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BUSINESS IS MUSHROOMING.

Byline: Scott Maben The Register-Guard

COTTAGE GROVE - The hiss of compressed air used to blow dirt off the day's yield nearly drowns out Brian Voigt as he explains the business of picking wild mushrooms.

And make no mistake, it is a business - one ruled by Oregon's erratic climate and swayed by the rise and fall of local jobless ranks.

When times are tough, as they are now, longtime pickers such as Voigt see more competition in the woods. Still, he and a partner have been raking in more than $200 a day collecting the fleshy fungi, and that beats any low-wage job in the community, he said.

On a recent evening at Janine's Mushrooms in Cottage Grove, Voigt smoked a cigarette as he waited for the buyer to weigh his baskets of Pacific golden chanterelles.

"I'm my own boss. I'm out in the woods," he said. "The woods are my playground. I get to go out and play and make money."

Despite the recent snow that conceals the mushrooms and can leave them waterlogged and worthless, pickers say this has been a decent season for chanterelles, the official state mushroom.

The right combination of rain, sunshine and cool weather brought the bloom on in early September, and the mushrooms continue to sprout two months later. "It's one of the best I've seen in years," Voigt said.

That may be one reason federal land managers are seeing a jump in sales of commercial mushroom picking permits, each specifying a particular area and species. Professional pickers have their favorite spots, and many cluster in areas where blooms are especially prolific.

On Wednesday mornings at the Eugene district headquarters of the Bureau of Lane Management, pickers crowd into the office lobby, take numbers and wait their turn to buy a one-week permit for $27. BLM officials sold 45 permits this Wednesday, 40 the week before.

It certainly has been a busy season, said Lori Miller, a BLM forester in charge of special forest products for the district. But that has been the trend for some time, Miller said.

"It has just skyrocketed the last eight to 10 years," she said. "It has more than doubled and tripled."

Try quadrupled.

In the Coast Range, the BLM district's most active mushrooming area, commercial pickers gathered more than 23,000 pounds of golden chanterelles in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. That's more than four times the harvest in 1996, records show.

The increase in commercial picking also may stem from growing demand for other varieties found in local forests. Chanterelles are the mainstay of Western Oregon's mushroom crop, but buyers are taking greater interest in yellowfeet and hedgehog mushrooms.

"Yellowfeet especially are very prevalent," Miller said. "You can find them anywhere. So when chanterelles are not doing well, a lot of people come in and buy permits for the hedgehog and yellowfeet."

Developing markets for those and other mushrooms give pickers more options and allow them to pick for more of the year. Hedgehogs and yellowfeet, for example, can be found into the winter when other mushrooms have disappeared.

Picking wild mushrooms, whether commercial or for personal use, is best left to those who know the difference between edible and toxic varieties.

Ramon Ayala of Eugene has been picking and selling mushrooms in the area for about 20 years. By trade he's a construction worker, but starting this year he's picking mushrooms full time, preferring to work in the woods.

Ayala said he can make up to $1,000 a month. But success depends almost entirely on what the weather spawns.

"You don't know what you'll be finding today," he said. "It might be today you find the mother lode, or you just fill one basket."

The season also can suffer from reckless harvest techniques, Ayala said. He has witnessed less-experienced pickers pulling up the underground part of the fungi, which damages the organism and decreases the potential yield.

Miller said the BLM tries to teach pickers about sound harvesting techniques as well as draw attention to related problems. Some commercial pickers, she said, leave a lot of garbage behind, prompting the BLM to issue them trash bags to take into the woods.

"I've gone as far as to threaten to not issue them permits," Miller said.

Another major concern is whether pickers have a valid permit. Some try to get by without one, but it's costly if they're caught. Last year, a Eugene-based BLM ranger confiscated 135 pounds of mushrooms from three pickers who had no permits. The BLM made more than $300 selling the mushrooms, and the pickers each received a $250 citation.

"Once one person gets a ticket in a certain area, word spreads fast," Miller said. "It brings a lot more people in to get a permit, for fear of getting caught."

Buyers are required by state law to ask pickers to show they have a valid BLM or U.S. Forest Service permit, or a letter of permission from the landowner if the mushrooms are from private land, said Dennis Morgan, the owner of Janine's Mushrooms.

Morgan is paying $4 a pound for chanterelles, and good pickers bring in 60 to 80 pounds a day.

CAPTION(S):

Epi Orduno (left) and Bruce Maldonado have their chanterelle mushrooms graded and weighed at Janine's Mushrooms in Cottage Grove. The fungus harvest has quadrupled since 1996 as demand grows. Pickers gathered more than 23,000 pounds from the forest in the latest fiscal year.
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Title Annotation:Environment; Great growing conditions and plentiful pickers bring a bountiful crop
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 7, 2003
Words:911
Previous Article:BUSINESS BEAT.
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