The Oregon Trail:
Mushroom Joe and the Art of Mushroom Buying
Text by Helen Hollyman
Photography by Carlie Armstrong
Stepping into the wet, dewy forest shortly after a fresh rain spell is a heavenly set of circumstances for the lone mushroom hunter. It is both an art form and a survival skill––a space where applying focus, patience, intuition and curiosity are beyond necessity. Spotting a secret flush of matsutake "pine mushrooms" hidden below tiny mountains of damp emerald green moss, or the entrance of freshly crested morels after the last embers of a dimming forest fire are some of the holiest moments when one is alone with the woods.
While such an enlightened moment in the forest is rare for most, many taste buds are familiar with wild mushrooms that arrive on the dinner plate, from apricot hued golden chanterelles to fiery red lobsters, earthy black trumpets or the meaty porcini. At the root of all that flavor lies a booming business: behind the kitchen doors of most restaurants, chefs tend to breeze through six to two hundred pounds of wild mushrooms per week, many hand picked in the Pacific Northwest, sweeping from Washington to Oregon, parts of Northern California all the way across state lines to Montana. Professional foraging is the "gold rush" of wild edibles, a booming industry where the expert eye reigns supreme. A forager can live nomadically, living and earning off of the land year round, selling anything from wild mushrooms to an assortment of wild edibles like huckleberries, truffles, wild fennel, sea beans, ramps and hundreds of other untamed fruits, spores and vegetables to buying stations for an instant cash return.
Acting as the middleman between the forager and the restaurant kitchen is the buying station. It's the end zone of the foragers’ hunt, where a heavy bag full of earthly treasures is offloaded onto a large scale, moving carefully into the hands of buyers for the right price per pound. Once selected, items (and especially wild mushrooms) are graded for quality, boxed and shipped out to restaurants, distributors and grocery stores worldwide. This place is where Joe Daugherty, a seasoned mushroom foraging veteran, comes in.
Joe is one of the main kingpins of mushroom distributors in the United States––a man who moves more weight in the mushroom game than most. He owns over ten buying stations spanning the Pacific Northwest. Joe's selection of top-tier mushrooms have touched the lips of the Pope and the U.S. President, and have also been praised by famous chefs like John Besh in New Orleans.
Joe Daughtery grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon, a mushroom haven where he began picking as soon as he could walk. While out on forest hikes with his grandfather and father, he was passed down many of the secrets involved in the art of picking. By the age of 8, Joe had mastered the identification of morels and began to move more than his grade-school bodyweight of them to mushroom buyers, profiting three to five dollars per pound for his discoveries. By age 11, during the height of deer hunting season, he profited over $7,000 in cash from an epic flush of matsutake peeping close to Douglas Fir trees. Considered a ceremonial mushroom in Japan, the "pine mushroom," grows in Asia, Europe, and North America, where a pound can be sold for anywhere between fifteen to six hundred dollars a pound, depending on the status of the Japanese market (matsutake growth has died out in Japan). By his thirteenth birthday, when he wasn't in the classroom, Joe kept hustling mushrooms, selling a few hundred pounds to a San Francisco distributor.
By age 19, Joe was a single father of two, working at a local sawmill to make ends meet. After the mill unexpectedly shut down, he decided to enroll in college where he received a scholarship for forestry sports (he's a log rolling state champion). Interested in criminology, he dove head first into the complicated depths of criminal justice. Within a sneeze of a few years, a baby faced 22-year old Joe found himself working for the department of corrections on death row, first in Wyoming and later, Oregon. Unable to grow a beard while working as a prison guard, Joe spent time eating lunch with death row inmates who were typically thirty years his elder. He was given two sets of 15-minute breaks in his 12 to 18 hour day shifts, when he would head out to his truck and make cell phone calls to various restaurants and mushroom distributors, selling hundreds of pounds of mushrooms in a matter of minutes. His reputation inside the prison walls rose as both inmates and wardens began to refer to him as "Mushroom Joe."
After a few years of working on death row, Joe transferred to Pendleton, Oregon––one of the best spots for picking mushrooms––to work in a lower security prison, picking mushrooms in most of the hours that he found himself free from inside the cinderblock walls. Swapping shifts with other guardsmen, he would take Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, working 16-hour days at the prison in exchange. Inmates at Pendleton are obtained for a wide spectrum of crimes that teeter from petty theft all the way to murder without the death sentence. In his time spent peering through the prison bars, Joe frequently recognized the familiar faces of mushroom pickers once seen freely roaming throughout the woods.
During a day of supervising a fire crew (a group of prisoners who put out forest fires), Joe spotted a gorgeous patch of matsutake. As prisoners watched from afar, he quickly harvested a decent day's worth of work in pine mushrooms When he stepped back onto the prison bus, the air filled with a perfume of smokiness, cinnamon and pine, wafting from seat to seat. Slowly but surely, his mushroom business took off from inside the prison walls, which led him to transition into a full time buying station operator.
Today, Joe works with a wide network of foragers scattered across the Pacific Northwest. According to Joe, "having a good network with your pickers is key to understanding what's going on out in the field. Everything that we get is very natural because we know where our product is coming from." Mushrooms are like sponges, absorbing the environment that they subsist upon. Crystal meth producers have been known to "cook" meth in remote parts of the woods, dumping toxins into the soil where mushrooms frequently appear. For Joe, this is unacceptable. "You really have to be careful about who you are buying from. I know my pickers like the back of my hand, so I know that my product is really nice quality."
The type of mushroom picker that Joe prefers to buy from is a dedicated one, waking up early before the break of dawn, hiking five to eight miles deep into the woods with the intention to hunt until twilight. Once a heavy haul is achieved, the picker sets out for the buying station, where Joe has legal scales (approved by the Department of Agriculture) ready to weigh the aromatic fungi. Joe's largest indoor buying station is in Coos Bay, Oregon, where foragers are required to head to "the cleaning station" before selling, a spot where all mushrooms must be air blown to expel any forest confetti like mud, insects or twigs before the deal is done. If he finds himself at one of his buying stations in the woods, Joe brings a few scales, a couple of tables, a truck full of mushroom baskets, and giant coolers decked out with ice packs, ready to store mushrooms before their global transport. He carries eighteen to twenty thousand dollars in cash for a day's worth of buying. Eight years ago, he was held up at gunpoint by a duo of drug-addicted foragers while picking mushrooms with his family near his buying station. The foragers knew that he was a mushroom buyer, so they figured that there would be easy money to steal from his truck. "Between the dangers of drug addicts and wild cougars in the forest, everyone packs a weapon when it comes to mushrooms," says Joe. As a former law enforcement officer toting all of that paper in hand, Joe packs a .357 magnum into the woods.
Joe Daughtery's life's work swirls about mushrooms and the tight knit community surrounding them. According to Joe, "my pickers are like family to me, and porcini are my favorite... that's where my heart is."
He doesn't, however, eat mushrooms. He hates the taste, but he loves the hun