News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

The forest is a productive ‘farm’

It’s easy to forget that the Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture. Our forests are the largest farms in the country, producing dozens of harvestable crops — trees primarily. In our own Sisters District of the Deschutes National Forest, over $13,000 was collected in May alone for permits to harvest inside its borders for items other than trees.

Chief among those are pine cones and mushrooms. The Nugget accompanied Jeremy Fields, the special forest products officer, as he made his rounds of checking on permittees, those authorized to harvest. Our first visit was alongside Tollgate, where Maria Guadalupe and her crew were gathering cones at a voracious rate. They fill hundreds of 37-gallon clear plastic bags a day, each holding four to five bushels of cones.

Over a month-long period, they will harvest upward of 2 million cones. And they are but one of several contractors or permit holders farming the cones. There is nothing mechanized about it, all back-breaking stoop work. Although Maria, who lives in the Willamette Valley and has been farming cones in Sisters for 35 years, has resorted to a leaf blower to corral the sharp-pointed critters that will end up as holiday or cinnamon-scented candle adornments shipped all over the world.

She likes coming to Sisters, having a vast choice of where to pick.

“Everybody is so nice to us here,” she said. “Hikers and bikers wave to us and often stop and say hello.”

“Anybody can pick cones or pretty much anything in the forest — with limits,” Fields said.

Free permits allow a picker to collect four bushels a day, a bushel being about the size of a laundry basket. Want more than four bushels? Well, that’ll cost you $20 for a 10-day no-limit permit or $100 for 60 days, no limit. Per picker.

Contract pickers, like Guadalupe, negotiate a season agreement with Fields on behalf of the District. Twenty-two thousand acres are set aside for farming the forest. This saves both parties the time and administrative cost of having to get a slew of individual permits.

Given the size of commercial operators like Guadalupe, industrial camping permits are also issued for her and her crews, who spend months every year in the woods sleeping in tents. Fields, who is also a FPO — forest protection officer — has among his many tasks keeping campers and permittees within compliance of Forest rules and regulations.

Ponderosa cones are the ideal size and color for wreaths, boughs, garlands, bird feeders, woodworking, and medicinal teas and tinctures. Guadalupe and her crew are looking only for grade A cones, meaning basically flawless and which work well for full displays. B-grade cones look good from one viewing angle but are flawed on one or more sides.

Medium cones such as are more typical in the Sisters District are three inches to four inches, and sell in bulk by wholesalers for $290 per thousand, a far cry from what the pickers get. On Amazon and eBay, ponderosa cones routinely sell for 50 cents to $1 each, with free shipping.

Northwest Wreath Company in Gresham is one of the largest pine cone buyers in Oregon. They sell only wholesale to customers worldwide including Europe and Asia. Pine cones are a large cash crop, albeit without any reliable estimates of sales volume.

Our next stop was “mushroom camp” just on the edge of Camp Sherman. For a few months every May and June, dozens of professional mushroom pickers comb the forest under Fields’ supervision rounding up chanterelles, matsutakes, morels, and oyster mushrooms, with morels being the dominant variety by far.

Morels fetch up to $100 per pound in restaurants. Most of our Deschutes National Forest-harvested mushrooms will end up in Asia by way of Washington, where buyers camped with the pickers will send them once dried.

The vast majority of Deschutes National Forest permittees are themselves of Asian descent. Sam Sene, whose family origin is Lao, has been buying and drying area mushrooms for 20 years. Notwithstanding their high value, Sene describes the comradery among pickers and buyers.

“We all know and trust each other,” he said. “There’s plenty for everybody.”

Sene and Fields both gave praise for this year’s abundant crop made favorable by a wetter and cooler spring. Perhaps surprising, areas recently burned are prime territory. Fire agitates the soil and shocks morels into fruiting two or three years later. Mushroom Camp is at the perfect elevation. Any higher, and it’s too cold for these delicacies.

Camp is an apt definition with four- to eight-person tents neatly organized around the perimeter. Covered by an industrial camping permit, permit holders can actually dry their harvest with regulated wood- stoves located inside the tent walls but vented to the outside.

In order for the Forest Service to maintain good data and best management practices, you need a permit — albeit free — to hunt mushrooms in our forest. Help yourself (with permit and harvest area map in your possession) to two gallons per day for 10 days of picking. Commercial picking is $2/day per picker with a 10-day minimum or $100 for an annual permit.

Fields reminds us that these are public lands and citizens can harvest any number of edible or wood products from Christmas trees to native plants to firewood and more. Just be helpful and get the right permits, which usually come with a bushel of free, helpful guidance.


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