Harvesters (pickers) perform the actual harvest of mushrooms. Harvesters then sell their mushrooms directly to buyers at mobile buying stations or established mushroom depots. Before purchase, mushrooms are weighed and graded, with the final price per pound based on these two criteria. Transactions between harvesters and buyers are based almost entirely on cash. No reliable data on income derived from mushroom harvesting exist, in part because the majority of harvesters do not declare their incomes. Some harvesters acknowledge that harvesting can bring significant income. On a good day of picking pine mushrooms, a harvester may earn several hundred dollars; however, many days with little or no success occur during the season.
Many commercial harvesters are nomadic in their patterns of following the natural supply of mushrooms. The natural supply may be determined by rainfall, forest fires or other factors, depending on the particular species. For example, in the spring harvesters may travel to the Yukon, Northwest Territories or northern Saskatchewan to pick morels. They return to British Columbia in the fall to harvest chanterelles and pine mushrooms. In late fall to early winter, harvesters travel south to Washington, Oregon and northern California for available mushrooms (de Geus 1992; Eligh 1989; Schlosser and Blatner 1994).
Buyers typically work as employees of a mushroom company or as contractors to one or more companies. Some of these individuals may be from the local area, but many of them are nomadic.
Mushroom companies usually concentrate on acquiring one or more species. They perform cleaning, fresh packaging or processing operations (for example drying and/or canning) before distributing the mushrooms. Mushroom companies play a major role in establishing field prices, and supplying cash for their purchases. Exporters specialize in domestic and international marketing of mushrooms (Schlosser and Blatner 1993).
The price for any one species of mushroom may vary significantly across the province. Prices fluctuate during the harvest season, usually being higher when fewer mushrooms are available and tending to decline as availability increases. At the end of the season, when supply becomes limited, prices normally increase (Eligh 1989; Schlosser and Blatner 1994). In addition to the supply factor, mushroom size and quality are critical factors in the final price paid to harvesters. Firm, high-quality mushrooms receive higher prices than older, low-quality mushrooms. A six-tiered grading system is presently established for pine mushrooms (de Geus 1992).
Despite the increasing commercial interest in wild edible mushrooms, domestic markets are generally not well developed. Industry participants have, however, identified two growing culinary markets for wild edible mushrooms. Firstly, ethnic communities in the large urban centres of British Columbia, eastern Canada and the United States use many varieties of mushrooms in national cuisines. Secondly, chefs in specialty restaurants constantly experiment with new varieties of mushrooms to meet customer demand for culinary diversity.
The vast majority of commercially harvested wild edible mushrooms are exported to either Europe or Japan (de Geus 1992). The primary markets for chanterelles, boletes and morels are countries such as Germany, France and Italy, where they are traditional foods. The pine mushroom, also known as matsutake, is exported almost exclusively to Japan, where it is highly regarded (Anonymous 1990).
The markets for wild edible mushrooms are thus highly international in nature, with British Columbia being only one supplier. European and Japanese markets are especially sensitive to the harvest levels of related species in eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and other global regions (Anonymous 1990; Schlosser and Blatner 1994).
A survey of industry participants and recreational harvesters indicates that a total of 33 species of wild edible mushrooms are harvested in British Columbia. Table 2 presents the available information for wild edible mushrooms on the basis of species, processing requirements and market. Although 22 of these species are harvested commercially, only a few species are harvested on a large scale. Commercially important species include pine mushrooms, chanterelles and morels. All of the species listed in Table 2 also are harvested locally for personal use.
The harvest of wild edible mushrooms is very difficult to characterize, because no annual crop statistics have ever been compiled by industry or government. Most information on the weight of the harvest, value of export and extent of harvest areas is thus anecdotal in nature. Eligh (1989) estimates that 220 to 450 tonnes of wild edible mushrooms were exported in 1988 by all industry members.
The following sections give ecological, market and harvesting information for each of British Columbia’s three most important commercial wild edible mushroom species namely: pine mushrooms, chanterelles and morels.
At present the ecology of the pine mushroom is poorly understood, especially its functions within the forest community. Tricholoma magnivelare is thought to form mycorrhizal associations with a broad range of hosts. The fungal mycelium, the major underground vegetative component of the fungus, forms symbiotic associations with tree roots.  The tree-fungus symbiosis is called the mycorrhizae (fungus root). The mycorrhizae function to increase the surface area through which trees can take up water and nutrients. The fungus in turn benefits by obtaining carbohydrates from the tree.
In the Pacific Northwest, pine mushrooms usually occur in stands of trees 100 to 200 years old, with lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), Douglas-fir (Pseudtsuga menziesii) or western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) as the dominant overstorey species (Hosford 1994; Molina et al. 1993). Harvesters, however, also report that pine mushrooms may occur in younger stands 50 to 100 years old. The mushroom is typically found under a thick layer of moss or leaf litter. Hosford notes that vine maple (Acer circinatum) and ericaceous shrubs dominate the understorey, serving as good indicators for pine mushroom sites.
Discussions with industry participants and forest district staff have helped to identify many important commercial pine mushroom harvesting areas in British Columbia (Figure 1). Table 3 summarizes, for each forest region, the location of known pine mushroom harvesting areas, specifying the biogeoclimatic zones, and site characteristics (associated vegetation and soil).
Preliminary work by Kinugawa and Goto (1978) found that the pine mushroom occurs in the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF), Coastal Western Hemlock (CWH), Interior Douglas-fir (IDF), and Engelmann Spruce–Subalpine Fir (ESSF) biogeoclimatic zones. It is clear from Table 3, however, that pine mushrooms are not restricted to these four biogeoclimatic zones. Pine mushrooms also occur in the Interior Cedar–Hemlock (ICH), Sub-Boreal Spruce (SBS), Mountain Hemlock (MH), Montane Spruce (MS), Sub-Boreal Pine–Spruce (SBPS) and Boreal White and Black Spruce (BWBS) zones.
Despite a lack of overall ecological research, industry participants have identified some site characteristics where pine mushrooms occur. Pine mushrooms are often associated with 60 to 200-year-old Douglas-fir, hemlock, Subalpine fir, spruce and pine forests. The canopy is often partially open, with the timber of marginal value due to disease or poor growing conditions. The understorey vegetation may contain one or more indicator species, such as prince’s pine (Chimaphila umbellata), boxwood (Pachistima myrsinites) and ericaceous species, including evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), salal (Gaultheria shallon) and kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).
There has not yet been a complete account of pine mushroom distribution in British Columbia’s forests. However, reports indicate that pine mushrooms are often found on well drained podzolic soils with a distinct Ae horizon; the parent material may be shale, glacial till or sand. The currently known distribution of pine mushrooms coincides with that of ferro-humic and humo-ferric podzols. Mean annual precipitation in these areas is usually 50 to 250 cm, with the mean daily January temperature between –10 and 0 degrees Celsius (British Columbia Natural Resources Conference 1956). These areas may range in elevation from sea level to 1,300 metres.
Recent socio-economic trends in Japan are boosting sales of domestic and imported mushrooms. During the late 1980s, chronic labor shortages, flexible work schedules and better job opportunities allowed more younger women to work. Women increased to almost 40 per cent of the Japanese workforce in 1990. As a consequence fewer meals were consumed at home, with more meals being eaten in restaurants. The changing lifestyles have resulted in growth in the Japanese restaurant industry. Many family restaurants have adjusted menus to include high-quality Japanese foods. Mushrooms are frequently used to add quality and flavor to dishes such as soups, vegetable stir-fries and sushi. Elderly Japanese, who are traditionally health conscious, view mushrooms as symbolizing health and vitality. Such health awareness is fast becoming a phenomenon among younger Japanese people (Anonymous 1990).
Historically, Japan has been able to meet its domestic demand for matsutake. Data from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Ministry of Finance reveal that between 1950 and 1975 Japan supplied 100 per cent of the pine mushrooms it consumed (Table 4). Table 4, however, also shows that domestic mushroom productivity and consumption both declined drastically between 1950 and 1975. This downward trend in production has been attributed to the declining health of Japan’s red pine (Pinus densiflora) forests (Anonymous 1990). By 1980, Japan was able to produce only 60 per cent of the pine mushrooms it consumed domestically. Subsequent to 1980, domestic supply of matsutake further declined to only 20 per cent of consumption. As a result, Japanese researchers are attempting to cultivate pine mushrooms to increase domestic supply. This type of research has not yet been successful. It is thus anticipated that the Japanese supply of matsutake will continue to shrink. Coincidentally, the demand for imported matsutake should continue to increase.
In 1989, South Korea led in matsutake exports to Japan, with a value share of over 50 per cent and a volume share of close to 30 per cent. South Korea maintains consistent matsutake production by irrigating its forests. The South Korean species is very similar to Japanese matsutake and therefore commands very high prices at wholesale markets (1989 average $110/kg). In contrast, the Canadian pine mushroom, although similar to matsutake in taste and fragrance but not a true matsutake, was priced at an average $45/kg wholesale in 1989. Despite these lower wholesale prices, Canada was the fourth leading exporter of pine mushrooms to Japan, after South Korea, North Korea and China, with close to 5 per cent value share ($11.6 million) and just under 9 per cent share by volume (195 tonnes).
Harvesters report that between 2,000 and 5,000 persons harvest pine mushrooms in British Columbia. They estimate that two-thirds of these people are “local pickers” who supplement other incomes by harvesting pine mushrooms. The remaining one-third of mushroom harvesters are “professional” mushroom pickers. These professionals begin their harvesting season in the northern part of the province in early-to-late August (usually in the Anahim Lake area) and then travel to other areas when pine mushrooms become available.
In British Columbia, pine mushroom harvesters usually sell their mushrooms to buyers at roadside stands or mushroom depots in local towns. At these buying stations or depots, the pine mushrooms are sorted into six different grades. As shown by Figure 2, the most valuable grade 1 is the “button” stage, with the veil intact. The least valuable grade is 6, a fully expanded, over-mature mushroom.
Mushrooms classified in each grade are weighed separately. The mushroom pickers are paid in cash, based on the daily price set by mushroom companies for each grade. At the end of each day, the pine mushrooms are flown or driven to a central warehouse (usually Vancouver) where they are cleaned, regraded and shipped fresh to Japan. Pine mushrooms are shipped to Japan within three days of harvest in British Columbia (de Geus 1992). In 1989, British Columbia supplied approximately 195 tonnes of pine mushrooms to Japan (Anonymous 1990).
In 1994, several mushroom companies provided overviews of their 1993 pine mushroom harvest. Table 5 aggregates mushroom company harvest information on the basis of weight, value paid pickers and general harvest location. Province-wide, approximately 125 tonnes of pine mushrooms were harvested in 1993. Many industry participants indicated that 1993 was a poor year for pine mushroom production (except in Terrace and Nass Valley) because of droughts during July, August and September.
The mushrooms of two other fungal species, the yellow chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) and the white chanterelle (C. subalbidus), are commercially harvested in British Columbia. These species commonly occur in mature forests of Douglas-fir or hemlock (de Geus 1992).
The yellow chanterelle is harvested in the Queen Charlotte Islands, Prince Rupert, Vancouver Island, Sechelt and the southern coastal mountains. Harvesting of yellow chanterelles begins in September on the Queen Charlotte Islands and continues until November or December in both Sechelt and the south coast mountains. The yellow chanterelle is normally shipped fresh to European markets. Europeans pay a premium market price for the yellow chanterelle because its color and size resemble the chanterelle species traditionally harvested in Europe (de Geus 1992).
White chanterelles are usually harvested from the Nakusp–Arrow Lakes region. Harvesting of white chanterelles begins in the early fall and continues until the first heavy frosts. Europeans who are not familiar with the larger white chanterelle consider its flavor inferior to the flavor of the yellow chanterelle. When dried, the white chanterelle turns yellow and is only then considered marketable in Europe, but at a lower market price than the yellow chanterelle (de Geus 1992).
Morels, the mushrooms of Morchella species, can grow on sites for up to three years after forest fires (Groves 1962). The numbers of morels produced over this three-year period decrease as regenerating vegetation begins to compete for nutrients and space. For example, between 1986 and 1987 more than $200,000 was paid to morel harvesters in the Boundary forest district. This large harvest of morels followed an extensive forest fire in the district during 1985. Not all morels, however, are associated with forest fires. Many other species of morels appear after disturbances such as blowdown, disease and timber harvesting.
During 1992 (considered a poor harvest year) approximately 32,000 kilograms of morels were harvested in British Columbia. The poor harvest during 1992 was attributed to a combination of unusual weather conditions and a low incidence of forest fires in morel areas (de Geus 1993).
Pine Mushroom Task Force, 1993
In September 1993, an interministry Pine Mushroom Task Force began a comprehensive study of all aspects of the pine mushroom industry in British Columbia. The task force was asked to develop a management approach by which government could achieve and maintain a sustainable pine mushroom industry in the province. Chaired by a representative from the Ministry of Forests, the group was made up of representatives from several British Columbia ministries: Forests; Environment, Lands and Parks; Small Business, Tourism and Culture; Aboriginal Affairs; and Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods. A representative from Agriculture Canada was also on the task force.
During the fall of 1993, task force members studied the pine mushroom issue extensively. The task force reviewed existing regulations in other jurisdictions. Interviews were conducted with industry stakeholders (harvesters and buyers) and representatives from First Nations groups. Several committee meetings were held to define issues and set goals and objectives for regulating the pine mushroom industry. Finally, at a workshop at Mesachie Lake on January 18 and 19, 1994, the task force developed and evaluated a range of options for managing the industry.
The task force recognized that a comprehensive regulatory approach to the pine mushroom industry is not immediately possible, due to the lack of business and scientific data for the industry. The task force also recognized that this industry represents significant regional economic opportunities and that moving quickly to regulate this industry could reduce these economic opportunities. Consequently, the task force recommended the licensing of pine mushroom buyers. This approach will assist government in collecting information needed for addressing many of the problems currently affecting the commercial harvesting of pine mushrooms.
The task force also recommended that government:
The task force recommended their management strategy be in place for a five-year period commencing in the spring of 1995. This would enable government to gather sufficient reliable information on the dynamics of the wild edible mushroom industry and would allow data on the ecology of the pine mushroom to accumulate (Anonymous 1994).
There are, however, significant differences between jurisdictions. For example, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources requires that all products commercially harvested from state lands be sold to harvesters. This enables the department to manage the commercial harvest of wild mushrooms to collect revenues. To date, such management is not practiced in British Columbia. Land ownership is also more complex in Washington than in British Columbia. A larger mixture of federal and state lands as well as a higher percentage of private lands make the concept of regulating the wild mushroom industry more complicated in Washington than in British Columbia.
In October 1985, at the urging of several Washington mycological societies, the Commissioner of Public Lands set up the Wild Edible Mushroom Task Group. Group representatives were from state and federal governments, industrial and small private forest landowners, the wild mushroom industry and mycological societies. After 16 months of meetings and discussion, the group agreed to focus on: promoting mushroom farming as a cottage industry; planning research on the ecology; habitat and production of mushroom species; and investigating ways to regulate and sustain the resource (Molina et al. 1993).
Recommendations of the Washington task group were implemented in a number of ways. Seminars on growing mushrooms for market were held in western Washington in 1987 and 1988. In 1987, a paper resulted that detailed the research needed to determine the effect of commercial wild mushroom harvesting on the mushroom resource.
As a result of these activities in Washington, a consensus began to grow for developing legislation to regulate the wild mushroom resource. In 1989, a mushroom harvesting and processing law came into effect, requiring the annual licensing of persons who buy and process wild mushrooms for market. The law requires mushroom buyers to submit to the Department of Agriculture a prescribed form each month noting the site of purchase, total weight of each species purchased, date of purchase, approximate location of harvest site, price paid to the harvester, and name, address and licence number of the dealer to whom the mushrooms were sold (Molina et al. 1993).
As directed under the State of Washington law, the Department of Agriculture publishes the annual harvest totals of wild edible mushrooms. Land and resource managers estimate that the harvest reports for 1989 and 1990 represented only about 10 and 20 per cent, respectively, of the actual crop. In 1991, 1992 and 1993, the department reported that the mushroom dealer information continued to reflect less volume than reported by mushroom buyers. The department believes that this discrepancy is the result of many buyers failing to report the mushroom dealers they are reselling to. This situation has made it difficult for the department to collect dealer information. Despite these problems, however, the department believes that with time the wild mushroom production numbers it gathers will more accurately reflect the actual market.
The law as written had a five-year sunset clause, which if not altered in the State legislature would nullify the law. In June 1994, after extensive debate in the legislature, legislators were deadlocked on a decision regarding update of the law. Due to the lack of agreement among legislators, the law was not updated. Mushroom buyers and dealers are thus not required to purchase licences for 1994. Pro-licensing lobbyists petitioned the legislature during the fall 1994 sitting to reinstate the law.
U.S. Pacific Northwest - industry data
The wild edible mushroom industry of the U.S. Pacific Northwest entails the harvest, processing, and marketing of mushrooms from Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Wild edible mushrooms have been harvested commercially from this region for more than 50 years (de Geus 1992).
Twenty-five species of mushrooms are harvested commercially in the region, but only a few species are harvested on a large commercial basis. The important commercial species are morels, chanterelles, pine mushrooms, boletes, Oregon black truffle, cauliflower mushroom, true truffle species and spreading hedgehog (Molina et al. 1993; Washington State Department of Agriculture 1994).
In 1993, Schlosser and Blatner undertook a survey of mushroom buyers and processors located in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The results obtained from this survey provide valuable insights into the industry, including estimates for the quantity and value of mushrooms harvested and their contribution to regional economies.
During 1992, approximately 1.8 million kilograms of wild edible mushrooms were sold in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The species with the largest harvested volume was the morel, at over 590,000 kilograms harvested. About 500,000 kilograms of chanterelles were harvested in 1992. Nearly 380,000 kilograms of pine mushrooms and 220,000 kilograms of various species of boletes were also harvested during the same period. Other species were harvested in lower quantities (Schlosser and Blatner 1994).
Mushroom companies in the U.S. Pacific Northwest purchased $20.3 million (U.S.) of mushrooms from 10,400 harvesters during 1992. These mushroom companies employed 520 people to buy and process mushrooms. Schlosser and Blatner estimated that mushroom companies operating in the region generated an estimated $2.9 million in profits for 1992. The gross value of the industry as a whole in the U.S. Pacific Northwest was estimated at approximately $41.1 million for 1992 (Schlosser and Blatner 1994).