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
    Mushroom pickers in Northern California pick the entire year-round. For some, the job is a last resort, but it comes with some comfort.
    Photo by Fotolia/jahmaica
  • Under the Radar Cover
    In “Under the Radar,” author Olivier Matthon provides a look into the mushroom pickers of Northern California who work and live on the margins of society.
    Cover courtesy Pioneers Press

  • Man Picking Mushrooms
  • Under the Radar Cover

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.

4/20/2015 11:43:59 AM

We see plenty of mushroom buyers along Hwy 97 in Oregon and in Montana as we drive through these states. We were picking up cans in the Montana woods where there had been a fire and someone stopped & asked us how the mushroom harvest was going. My husband is a woodland firefighter. He said the pickers go crazy the year after a forest fire. Learned something new that day.

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