Stewards or Profiteers: Selling The Wild

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I’ve only been foraging for about eight years but lately I’ve noticed a growing number of newly enthused “wildcrafting” entrepreneurs (with considerably less experience) selling their wares. So imagine my surprise when a local wildcrafter recently insinuated I had succumbed to forager’s greed because I had picked a pound of Salal berries (I wanted to freeze some for winter). And when another wildcrafter stated that he and his ilk had a more enlightened approach to stewardship of the land – as opposed to the forager’s clear-cutting ways and take, take, take mentality – I was further taken aback. Because both seemed oblivious to the irony that by wildcrafting (for money) they were taking considerably more than their fair share.

I’m not sure how foraging got such a bad name. Once cat tail luvin’ dandelion eatin’ foragers like Euell Gibbons were considered to be the very epitome of a natural conservationist. And all the self called foragers I have had the pleasure to meet were sober, conscientious nature loving people – and the first to emphasize to me the importance of stewarding the land. Confusing what I do (foraging for myself and my loved ones) with commercial foraging is part of the problem.  Foraging is about free food – not commerce. Because once you take what the earth provides us for free and sell it for profit – that’s business, that’s agriculture.

And for those who want to keep wild food out of the industrialized food system, this is no small point. Because it is agriculture (as it is currently practiced) that is responsible for our food crisis, the destruction of natural habitats, the poisoning of our land and water, not foragers. Sound extreme?

Consider that once all our ancestors were foragers, they roamed over the land gathering food freely provided by mother nature. But with agriculture came a new idea, staying in one place to ‘work’ the land. And food went from being a ‘gift’ of the earth – to a ‘product’ of human knowledge, craft and labor. A commodity to be bought, sold and earned by the sweat of our brow. (For more on this see The Why of Spring Nettle Pie.)

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Foraging was a good lifestyle compared to early farming, which according to Jacob L. Weisdorf of the Institute of Economics, University of Copenhagen “was back breaking, time consuming, and labor intensive.” Hunter gatherer societies were healthier, had more leisure time than their farming counterparts – and more food. In fact a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated farming produced only about three-fifths of the food gained from foraging.

This spurred Jack R. Harlan, one of the great pioneers of historical ecology to ask what has become a famous question -why farm? “Why give up the 20-hour work week and the fun of hunting in order to toil in the sun? Why work harder, for food less nutritious and a supply more capricious? Why invite famine, plague, pestilence and crowded living conditions?”

Why indeed.

Weisdorf believes the prehistoric shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture was “ultimately necessary to the rise of modern civilization by creating the foundation for the later process of industrialization and sustained economic growth.”

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In other words agriculture led to food surplus which led to the accumulation of material wealth, and as populations and farms got bigger -the control of the food supply (and it’s profits) somehow fell into fewer and fewer hands. And along the way whole bio-regional food systems were destroyed and replaced by a handful of genetically uniform, high-yielding monocrops ( i.e. rice, corn, soy and wheat) owned by a handful of mega-corporations today.

Now I’m not advocating we give up the city and wander the forests. Of course we can’t return to past. Foraging will not feed our populations. But in tandem with community gardens, urban farms, boulevard gardens and food forests – foraging might go a long way in improving our diets and our relationship with nature. And not just pristine nature “out there” in remote national parks, but the immediate nature that exists outside our front door.

Scottish forager Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods reminds us that the vast majority of foraging for plants or fruits isn’t conducted in the wilderness but closer to home, in liminal zones between the wild and the domestic, for what are commonly considered “weeds”. These “superabundant” plants Williams points out “rot by tons” in urban and suburban neighborhoods each year. He defines superabundant as “meaning if everybody within walking distance gathered enough for their personal consumption each year, under 1% of a species would actually be harvested.” He adds, “of course less than 1% of everybody is actually interested in harvesting these species.”

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Which is why I’m working to organize a series of urban foraging walks in my neighborhood. I’m hoping that by getting people enthused about making their own Acorn bread, Dandelion Pesto or Salal Berry Crumble  they might become more concerned about the spraying of our parks and city streets with toxic chemicals. Maybe they’d even begin to have a personal stake in stewarding the nature that surrounds them?

I’m hoping that once we realize we can get enough food from our neighborhood to actually meaningfully supplement the nutritional needs of our neighborhood (meaning there would always be just enough wild chamomile tea to go around) maybe we’d begin to find a way towards a new kind of sustainable agriculture, an “agri-hood” in which communities, in harmony with their local environments, can feed themselves.

But of course, there is a proverbial fly in the ointment. Because what happens when some enterprising individual sees his or her neighborhood bounty not as a communal resource to be shared but as a personal one to be exploited for profit? What if she want to ‘wildcraft’ more than her share of the nettle stalks for her woven baskets? What if he wants harvest all the chanterelles to sell to high priced food markets? Will he or she begin to hire ‘commercial’ foragers to meet economic demand? You get my drift.

Wildcrafters say what they do is about much more than just gathering food. They see themselves as adding value to raw product by weaving together history, art, spirituality, ecology, storytelling, and intentional action. They want to deepen our relationship with the natural world. Sounds good. But I worry (however they choose to go about it) that the selling of wild goods minimizes community self reliance, encourages passive consumption, and boosts consumer demand – and not for the better.

Here in BC wild mushrooms have become big business, supplying markets in China and around the world, and this has resulted in a number of criminal incidents. Quebec banned the harvest of ramps (wild leeks) after hordes of commercial harvesters were discovered to be threatening the species.

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In Quebec, NorCliff Farms Inc. processes about 60,000 tonnes of fiddleheads a day, foraged from forests in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, as well as the northeastern United States. Meaning a fiddlehead picked in New Brunswick, processed in Quebec and sold in Ontario could have journeyed thousands of miles by the time it makes it to your plate.

So is selling wild food truly sustainable? Tim Brigham of the Centre for Non-Timber Resources at Royal Roads University on Vancouver Island, believes so. He states in a Globe and Mail article “You’ve got people who are aware of how to harvest properly and others who just want to make a buck.” Mr. Brigham believes that certified wildcrafters can commercially harvest wild foods in way that preserves ecosystems. He is part of a group working to create wildcrafting guidelines and a national network of sustainable harvesters. “There are some wild foods that you could have everybody in the country eating and it could be sustainable,” he says, such as Saskatoon berries and wild raspberries.

Mr. Brigham may be right – time will tell. I hope so. (See Gathercommunity supported foraging initiative) But as the popularity of wild food grows so will competition for these ‘resources’. What happens if demand for wild raspberries takes off like ramps or fiddleheads  – where will we draw the line? Will morally elevated wildcrafters agree to cap their earnings? To cap their harvests? How will they navigate the gray ethical area between running a business (which is about profit) and care-taking the land?

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If some wildcrafters want to define themselves apart from foragers – fine, but insinuating foragers are guilty of pillaging the land, well, it seems a wee bit like the pot calling the kettle black. Seeing wild food as a communal resource to be freely shared has the potential to reshape the way we eat, farm and interact with the natural world. Making wild food a commodity isn’t going to change anything, much less protect it from exploitation

And if wildcrafters are truly interested in promoting stewardship, is selling off the last remnants of the wild- really the best way to do so? I’m not sure, but as a forager my ethical bottom line is taking only what I need for myself, my loved ones, and my community, no more. And even then I worry I may be taking too much, because finding the sustainable balance is difficult enough without commerce entering the picture.

5 thoughts on “Stewards or Profiteers: Selling The Wild

  1. BEAUTIFUL. I love the way you said this. I also lead Wild Edible & Medicinal Walks, and I stress that you must harvest ethically (never more than 1/3 of what’s there, and skip by if you see it’s already been harvested), and to share this information with people, anyone who will listen. I’m frequently offering to gift wild foods and medicines, and the only time I’ve ever “sold” them was once at a market (for $2 bags of Lance-Leaf Plantain, St John’s Wort, and a few others), more as a discussion point about the Walks and to show that these things have real value!

    Thank you for speaking out about this 🙂

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  2. Thanks for this very thoughtful posting.

    I also don’t take a mercenary approach to foraging.

    For me, it is much more enjoyable to freely share of Nature’s bounty with others than to attempt to sell it (or hoard it for myself).

    BTW – I donate 100 % of the proceeds from the sale of my foraging book, Wild Plants I Have Known…and Eaten, to the land trust that published it, in gratitude for the fact that they allow responsible foraging as a permitted activity on all their properties that are open to the public.

    One of the things I love about foraging is that it is one of a relatively few pursuits that need not involve a financial transaction of any kind: it’s just you, out in the woods, fields, etc. joyfully connecting to nature by nibbling on wild nuts, berries, etc.

    Unfortunately, though, as wild-gathered ingredients are increasingly monetized and commodified, I have seen damage to native wild plants and their sensitive habitats due to unscrupulous, commercially-driven harvesting, e.g., to meet the burgeoning demand of high-end chefs and produce markets – see the blog posting http://boston.eater.com/2012/3/29/6600973/whats-wrong-with-the-ramp-craze-and-how-to-fix-it for a further elaboration on this issue.

    So I try to instill a strong conservation ethic in all participants in my foraging programs. I explain that I teach foraging not so they can read a fancy restaurant menu better, but so that they themselves will be emboldened to go outside and find, collect and eat the wild edibles on their own, without an intermediary.

    Thanks again –

    Russ Cohen

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