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Taking a walk on the wild side… can yield hidden treasures

By TONY KRYZANOWSKI

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From July/August 2014

Are edible wild foods the next big nutritional trend? An Alberta couple thinks so and with a little planning and education, they have shown that harvesting foods such as edible wild mushrooms has the potential to develop into a new income source for small farm owners.

Like a boutique versus a supermarket, the key to success is to find plentiful and valuable edible wild foods right in one’s backyard, thereby making the effort worthwhile.

Eric and Michelle Whitehead, who own a St. Albert, Alberta-based company called Untamed Feast have discovered that harvesting and selling the much sought-after morel mushroom that grows in forests throughout Canada can be profitable.

“They are the most desired wild mushroom in the world next to French truffles,” says Michelle. “I think it is also just because they are rare; they look different, they taste different and their texture is quite unique. People really respond to them.”

They haven’t limited their picking to morels. They work from a list of edible and marketable wild mushrooms they may encounter on their many treasure hunting trips to the bush. An important aspect to what this couple does is to focus on ‘non-cultivatable’ mushrooms, meaning that they won’t grow outside their wild environment. This makes all the difference on the rarity scale from a marketing perspective. Today, the company’s sales of non-cultivatable wild mushrooms and mushroom-based products are growing, with the foundation of their business being the morel.

For the Whiteheads, the task of planning wild mushroom harvesting trips is now a daily priority because of the volume they need to harvest to meet demand. But they started out small 13 years ago, marketing their crops at local Farmers Markets and over the Internet.

What began as a side endeavor for Eric and Michelle has developed into a full-blown, successful, point of purchase and Internet business that even one of the investors on CBC’s television program, Dragons’ Den, couldn’t resist. They recently made a pitch on the show and are near signing a deal with Calgary entrepreneur, Arlene Dickinson, who believes that wild food will take hold in the marketplace and is willing to back it up with substantial marketing dollars.

“First it was organic, and then it was local, and we do believe that wild is the next trend,” says Michelle.

Integrating a mushroom picking and marketing venture within a small farm operation is possible given the location of many farms. A good mushroom picking location could be as close as across the fence. Over time and with practice, enthusiasts like Eric and Michelle have identified prime locations for certain wild mushroom varieties and the best time of year to harvest them.

The most widely marketed morel, the black morel, looks like a miniature spruce tree and ironically, tends to grow in amongst the roots of these conifers. Where they really propagate is in fire-burns the year after a fire, typically in late spring.

“There is a tremendous amount of preparation months in advance of the spring season to figure out where the morels are going to be,” says Michelle. “It’s not a guarantee but a forest fire is definitely a strong indicator … we’re really quite nomadic in the sense that we are always hunting.”

Picking morel mushrooms comes with a warning because there are non-edible ‘false’ morels that harvesters need to avoid. So spending some time with a person very knowledgeable in picking and preparing edible wild mushrooms is highly recommended before traipsing out to the bush in search of a cash crop.

“My rule of thumb is that if you are searching for mushrooms with a book in your hand you shouldn’t be eating them,” says Eric.

He has expert knowledge about all sorts of natural forest commodities, including many varieties of edible and non-cultivatable mushrooms. He is a registered herbalist and an advisor to a group called The Rural Opportunities Network. He spends considerable time in the bush harvesting wild mushrooms.

Eric grew up in the Chilcotin region of rural British Columbia. He later worked in forestry where he discovered the wealth of wild products growing in the forest, and their harvesting and marketing potential, by learning where they are most likely to grow and planning harvesting trips accordingly. His interest in wild mushrooms took hold working with his father to harvest the highly valued pine mushroom, or matsutake, when it was selling for $100 per pound.

Michelle was raised on a Prairie farm, where harvesting edible forest species like mushrooms and berries is a common practice. They began working at the business casually in 2007, and it has now grown into their primary income.

“We started selling to high end restaurants. Then we got into food and craft shows as a way to get people to start eating these foods in their own kitchens,” says Michelle. “There is a demand for it and people are interested; 2012 was our first year working at it full-time.”

The couple hasn’t put all their proverbial eggs in one basket by depending entirely on morels. They also harvest chanterelle and porcini mushrooms. How they market their mushrooms is also diverse. While they do sell them in raw form as dried product using wood heat exclusively to dry them, they also sell a forest blend of several edible mushroom varieties and also mushroom-based products such as mushroom gravy, porcini risotto, wild mushroom soup, morel coconut rice and chanterelle arroz.

They also haven’t limited themselves to harvesting mushrooms.

“We’re very clear now that we want to be a patron of all things wild,” Michelle adds. “We’re not just going to stop with mushrooms. We’re going to get into berries, and stinging nettle is already in some of our mushroom-based products.”

Eric adds that the grand vision for the company is to build the Untamed Feast brand by developing a variety of wild food products that may contain some of the wild foods that they harvest and to make the products accessible to a broader market. That’s where they feel that Arlene Dickinson will provide a lot of assistance.

Canadian wild foods association being formed

The paperwork has been filed to establish a Canadian Wild Foods Association for businesses and individuals who have a vested interest in harvesting the country’s wild food crops.

One of the main purposes of this non-profit society will be to offer industry support in both training and certifying industry employees. The fledgling society is working with Royal Roads University to develop a certification process for harvesters.

The society could also intervene, investigate and advocate in situations where a forest activity could have a negative impact on areas where there has historically been wild food harvesting, to support an association member.

Working collectively will also create opportunities for members to collaborate on potentially developing wild food products that combine more than one wild food.

The society will promote the industry as sustainable and help individuals, particularly in rural areas, get started, in what has been described as an evolving industry in Canada versus other parts of the world.

Getting To Know the Morchella Conica or Black Morel

The morchella conica, commonly known as the black morel is the most marketed variety of this wild edible mushroom species in the world.

It grows throughout Canada only in the wild in natural forests and in areas where a forest fire has occurred in previous years.

According to Untamed Feast co-owner, Eric Whitehead, the black morel one of several morel species, is generally the first morel that will appear in spring. While black in colour, this same variety will take on a blond or grey appearance later in the season and even have a green tinge later in the year for reasons science has yet to explain.

These morels should not be confused with the verpa bohemica or ‘early morel’ as it is called in some places, which tend to have a much longer stem and smaller cap. These are semi-toxic, but are also highly desirable in some global markets and non-toxic when prepared properly.

Nor should they be confused with the gyromitra mushroom variety or ‘false morels’, which are also toxic unless prepared properly.

There are good written and online resources to learn more about edible, wild mushrooms that grow in Canada. For written resources, Eric recommends, All the Rain Promises? and Mushrooms Demystified both by David Arora.

Good online resources include www.mushroomexpert.com and websites operated by local mycological societies. The Edmonton Mycological Society also conducts field visits with experts to discuss various topics related to identifying and harvesting edible wild mushrooms. Eric says that a number of provinces have their own mycological societies worth checking out.

Another good resource is the Untamed Feast website at www.untamedfeast.com which has a large number of videos taken during harvesting field trips.