Valley Bounty: Feeding off the land: New England Wild Edibles turned foraging into a business

By JACOB NELSON

For the Recorder

Published: 05-22-2023 1:42 PM

‘It grew out of walking in the woods and being hungry for knowledge – and also good things to eat.”

That’s how Paul Lagreze describes the birth of his business, New England Wild Edibles. Purveyors of wild plants and fungi from the fields and forests of western Massachusetts, they also cultivate mushrooms on a tract of land in Heath. They show that both local farming and foraging have a role in feeding people. And in some cases, the line between those things isn’t so clear.

Lagreze’s introduction to foraging came working as a young farm intern in Pennsylvania, gathering wild stinging nettles that were used to make biodynamic farming preparations.

“Later I was living near Ithaca, New York,” he says, “and I saw these beautiful mushrooms growing on the side of a tree. With a guidebook I identified them as oyster mushrooms, which I learned I could pick, cook and eat. Through experiences like this, I saw the possibilities as well as the dangers of foraging.”

Indeed, humans have fed themselves from wild landscapes for millennia, surviving with a healthy sense of caution and respect for sustainable harvest. The same lessons apply for modern foragers, lest they eat something harmful or overharvest, damaging the ecosystem and its ability to feed people in the future.

This time of year brings a resurgence of forageable food to local landscapes. Fiddleheads, the tender, curled up heads of some ferns, and ramps, a wild allium related to onions, are among the most well-known. Nutritious leafy greens like nettles and garlic mustard spring onto the scene too, as do the year’s first mushrooms.

“Fiddlehead season is pretty much over,” says Lagreze, “though we’ll have ramps until warmer weather makes them die back. For mushrooms, morels are in season now, chanterelles usually appear in June, and then the floodgates open for a lot of species popping up, assuming we get regular rain.”

That assumption, though, is not a sure bet. As climate change fuels increasingly variable weather patterns, the steadier temperature and rainfall conditions that most wild fungi thrive in are interrupted by extremes.

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“Fungi have been around for millions of years and are very adaptable,” says Lagreze, “but there’s no denying that the climate situation has affected them. When conditions aren’t right, they’ll just wait to fruit.”

While that’s a fine strategy for wild fungi, it’s difficult for a business that relies on selling mushrooms. That’s why several years ago New England Wild Edibles started farming shiitake mushrooms too.

The way they cultivate mushrooms is as much forestry as farming. Step one is collecting recently cut logs or woodchips. Lagreze grows shiitakes primarily on oak logs, or sometimes sugar maple. Other mushrooms prefer different species.

Logs are harvested in the late winter when the tree is dormant, then sit for a few weeks before mushroom inoculation. If inoculated too soon, the tree’s natural anti-fungal compounds may inhibit growth; too late, and other fungi may colonize the log and outcompete the shiitakes.

“You inoculate the logs by drilling several holes and filling them with a mix of sawdust and shiitake mycelium,” describes Lagreze. “Once that’s done, you wax over the holes so other fungus and bacteria don’t get in.”

Fungal mycelia are networks of filaments and biomass that spread through whatever material they’re growing in, harvesting energy and nutrients through decomposition. If you’ve broken open a rotting log and seen white tendrils spreading through the wood, those are probably fungal mycelia. These tissues carry out most of the organism’s life processes, while the mushrooms we eat are merely the reproductive parts that emerge when conditions are right.

Lagreze usually inoculates logs in the spring, then waits about a year to force them to flush, or produce mushrooms. “You do that by soaking them in a tank of cool water for several hours,” he says. “After five days you’ll start seeing mushrooms, and they’ll be mature enough to harvest in another five days or so.”

After harvesting, he rests a log for 6 to 8 weeks to regroup before forcing another flush. Most summers he can get three flushes per log, and most shiitake logs will stay in rotation for three years before production trails off.

This form of shiitake cultivation is one skill Lagreze teaches in hands-on workshops, in addition to other foraging and culinary topics. His next will be Saturday, May 20, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. through the Leverett Library, followed by a foraging walk on Saturday, June 3rd from 10 a.m. to noon. He also teaches foraging and mushroom cultivation classes at Greenfield Community College.

Lagreze now has about 1,000 shiitake logs in production, though he’s had as many as 5,000. While less hands-on than some crops, “there’s still a bunch of labor,” he says. “Moving logs, irrigating or covering them to keep them drier – never mind the drilling and filling to inoculate.”

In contrast to the tightly controlled indoor facilities that grow most commercial mushrooms, New England Wild Edibles grows outdoors, with stacks of inoculated logs sheltered under tree cover. This approach, which Lagreze describes as forest farming and likens to the philosophies of permaculture and organic farming, relies on natural systems to provide some of what crops need – in this case trees providing shade and moderating moisture and temperature – while acknowledging the risks and quirks of relinquishing some control.

New England Wild Edibles’ main sales outlet is the Northampton Tuesday Farmers Market, held every Tuesday from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m. in the plaza behind Thorne’s Marketplace. Currently they’re selling their own shiitakes along with foraged varieties and cultivated mushrooms from Mycoterra Farm in South Deerfield, like lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms.

“We also have ramps, nettles, lots of wild greens like sorrels, dandelion and purslane, watercress and Japanese knotweed,” says Lagreze.

They also carry tinctures of medicinal mushrooms, and other wild foods that Lagreze sources from like-minded foragers.

“During good mushroom seasons, I’ll supply some stores and restaurants too,” he adds. Longtime buyers include the Gypsy Apple Bistro and Blue Rock Café, both in Shelburne Falls, The Dirty Truth in Northampton, Waxwing Cafe in Hatfield, and Franklin Community Co-op’s two stores: Green Fields Market in Greenfield and McCusker’s Market in Shelburne Falls.

“To me,” says Lagreze, “it’s so joyful to provide and teach people about the great edible things that grow right in front of us. For people that want to spend some time and do it sustainably, you can get delicious results.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more and find wild harvested local foods for sale near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

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