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A Mushrooming Business

In the forests of northern Michigan, an enterprising family harvests `edible wilds'. FOOD: WOODLAND BOUNTY

GERALD and Dianne Pierce have found a way to achieve economic success in the woods - without cutting trees or promoting development. In 1974, they moved from the Ann Arbor area to northern Michigan so their three children could grow up in a rural setting.

And when they first walked into the woods, they could not believe their eyes.

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``There were bushels and bushels of morels, but it was too late in the season, and they were too far gone,'' recalls Mrs. Pierce. The next year, they were ready.

``We ate all we wanted, we canned them, we dried them, we gave them away, we even picked them at night with flashlights!''

Soon it became known that the Pierces were extremely successful mushroom hunters. People knew their presence signaled mushrooms. ``It got so bad we had to hide our car,'' Dianne says.

In the end, the Pierces decided to share the bounty and make money doing it. For the past 10 years, they have made a business of harvesting ``edible wilds.''

``We gather anything wild and edible - mushrooms, berries, and spring greens,'' says Dianne. What started with a shipment of dried morel mushrooms to their first client, Joe's Restaurant in Reading, Pa., has grown into a family business that ships to 150 customers all over the country.

The Pierces live in Traunik, a tiny hamlet of about 35 inhabitants near Lake Superior in the central part of the Upper Peninsula. From their humble house on a crossroads near the Hiawatha National Forest, their business, called Superior Wild Mushrooms and Produce, supplies savory morels to a dealer in Burlington, Mass.; tender fiddlehead fern tips to a supermarket chain in Ohio; and pungent leek greens to a restaurant in Detroit.

The Pierces also sell plump, wild blueberries to a broker in New York City, and they have shipped produce to as far away as Belgium and Japan.

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``We have found that logging is not the only way to make a living from the woods,'' says Mr. Pierce.

The Pierces employ about 100 independent seasonal pickers, including Native Americans from the nearby Hannahville Indian Reservation and local teen-agers.

``Jobs are hard to come by around here, and our pickers depend on us,'' Dianne says. Pickers receive 50 percent of the gross, which can amount to as much as $20 an hour. All the hunting is done on private property, with permission.

The Pierces see their enterprise as a model for how to harvest from nature without damaging the environment. They consider their knowledge of the woods, what plants to collect and how, a fringe benefit to the workers. During the winter, they teach prospective workers what and how to collect; great care must be exercised in identifying edible mushrooms, for example. In the summer they guide field trips.

``We are very concerned that people don't harm the environment,'' says Dianne. ``We tell the pickers to leave several sprouts when they harvest fiddleheads, and to cut, not pull, mushrooms. We try to get the idea across that it is important not to destroy the forests, and that you don't have to cut trees to make money....''

The lesson is particularly appropriate in this state, where third-growth forest covers 90 percent of the Upper Peninsula, and developers are pitted against environmentalists to decide its fate.

Dianne and Gerald both grew up on farms in lower Michigan and started hunting for mushrooms when they were little kids.

``After we got married we got more interested, and Gerald started reading books about it. Alexander Smith, the author of `The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide,' lived near us, and Gerald asked him every question under the sun.''

The fact that mushroom hunting is now a job doesn't mean it is any less enjoyable.

``I just love to be in the woods,'' says Dianne, smiling. ``Every time we go, we learn something new. In spring, we often come across newborn fawns - and we have seen wolves!''

Gerald might walk 25 to 30 miles in a day or use an off-road vehicle to get into otherwise-inaccessible areas. During the summer, the Pierces use their camper for scouting. Their three grown children come to pick up the daily bounty for shipping.

Because of the geographic isolation of Traunik and the fragility of the produce, shipping is difficult and expensive. Dianne gets up at 3 a.m. to get the produce on the 4 o'clock morning flight and thus ship it at the coolest time and cheapest rate. Often two or three 90-mile round trips to the Marquette County Airport are necessary each day, and sometimes weekly, 13-hour round trips to the Chicago airport.

In a good year, the Pierces ship 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of a variety of mushrooms, giant puffball fungi, and more. In 1986, they shipped only 2,000 pounds, and last year was particularly dismal because of the drought.

``Mushrooms won't grow unless it rains and you can't irrigate the woods,'' says Dianne. ``Ferns didn't do well either.'' Even in a good year, their business is ``small potatoes'' compared to places like Oregon, where, according to Dianne, five plants process 15,000 pounds of chanterelles a day. But the Pierces are helped by the fact that the season in Upper Michigan trails behind; they can ship goods when the harvest on the East or West Coast is over.

While the wild-foods business is thriving in other parts of the country, the Pierces say they have difficulty getting loans to expand.

``If you go to a bank and tell them you want money to ship mushrooms, they think you are crazy,'' Dianne says, laughing.

Yet the business has been expanding. Gerald Pierce has been on disability leave recently from his job as a journeyman electrician, so he has more time to devote to this sideline. He says he likes nothing better than being ``a full-time woods bum.'' But the new situation does increase the pressure to make their business, which in the past has provided half their income, into a full-time job.

The Pierces expect fiddleheads (the tops of ostrich ferns) and leeks to be their main crop in the future, their ``bread and butter.'' Such wild vegetables have become popular, not only among natural food enthusiasts, but in gourmet circles and supermarkets as well.

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