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Cover story

The Great Alaskan Morel Rush of '05

Being the true story of intrepid pickers, cutthroat buyers, anxious distributors, curious scientists, conflicted locals and other denizens of the mushroom circuit, all of whom headed north in search of the mother lode

July 10, 2005|Nancy Rommelmann | Nancy Rommelmann last wrote for the magazine on home funerals and green burials.

Anyone traveling from Tok to the burn passes the Great Alaska Mushroom Co., situated in an open hangar under a really big sign.

Rick Bernhardt says he's the first Alaskan to own a mushroom company, or so he was told when he got his business license earlier this year. Raised in Tok, he was here in 1991 and "saw the community not benefit as fully as it could have."

Bernhardt says he did "extensive research" on the morel, and that local support has been tremendous. "If we got one call we got a thousand from locals saying, 'When we pick, we'll bring them to you,' " he says, though his role as civic booster is somewhat offset by the fact that he has professional pickers flying in. "We got two teams of 15--a Korean bunch, and another out of Oregon and Washington."

Asked what he plans to pay per pound, Bernhardt hesitates. "Three dollars a pound," he says. "But if there's a big boom, we could go $4 or $5 a pound." Asked whether the price will go down if the market becomes glutted, Bernhardt pauses. "And we'll pay more if they bring in really big mushrooms."

He says he's set up to move fresh--there's a refrigerated truck out back--and to dry up to 6,000 pounds a day, though he has no drying ovens. "Most buyers want their mushrooms dried naturally," he explains, so he plans to air-dry them, which he thinks will take 24 hours, and which is a little like hoping that if one leaves a pan of cake batter on the windowsill for a day, it will bake.

"It's my intention to keep this as an annual thing," he says, as a mosquito the size of a silver dollar crawls on a lens of his aviator-style glasses. "We have everything in place."

Though whether he does or doesn't remains to be seen, as every evening this week, when the pickers drive back in with their loads, the Great Alaska Mushroom Co. is closed.

Casey Jonquil and his wife arrive just as the Mexican pickers are selling the day's haul, 500 pounds. Linda Garcia asks Southard who that man is. He tells her, the owner.

"Ohhh," she says. "The man with the money."

"Can we have some cold beer and soda tomorrow?" asks Jose, one foot already in the van.

"Sure, I'll have it for you," Rankin says.

Jonquil runs his hands over the morels. He's concerned about the bits of white fluff from birch seed pods, less concerned about several slender white maggots.

"If you heat the morels slow enough," he says, "they'll crawl out."

Jonquil is hoping to do a good business in fresh morels, which should get to market within 48 hours of being picked, which means they must be driven to Anchorage, where there are direct flights to Portland. But before any of this happens, there has to be enough product to make the rush profitable. So far, there isn't, so Alpine is drying almost all the morels instead.

Jonquil says the stories about dried mushrooms being worth $200 a pound are fantasy. "If you go to Whole Foods and you get their little half-ounce bags and you do the math, yeah ... but that's not what goes to the source."

He hopes to get $65 to $75 a pound for dried. The ratio of wet to dry is about 8 to 1, though if the mushrooms are very wet when they come in it can shrink to 13 to 1, which means he'll take a bath. The final price also depends on global markets.

"It's a real moving target," says Jonquil. "We have to see what happens in China and India and Pakistan and Turkey--though we know Turkey did not have a good season. China just keeps getting better and better at what they do every year, and in India and Pakistan they dry the morels over dung fires--which I like, they taste great, kind of with a bacony flavor--but Europe doesn't want them smoked like that anymore."

Back in Portland, the dried morels will be sorted, conicas and grays and jumbos, and two additional grades that go to Europe, extras, which have stems, and specials, which are stemless and bring a higher price.

"And of course, the pickers pick them with stems, because they weigh more," Jonquil says. Other weight-gain methods include a "river-dip," and stuffing each morel with a BB or a pebble.

Buyers, too, have their tricks, from the egregious--a sponge placed beneath the scale so it weighs light--to the plebeian, such as big-screen TVs, loud music and women in low-cut tops at the buying stations to distract the pickers.

Then there are those buyers who raise the price per pound unconscionably, until other buyers can't or won't meet it and fold, whereupon the high-price buyer drops his price. One such buyer, well known to the Alpine crew, is a man they call the Weasel.

"He's known to run down cars in the road and pull people's mushroom haul out and start weighing," Rankin says.

He also drove into town today, and is rumored to be paying $6 a pound.

"Whether someone thinks something is edible or delicious is really not an absolute," says Sveta Yamin, a graduate student in cultural anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who is writing her dissertation on how the natives on both sides of the Bering Strait use their sustainable resources.

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