
Thierry quit his job to go picking, but isn’t sure that was the best decision

Last year, a much-hyped morel mushroom season opened up. We sent photographer Angela Gzowski down Highway 3 to see how things were proceeding. This article was first published June 11, 2015

Thierry Guenez and Marcelle Fressineau from France via the Yukon

Is this something you do all the time? Or are you new to this?

TG: Marcelle is really used to that. She’s living in the Yukon for many years, and is a morel hunter in France.

How’d you hear about the picking here?

I heard a lot of morels picking in the Yukon, and people saying it was really good money to do. So I had a job in Dawson and I decided to quit my job to try to find something better, but maybe I shouldn’t have done that, because it’s not so good money so far. The price is really low. It’s seven bucks a pound, and it can be 14. So it’s half-price, and the season is not really started yet. It’s starting now with the last rain two, three days ago.

(To Marcelle)Are these the lowest prices you’ve seen?

MF: Yeah. It’s the lowest I saw.

Marcelle is drying her morels to sell later

How do you find the buyers here?

MF: (Laughs) The one near our camp, at the beginning decided to take only the big morel, bit… tssss… when it was the beginning the morel was very small. So at seven dollar it was not a lot of money. It was more interesting to dry the morel, so we can sell later.

Do you think you’ll make money, or break even from the cost of travelling here?

MF: (Laughs) I’m not sure.

Camille from Montreal is learning from her adventure
Buyer Andrew Matthews’ sign
What everyone’s after: a fresh-picked basket of morels
Bison and bear remains found while picking
Tyler Quock, picking up supplies in Fort Providence

Alan Binger and Tyler Quock from Whitehorse

I’ve been hearing that people aren’t having much luck.

A: Yeah, we’re pulling like 80 bucks a day now. Last year it was like 300.

T: If you party it all down you’ll just spend all your money. These people will spend all their money on beer, go back, pick enough to have money for beer, go back, do a bunch of drugs, I dunno.

So is there kind of a like a little community out here?

A: There’s like tent cities all up and down the highway.

Do you know a lot of the people?

T: [Alan] came with a bunch of friends.

A: Our camp is like six people.

T: There’s a guy and his dad.

A: Yeah.

T: It’s chill, though.

Have you been here before?

A: No.

What do you think of it so far?

A: It’s flat. It’s very flat. There’s no mountains. It’s weird.

T: There’s no creeks to drink from. In the Yukon, you can just drink from any creek. Here it’s just like swamp water all over the place.

How are the buyers so far?

A: Apparently a bunch of them just left down to B.C. but we’ve been [selling to] this girl here. Every night she comes up, and she’s the best. She’s not too picky, like the buyers right by our camp up the road.

T: This, like, older European lady. Chill. Someone tried to like take her business and she just jacked it up to $8. She has a Hummer. And a little dog.

Alicia Lankveld came up from B.C. to pick for buyer Andrew Matthews
Andrew Matthews says he’s following the laws of supply and demand

Andrew Matthews from Yellowknife and Whistler

What do you do here?

AM: React to chaos on the daily.

You’re a buyer.

AM: Yup.

How does that work? How did you get started?

AM: I have no idea. I ask myself that every day.(Laughs) Basically, our family has been thinking about starting a business with the morels, because we’ve been picking just for our family and friends and stuff. It just hasn’t been the year for it until this year.

So it’s you and who else in your family?

AM: My brother and I are the main people running the business, but basically the whole family is helping out.

How is the price determined?

AM: It’s based on worldwide supply and demand. This year, it’s a bumper crop in B.C. and it might be elsewhere as well, so they’re getting tons of supply, so that’s why the price is down.

What’s the price now?

AM: Seven dollars a pound, fresh. We’re just trying to match other buyers and assume if they can make money at that price then we can too. And try to get some people stoked on us, cause we’re local, family business, instead of some B.C. folks coming in here.

Tell me about the process. Someone gives you a bucket of mushrooms. Then what?

AM: Sure. Someone comes in with a bucket of fresh mushrooms they’ve just picked. We do quality control, basically making sure that they’re the right size, that they don’t have holes in them, things like that. With the pickers that we have a relationship with and our own crew here, they know what to look for so we don’t really have to do that.

Morels drying at Matthews’ campsite

Basically, once you get it, you put it on the drying racks and you get someone doing a secondary quality control, making sure there’s no moldy mushrooms or anything wrong with them, and they’ll dry out in the sun for a day or two. Then after that, we’ll put them in the flash dryer. They get cooked in there for about eight hours. That just kills any bugs, any worms, any mold, things like that.

After that you can bag it and store it and it’s actually good for quite a while, like seven years.

After it’s bagged what do you do with it?

AM: Basically, once it’s ready we can ship it out right away.

You have places you know to ship it to?

AM: We do and we don’t. We were advised not to get any contracts before we started. Because we didn’t know what the prices would be beforehand, so, just to cover our costs and stuff. So now we know we’re getting them for seven dollars a pound, then we know what we can sell it for, right?

Have there been any issues?

AM: We’ve had some situations when someone comes for the first time, and sometimes they don’t know how to harvest the mushrooms properly. And you can imagine, they’ve been out in the sun for eight hours, picking mushrooms all day, slaving away, they come back, and they’re not how we want them because they’ve cut them wrong, or there’s soil on all of them, they’re not clean, and so basically we don’t want to buy those mushrooms at all.

Most of the time we’ll kind of go through and educate them, tell them what to look for for the next time. But it’s still disheartening when you’ve been working for eight hours and you come back and you’re not getting anything. It would actually be a lot better if people came to us beforehand, which some groups have been doing, and find out before what our specifications are. What should you look for.

So what should you look for?

AM: You want a nice, healthy mushroom that’s thumb-sized, just the cap of it, You want a mushroom that looks beautiful. You don’t want the crappy holes in the mushroom. You want a gourmet mushroom, and you want it to be healthy, not breaking apart. There’s a few other things to look out for, like if the colours are changing around the stem, that could mean that the mushroom is getting too dry. There’s a few little things that you have to be aware of. It’s not as easy as just going out there and finding a mushroom and cutting it.

A picker campsite
Pickers on the highway
Matthews’ size advisory
Picker hands
Picker wheels
Picker campsite, 2
Picker wheels, 2