N.W.T. morel pickers disappointed by season's low prices

The morel mushroom picking season in the Northwest Territories is in full swing after a slow start, but low prices are leaving pickers feeling duped, and buyers questioning the territorial government on their predictions.

Government predicted record harvest, but last year's B.C. wildfire have cut prices by up to 50%

Morel mushrooms harvested near Kakisa, N.W.T. The Northwest Territories was prepared for a record mushroom harvest, but low prices have some pickers upset. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

The morel mushroom picking season in the Northwest Territories is in full swing after a slow start, but low prices are leaving some pickers feeling duped, and buyers questioning the territorial government on their predictions.

Shawn Charlie and Sam Mulholland came from Carmacks, Yukon, with hopes of making $400 to $500 a day. Now, they're just trying to earn enough cash to get home.

"I thought I was going to come out with more money than I did," said Mulholla.

"Was already making plans for my money," added Charlie. "Was going to go travelling."

Buyers in the territory are paying $7 a pound for the mushrooms. Last year, buyers paid $10 to $14 per pound — a number that, combined with last season's record burn, had the government predicting the harvest could bring in as much as $10 million to the territory's economy.

Morel mushrooms are said to flourish in burn areas the year following a fire. However, fires last year in southern British Columbia — a more accessible part of the country for pickers and buyers — as well as the territory's record burn meant that more mushrooms are on the market than in 2014.

"The year before, there were no fires in B.C., so all the mushrooms came from the Northwest Territories last year," said Freddy John, a buyer parked at the Fort Providence gas station, who says he is seeing about 680 kilograms of mushrooms per day. "That's why there was a big boom last year in the N.W.T."

'That's just really misinformation'

Joe Salvo is the president of Ponderosa Mushrooms in Coquitlam, B.C., who John's buying for. Salvo was one of the buyers in the Northwest Territories last season. This year, he's chosen not to go — but does have a buyer near Fort Providence — and is questioning government information given to aspiring pickers in their Harvester's Guide to Morel Mushrooms, a document produced this spring.
Brendan and Andrew Matthews of Yellowknife sort morel mushrooms. Last year, morels sold for over $10/pound, but this year, that number is closer to $7. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

The guide states that "the morel mushroom trade is worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually in North America alone and is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. The N.W.T. has the largest potential of any region anywhere to become the major global producer of high quality morels."

"I can't imagine where they got these numbers from," says Salvo, who has been buying and selling morels for 20 years, "because they're so overblown, it was laughable. 

"The total value of the market, and total importance of the Northwest Territories mushrooms on the world scale was completely overstated. Not by 10, or 20, or 50 per cent. It was overblown by, like, 400 per cent."

Salvo also took issue with the guide's direction to pickers that seems to suggest more money could be made by drying morels and waiting until the fall. The guide reads that "seasonal demand is highest beginning in early or mid-December and continues through until the next harvest begins."

That "really alarmed" Salvo, who said that this season, "anyone that wants to buy, sell dried... could find themselves without a home."

Salvo said it's just not true that prices are likely to rise this winter. "All indications this year are the complete opposite. 

"That's just really misinformation. And really bad direction to try to give to anybody."

'Highly unusual year'

Salvo isn't surprised that prices this season are much lower than last year, saying that the 2014 season was "highly unusual."

"Last year was the highest price we've ever paid for fresh mushrooms that were then dried," he said, explaining that there was very little production anywhere in North America besides the N.W.T. and Yukon, and that the short buying season in the territories kept the prices high.

The N.W.T. government has previously said that last year's harvest was worth between $6 and $10 million, with about $1.5 million going into the local economy. The Yukon government estimated that an additional $3 to $4 million worth of the mushrooms was exported from their territory, as well.

Buyer John says that he's starting to see green mushrooms come in — typically a sign that the end of the season is near. He says that he'll probably pack up shop and move on in a week or so.