Aloune and Dao grew up in Laos. During the Vietnam war, their families sided with the Americans. When the Americans lost the war, Aloune and Dao had to flee to Thailand and then to the U.S. where they found themselves victim of discrimination when it came time to find work. They were among the first people, in the 1980s, to quit their dead-end jobs to start picking wild mushrooms. Soon, thousands of Lao, Cambodian, Hmong and Mien refugees joined them, and the seasonal mushroom camps became lively with Asian food and music. Aloune and Dao spend about 9 months of the year on the road, traveling between Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, and sometimes even Alaska. In the spring and summer they live either in a tent or in a small cargo trailer. In the fall and winter they live in a few different motels.
The burn morel season is the most lucrative, but the Forest Service constantly denies access to commercial pickers. Some pickers go underground, and the rangers sometimes turn a blind eye. But it is not as easy for the Asian and Latino pickers to keep a low profile in rural America. So every year Dao has to decide if he will break the law and risk getting a ticket, or go to a more crowded, permitted burn (if one is available). Aloune used to pick alongside Dao, but as she’s getting older she can’t follow him anymore. All her income is now made from buying mushrooms for a distributor, but she hasn’t had a steady agreement with a distributor for many years. She recently renewed ties with one of the major managers and hopes to buy for him this coming season.
Francisco came in the U.S. in the late 1980s trying to escape poverty from Mexico. He was then labeled “illegal” by the U.S. government and denied the right to work. He joined the pool of cheap labor on which many sectors of the U.S. economy depends. He started picking mushrooms and salal—a wild evergreen shrub used in the floral industry—in the early 1990s. He loved his newly found independence. He married an American woman, with whom he had two children, and he started buying mushrooms for a distributor. Francisco lives in a small town in the Pacific Northwest where he now harvests and buys salal for about 8 months of the year. For two months in the fall, he stops buying salal to concentrate on the chanterelle mushroom season. Almost all of the pickers he buys from are Guatemelan, many of them recent immigrants fleeing extreme poverty like he did. He helps them adjust to their new life in the U.S. by showing them a skill where they can be independent workers. He also owns two houses and rent rooms to some of them, as well as several vans which he let them use for a daily fee. But salal and chanterelles bring just enough money to get by. The bulk of their income comes from burn morels. So Francisco takes a crew or two every summer to travel around the Northwest, “chasing the burns.”
Chris Florence’s life is centered on food. Married with three kids, he has multiple jobs at any given time to make ends meet. He cooked for years in high-end restaurants in Boise, the Bay Area, Seattle, and Lake Tahoe, but always struggled to pay rent. He began picking mushrooms part-time in 2002 and went full-time a few years later. He started a small organic farm, but his income from foraging was what really kept it afloat. The lack of community support forced him to give up the farm. Disillusioned by careerism and the “workplace” culture as a whole, foraging became a way for him to provide a better quality of life to his family. He now makes his living picking, buying, and selling wild edibles. As a small business owner he strives to pay the best price to the pickers, but he often gets pressured by bigger distributors to bring the price down. Chris is greatly frustrated by the way the Forest Service manages the resource. When his offer to help them plan the 2017 morel season falls on deaf hears, he is torn between challenging them to open more ground, or to go under the radar.