In the Northwest, the supply chain for wild mushrooms--which can fetch upwards of $100 a pound in Paris or Tokyo--invariably begins on a dirty folding table on the side of a backwoods highway.
Stationed at his buying stand near an autoparts store in Twisp, B Oeun explains how he got into the mushroom business. “I was a badass,” B says. “I got kicked out of high school, then my dad took me to the woods—and I actually liked it.”
With baggy jeans and his ponytail tucked under a backwards hat, Oeun still looks the part more than twenty years later. At first, he says a stout criminal record kept him from getting work outside the forest. Now, he’s committed to a life on the road.
“Basically, you’re just chasing,” he says. “Wherever the mushroom becomes good, that’s where you’re going to go.” His wife, Mollie Yen, says she’s missed every birthday and family gathering for two years running: “Christmas, birthdays, Thanksgivings, Mother’s Day…so yeah, it’s a little hard.”
She’s Thai, and he’s Cambodian: both are from immigrant families with deep roots in the foraging business. They met when he was picking and she was buying during a recent morel harvest in Alaska. Now, they man a roving buy station together, punctuating their work with light beer.
Both field phone calls constantly: cell phones are a tool to nudge both supply and demand. The boss—Mollie’s brother—calls from the West side to set the orders and the buying price; Mollie and B check with pickers on prices in the field.
Right now, they’re paying $12 a pound. With three other buyers in town, though, they’re having trouble getting any mushrooms at all.
“Right now the competition is at 12.50 to 12.75,” Yen says. “It’s like bidding: they bumped it up.”
Mollie says new buyers eager to fulfill orders will pay more for the same product. But loyalty can trump price, and after a long wait, two battered pickups pull into the parking lot.
The importance of customer service becomes clear as a half dozen pickers start to unload. “I like you! I buy you Corona,” Mollie shouts to the group of Spanish speakers. B returns from his truck with a case of beer while Mollie gets out a new cell phone she bought for one of the pickers.
“These guys pick clean mushrooms,” she says as she begins to weigh and sort the morels. “A lot of new guys bring in too much trash--leaves, pine needles.”
The haul is impressive. $2,500 worth of morels change hands in about 10 minutes--and it’s an all-cash business. Stacked up in baskets, the mushrooms are as high as B’s head.
Arriving from Seattle, Marion Cypreth is delighted by what he sees beside B’s truck. “Damn!” he says. “These are 10 to 12 pound baskets?” Cypreth is another picker with an allegiance to B.
In his case, customer service was a $100 loan. “B loaned me $100 so I’d have gas to get up here and money for a permit. That’s how good a friend he is. That’s how we work together, so I’ll sell my mushrooms to him.”
“You have to have contacts,” Mollie explains. “If you don’t have your people, you won’t make any money.”
When business dies down, B paces the parking lot and keeps an eye on every truck that passes by.
B throws his hands up facing the road, but a white van passes without stopping nevertheless. “That’s Jesus!” B exclaims. “I know all of them, but they act like they don’t know me….matter of fact, I got his phone number, unless he changed it.”
These phone calls continue after dark, conveying prices along with gossip and intrigue. At one point, B calls the forest service with a tip: a competitor may be gaining an illegal advantage, buying mushrooms directly at the campsite where pickers sleep.
“It’s always like that in the mushroom world,” B shrugs. Over the years, he says he’s seen much worse. “There’s even gun battles in the woods. Sometimes, you go into the woods, you come back out, your tire’s popped. They cut your brake lines. Like I said, you don’t know who hates you out there.”
Tonight though, there’s no time to worry: B and Mollie have to drive their mushrooms 200 miles back to Seattle, where they’ll be shipped out to Europe and Asia. Tomorrow, they’ll do it all over again.
Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio