British Columbia

Mushroom picking a 'modern-day gold rush' for some B.C. foragers

Rex Garcia has been foraging B.C.'s forests for 22 years — and this fall’s mushroom harvest means healthy business.

Rex Garcia has been foraging B.C.'s forests for 22 years, turning his hobby into a business

Rex Garcia shows off the varieties of mushrooms he's foraged on Vancouver Island. (Khalil Akhtar/CBC)

Rex Garcia often can't help himself when he's driving.

If a patch of land catches his eye, he'll pull over to the side of the road. Then he'll try to scope out the mushrooms.

It's an intuition that's filled Garcia's pockets handsomely. He's a professional forager — and this fall's mushroom harvest means healthy business.

On a recent trip, Garcia showed off the dozens of crates stuffed in the back of his van.

They were brimming with varieties of mushrooms plucked in Campbell River, B.C.

Garcia has been at it for 22 years. He fell into the hobby when he first visited B.C. from Costa Rica.

"I got hooked to the pine mushrooms," he said.

"It was comparable to a modern-day gold rush. I made 500 bucks in one afternoon and I've been hooked ever since."

This year's crop

Nowadays, the business won't get you rich, Garcia said. But the demand is strong and the harvest is usually bountiful.

This year's crop has suffered because of the hot summer weather.

Pine mushrooms, for instance, are scarce — a blow to suppliers given they rank among the priciest of culinary mushrooms.

But Garcia has found other varieties along the Campbell River, the hub of mushroom harvesting.

Garcia says the temperature is ideal for mushroom harvesting right now. (Khalil Akhtar/CBC)

The most coveted is the Pacific Northwest yellow chanterelle, which is easy to spot due to its striking colour.

Recognizing false chanterelles is a key skill for pickers, Garcia said.

"In the mushroom world, there's always the counterparts or the wannabes."

Changing business

Garcia sells his hauls to chefs, farmers' markets and the public. He delivers directly to a mechanic shop, where a friend from Ukraine buys ten pounds at a time.

He acknowledged that operating on a larger scale is tough.

More freelance pickers have taken on the hobby. Garcia is careful not to leave signs of picking to avoid others spotting his patch.

Corporate suppliers have also swooped in, luring pickers to sell their hauls at buying stations.

"Not everybody can come to Vancouver and sell a hundred pounds of mushrooms every day," Garcia said.

Their hauls are processed and turned into dried or fresh product for larger grocers. 

Still, business remains brisk in B.C. Garcia said it's partly from chefs exposing the public to more flavours — and mushrooms — in recent years.

"Because they're a seasonal product, they also command a bit of mystique." 

With files from CBC's North by Northwest