Love them or hate them, on a burger or in a salad, mushrooms are one of the most sustainable foods people can eat.
With Oregon’s wet, temperate climate, which is ideal for mushrooms, the state plays a key role in the industry. But according to University of Oregon senior environmental studies major Becca Marshall, commercial wild mushroom pickers in Oregon may not be getting the support they need from forest managers to continue growing the industry.
Earlier this year, the Humanities Undergraduate Research Fellowship awarded Marshall a $2,500 grant to conduct her research into how forest management policies in the Willamette National Forest affect wild mushroom pickers.
“I got into this research because I was personally interested in mushrooms,” Marshall said. “The idea that the mushrooms we eat are just the fruit of this potentially huge underground network.” Marshall finds it fascinating that the single largest organism in the world is the parasitic honey fungus in Oregon’s Blue Mountains.
A significant part of her research is gathering data by talking with as many mushroom pickers as she can to understand if they face unnecessary barriers in their work. She says has learned that pickers often face difficulties getting the correct permits and sometimes they are not notified of crucial Forest Service road closures in a timely manner. She says that people in the industry also worry about timber-centric management activities that destroy the best mushroom patches like tree thinning and clear cutting.
Mushroom cultivation doesn’t require high amounts of land or water, and it has a low carbon footprint. According to a study conducted by the research and advocacy group Environmental Working Group and the environmental firm CleanMetrics, farmed salmon and beef emit 5.4 and 12.3 pounds of carbon dioxide respectively for every pound consumed, where as a pound of cultivated mushrooms only emits 0.7 pounds of carbon dioxide. The mushroom industry in the U.S. is also rapidly growing as more people have expanded their palates to include the fungi and demand abroad is increasing, according to a report by Zion Market Research.
Marshall’s project, which is now in it’s second term, is primarily concerned with understanding how well forest managers follow environmental justice guidelines set out in the National Environmental Policy Act to manage for the cultivation of non-timber products such as mushrooms. Under these guidelines, managers must try to recognize the cultural, social and economic impacts any proposed action may have, and they must allow for the public to be included in a dialogue about policy.
Marshall says that many mushroom pickers in Oregon are immigrants from Southeast Asia or Central America or are first generation Americans. She says they bring with them a rich cultural tradition and knowledge of mushrooms.
The mushroom industry is also seasonal, and many pickers are migrant workers. They follow the “mushroom trail,” which starts in British Columbia in the late summer, follows warmer weather in Washington and Oregon in September and October and ends in California in December where many of them spend the winter.
Oregon has a long history of producing timber products, but the seasonal nature of the mushroom industry and language barriers between pickers and managers, inclusive dialogues about policy are often hard to achieve.
But Marshall says the National Forest Service could be trying harder to include the voices of people in this lucrative industry. “Harvesting mushrooms and other non-timber forest products provide an economic alternative to timber, which is something I think the Forest Service should focus on to create greater biodiversity within the forest and to manage it more equitably for everyone. Not just focusing on managing for powerful timber companies” Marshall said.
Marshall says the Forest Service primarily manages for timber and often disregards the economic benefits a thriving mushroom industry can bring.
“I’m not trying to demonize the Forest Service,” Marshall said. “They also face challenges that make supporting the pickers hard.” The Forest Service has a budget that changes annually so they don’t always have the stability necessary to maintain connections the with mushroom picking community.
Marshall says she hopes that her research will illuminate the predicaments many mushroom pickers find themselves in to earn a living in this culturally-significant and economically-beneficial industry. She wants the Forest Service start researching how they can better support the mushroom industry on their own.
“As of now, my long-term plan is to pursue a career in sustainable agriculture research and policy,” Marshall said. After graduating UO, she wants to take the skills she has learned in her research to the Peace Corps community gardens and agroforestry program in West African country The Gambia.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that mushrooms do not contain any protein. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, white mushrooms contain 0.6 grams of protein for every 18 grams.