An untapped market in the North
Commercial harvests being planned for this summer

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 31/00) - Mushroom harvesting is an industry tailor-made to the North.

Without any human involvement, morel mushrooms spring from forest-fire ravaged areas the year after the burn. With rudimentary knowledge and tools, anyone willing to camp in the bush during the summer and pick morels can cash in.

"It's available for everybody," said Bob Bromley, an environmentalist and member of Ecology North who is considering running a commercial harvest this summer.

"It's easily done by young folks, like students, right up through to the older folks, who might have more stamina to pick for a longer time but who don't want to run so fast."

A report done on a pilot harvest project at Tibbitt Lake last year indicates less than one per cent of NWT morels are harvested.

The Yukon has been on the morel bandwagon for some time now. Despite low prices, in 1996 about $1.5 million in morels were harvested, from a burn near Pelly Crossing, for sale in Europe. Last year, with prices twice as high, a much smaller burn near Fox Lake yielded the same export revenue.

The biggest player in the 1996 harvest was the Selkirk First Nation. The burn occurred on traditional Selkirk land, and the band organized pickers and set up drying and buying stations.

"You have an advantage the same way we do," said Tony Hill, an agronomist for the Yukon government's Department of Renewable Resources. "In Europe our morels are thought of quite highly. We have a very pristine environment."

In an attempt to maintain that market advantage, Joachim Obst, one of the authors of a report on last year's Tibbitt Lake harvest, has been carrying out testing on contamination in morels for a report due out next spring.

"Just to be precautious, people shouldn't pick beside roads, or mine tailings or even communities," said Obst. He recommends no morels be picked within one kilometre of any roads.

Obst and Brown reported that 10 buyers from Canada, the U.S. and Europe visited last year's Tibbitt Lake harvest. After checking out the quality of the morels there, the buyers requested a total of 15,000 to 30,000 kilograms of dried morels. At $320 per kilogram, that export would be worth $4.8 to $9.6 million.

The report on last year's project suggested that it would be perfectly feasible to fly small groups of people into remote burns to pick and dry morels on the spot.

That's the kind of venture Bromley is considering for this summer.

"It's a pretty exciting new industry," he said.

"I view it as just one example of the sorts of potential that we have that are being completely ignored in the face of rampant non-renewable resource development."

Morel prices last summer per kilogram paid by North American buyers for dried morels from Tibbitt Lake in 1999:

June: $110-175; July: $217-239; August: $320; September: $550

Mushroom prices are extremely volatile but follow a general trend of being lowest at the start of the season and topping out in the fall. Part of the reason for this trend, said Joachim Obst, is mushroom pickers are hard up for cash at the start of the season and therefore more willing to sell at lower prices.