California Mushroom Picking: The Freest People in the World

For some wild mushroom pickers, picking mushrooms is a last resort for income, but the job comes with a level of relaxation that is not found elsewhere.

Man Picking Mushrooms - 550

Mushroom pickers in Northern California pick the entire year-round. For some, the job is a last resort, but it comes with some comfort.

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In California, mushroom pickers pick year-round for their income. In Under the Radar: Notes from the Wild Mushroom Trade, author Olivier Matthon provides insight into the inner-workings of the mushroom trade and provides personal anecdotes about the job those who do it for a living. This excerpt, which analyzes the kinds of people who live on the margins of society and choose to pick mushrooms for a living, is from the section “The Politics of Picking.”

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Mushroom Picking in Northern California>

On April 14, after ruminating for three weeks in his room, Bernie found the motivation to go picking. I saw him drive away with a big smile. He went to one of his old patches in Jackson State Forest. He was back before noon. I saw him talk to Alvin for a minute before he returned to his room, frustrated. I looked at Alvin quizzically. “The Mexicans were there before him,” he said.

Pickers used to respect each other’s patches, which made it possible to farm them. They could afford to harvest only the bigger mushrooms and left the young ones to grow. They came back regularly to their patches, letting the mushrooms mature enough to produce their spores and harvesting them before they started to decay. Now the old circuit pickers consider farming almost impossible because of increased competition from the Mexican pickers.

According to Alvin, from 1992 to 2002, Anglos were the only pickers in Willits, with the exception of Tony and his crew of four or five Mexicans. In 2002, Fast Freddy, who had been collecting pickers’ phone numbers for years as he traveled on the circuit, wanted to buy winter mushrooms; so, he called all the numbers he had, mostly from Mexicans, and convinced them to come pick in Willits. Between fifty and a hundred showed up that year, and the circuit pickers started to feel overcrowded by the Mexican pickers.

Some mushroom buyers take advantage of the vulnerable position of the Mexican pickers who are undocumented by paying them lower prices. These pickers have to harvest more mushrooms to make a living, which in turn puts pressure on all the other pickers to do the same. The overpicking that results could eventually jeopardize the ecological sustainability of the harvest. “We know that if we don’t harvest all the little ones, someone else will,” Alvin told me the first day I met him. He said that it bothered him to see people who should not be here in the first place harvesting his patches.

“Well, maybe if they were given legal status,” I suggested, “they wouldn’t have to accept such low prices, and they wouldn’t need to harvest so many mushrooms. They could actually look for other jobs.”

“I think they would pick everything anyway; at least some of them would. They’re just younger, you know, they can cover more ground.”

I don’t know why I had ventured into such a slippery slope during our first encounter, but after a while I noticed that every time Alvin talked about the Mexican pickers, he mentioned how much younger and in better shape they were. Jerry told me once that the Mexicans didn’t mind sharing a room among four or five people. Like carpooling, it reduced expenses considerably. I don’t think the circuit pickers resent the Mexicans because of their ethnicity, but because the way that they’ve adapted to the political and economic situation in which they find themselves puts pressure on the older circuit pickers’ livelihood.

A few days later, I witnessed how this pressure increases as access to land diminishes. Bernie was not ready to give up. Determined to go further out in the woods, he loaded his dirt bike in the back of his little truck. His plan was to use it to access gated logging roads. Unfortunately, these patches didn’t produce much this year, and he came back empty-handed again. Private timberland used to be more accessible, but timber companies now tend to gate the entries to logging roads. “I used to have this awesome patch up north,” Alvin said. “But a few years ago they put a gate on it. The patch is twelve miles back. It’s gone forever now. The only way would be to sneak in with a dirt bike, but if they catch you, you’re in trouble.”

Mushroom Picking on the Fringe of Society

The economic value of the winter pick in Willits is negligible for the logging companies. But the pick has a social value: destitute people living on the fringe of society—people that nobody wants to hire because of mental health issues, alcohol and drug addiction, or unreliable working history—use it as a last-resort income. Compared to other types of self-employment, picking requires very little investment.

Once when Fred and I went picking together, he bought a scratch-off lottery ticket and won $25. Looking at the other prizes he could have won, he said, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to win a hundred thousand dollars a year, for the rest of your life?”

“Would you still pick mushrooms?” I asked.

“Yeah I would. I would start a mushroom company. Sell to restaurants. And you know who I would hire?”

“Who?”

“Addicts. People with PTSD. People that are down and out and need some help.”

The other most important picking grounds for winter mushrooms are individual private properties, which are also difficult to access. Jerry told me about a guy name Rick who knew this really good patch of black trumpets on a ranch. Rick knocked on the door and asked the owner permission to pick. The owner said, “Sure, as long as you show me what and how to pick.” They spent the rest of the season picking there together. The next year, when Rick showed up, the ranch owner invited him in for a drink. After Rick downed his first whiskey, the owner told him, “It’s good to see you again, Rick. Now, if I see you on my property ever again, I’ll shoot you. You want another shot of whiskey?”

In Jackson State Forest, pickers lose harvesting grounds each time a portion of the forest is logged. Black trumpets, hedgehogs and yellow feet are mycorrhizal fungi: they form symbiotic relationships with plants and trees. They depend on their hosts to receive the moisture and carbohydrates that they need and, in return, they help the trees absorb mineral nutrients from the soil. The mushrooms won’t grow in quantity for many years following a clear-cut. Every time I went picking with Fred, he looked for portions of forest that were at least twenty years old. There were six different active timber harvest areas in Jackson State Forest in 2012.

While commercial mushroom picking in America is an income of last resort for some people who have been pushed to the margin of society, it is a way of life that other people choose. One night, as Fred cooked steaks for Alvin, Bernie and me, he talked about all the college credits he earned without ever getting a degree. “I’ve never done good in the real world,” he said. “They don’t like me.”

“They don’t like me either,” Bernie said.

“Why is that?” asked Fred.

“Because we don’t want to conform,” Bernie answered. “That’s why we pick mushrooms. We’re the freest people in the world, here. We are our own bosses. This country is going to hell. We live in corporate totalitarianism.”

“The constitution was founded on the principle of private property against the bankers who owned England,” Fred said. “This country is not a democracy, it’s the illusion of democracy.”

“A constitutional republic,” Bernie added.

“Our votes don’t count,” Fred concluded.

Another night Alvin and Bernie talked about people who abuse the system. They complained about a couple who came to Willits to pick mushrooms from a different state. As soon as they checked in at the Edgewood, they went directly to apply for food stamps before going to the food bank. Alvin and Bernie saw them as freeloaders, taking advantage of a system designed to help people who are not able to work.

Like other migrant pickers, Alvin and Bernie see their lifestyle as highly moral. They have always found a way to work around the obstacles they encounter. Ultimately, they keep playing the game on their own terms: they spend time in the woods, fishing, or hanging out with friends; not in courts, or in front of a computer writing letters of complaints, or in meetings with bureaucrats from the Forest Service. They are not torn each morning between the desire to change the world and the desire to enjoy it. Like the Canadian sojourner that Thoreau often encountered in the woods near Walden Pond, they enjoy their day-to-day life as it unfurls. “I pick mushrooms as a part-time job,” Bernie said once. “My full time job is kicking back and enjoying life.”


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Under the Radar: Notes from the Wild Mushroom Trade, by Olivier Matthon, published by Pioneers Press, 2013.