Inside the transient world of mushroom pickers

People spend months scouring forest floors for money-making fungi in the Pacific Northwest.

  • A crew heads back from picking in the land of the midnight sun in Tok, Alaska. They flew from Oregon to pick burn morels, which are mushrooms established after wildfire, for a buyer who bought them a van and a boat for the summer.

    Olivier Matthon
  • Joe scans steep terrain for burn morels on his second season as a commercial picker in Happy Camp, California.

    Olivier Matthon
  • Joe and first-time picker Brendan hit a honey hole of burn morels in John Day, Oregon. Brendan, a former wildland firefighter, enjoys the large flushes of morels triggered by wildfires.

    Olivier Matthon
  • Aloune washes king boletes that she bought for a company in Portland. She says, “it's hard to be stuck between the company and the pickers.”

    Olivier Matthon
  • Aloune and her son-in-law, Tom, dry king boletes at Budget motel in John Day, Oregon. When the price gets too low to sell fresh, they dry mushrooms to sell later.

    Olivier Matthon
  • Mai and Phet, Lao mushroom pickers from California, at a huckleberry camp in Randle, Washington. Hundreds of Southeast Asian pickers and buyers supplement their income with berries between morel and matsutake seasons.

    Olivier Matthon
  • Francisco buys burn morels in Happy Camp, California. He leaves his family in Newport, Oregon, to travel for weeks, picking all day and buying all night. “I'm tired, man,” he says.

    Olivier Matthon
  • Pon, a Lao buyer from Springfield, Oregon, buys Joe and Brendan's burn morels on a local couple's property he rented for the month in John Day, Oregon.

    Olivier Matthon
  • Hong and Chanta, field managers for a Portland company, rented a local woman's property to house Cambodian, Hmong, Lao, and Latino pickers who sell them mushrooms in return for housing in Tok, Alaska.

    Olivier Matthon
  • A temporary greenhouse to dry burn morels at a Lao mushroom camp in John Day, Oregon.

    Olivier Matthon
  • Old-time mushroom picker "Dogboy," right, with friends.

    Olivier Matthon
  • A crew loads up a day’s pick — about 90 pounds each of burn morels, worth $12 a pound — in Tok, Alaska. A month of good picking makes up for weeks spent scouting.

    Olivier Matthon
  • Dao sorts burn morels in Carmacks in the Yukon Territory. He and his wife, Aloune, fled war torn Laos in the '70s and now spends 9 months of the year on the road picking and buying mushrooms.

    Olivier Matthon
  • Since 1991, Eric, left, spends the winter at this motel in Willits, California, picking and buying mushrooms from other pickers, like Greg, right, who's been on the circuit for 15 years.

    Olivier Matthon

 

In spring and fall, the mountain forests that stretch from Alaska to California are filled with mushroom hunters, known as “pickers.” Some are hobbyists, but others make a living from tracking down the pricey fungi. The commercial pickers follow traces to particular kinds of mushrooms, often tied to the shifts the landscape is undergoing. For example, wildfire scars can provide rich ground for morels. Commercial picking is governed by strict rules, which some say are often intended to benefit buyers rather than support a sustainable harvest. But the fungi can also offer a lucrative trade for pickers, who are often immigrants from Laos or Cambodia or members of the persecuted Hmong minority from those countries.

As a result, the practice has spawned an ephemeral economy in some parts of the Pacific Northwest, with pickers and buyers setting up shop in small towns near national forest land, where the mushrooms grow. Kate Schimel

Olivier Matthon is the author of Under the Radar: Notes from the Wild Mushroom Trade. He's been picking mushrooms commercially and taking photographs of migrant pickers since 2012.

*Subjects in the photographs requested to only be identified by their first names.