An entrepreneurial spirit

  • Yan Saeteurn

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Each fall, Yan Saeteurn hitches a camper trailer to his V-6 Toyota pickup at his home in Redding, Calif., and heads four hours north to what is the locus of the matsutake mushroom harvest. There, near Crescent Lake, Ore., he builds a small wooden shack, sets up a scale and waits for the pickers to emerge from the forest at day's end to sell their matsutakes. Some speak English, but others might do business in Chinese, Thai, Lao or Iumien; Saeteurn speaks them all. In a competitive business - the roads outside Crescent Lake are lined with 50 buyers with stands like Saeteurn's - his fluency in the mother tongues is an advantage. He's a businessman, after all. Before brokering mushrooms, he owned a used-car lot.

This is a different life for Saeteurn, who was raised in a family that grew rice and corn in his native Laos without the aid of a tractor or even an ox. After fleeing his village, he lived in an urban refugee camp in Thailand for 10 years, where he worked as a translator for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Now 33, Saeteurn is married with five children. When he's not buying matsutakes in the Oregon woods, he runs his own slaughterhouse in Redding, slaughtering about 10 hogs a day. In this way, he and his wife, who works in a laundry, support their family.

Brokering mushrooms is a tumultuous line of work, he says. A pound of prime matsutakes might sell for $60 or it could plunge to just a few dollars, depending on the season.

And news reports of "Old West-style" violence in the forest over the past few years are true, Saeteurn says. "Shooting during the night, going boom, boom, boom. A lot of theft going on."

But today there are more law enforcement officers in the national forests and mushroom picker camps, and Saeteurn has a security that used to be missing. "I used to carry a gun," he says, "but I prefer not to carry a gun."