North·FEATURE

N.W.T. morel season declared a success, despite numerous challenges

As the N.W.T.'s much-hyped morel mushroom season comes to a close, most involved with the business are deeming 2015 a success. 'There were days when I drove down that highway where I'm sure I saw at least 500, maybe 600 people out there.'

Changes for next year will include sharing elder's advice on when to start picking, gov't says

The territorial government is declaring the 2015 picking season a success, while at the same time acknowledging issues with their economic estimates in the territory's harvester's guide. (Elora Braden/CBC)

As the N.W.T.'s much-hyped morel mushroom season comes to a close, most involved with the business are deeming 2015 a success, despite numerous challenges.

Following a record 2014 forest fire season, expectations were high for a 2015 harvest of the rare mushrooms, which flourish in burned-out areas. Minister David Ramsay said the harvest could bring in as much as $10 million, and the territorial government prepared for the incoming boom by holding information sessions for would-be pickers across the N.W.T. and releasing educational materials, including a harvester's guide.
A morel picker searches for mushrooms in a burned-out area near Fort Providence, N.W.T. Some pickers expressed their dismay at the season's low prices, which were approximately half the amount paid by buyers in 2014. (Elora Braden/CBC)

John Colford, the manager of investment and economic analysis for the territory's Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, said that when it comes to the eye test, the season didn't disappoint.

"There were days when I drove down that highway where I'm sure I saw at least 500, maybe 600 people out there," he said, adding that was one of the few ways to measure success of the harvest. Colford said that it's impossible for the government to keep track of the money coming into the territory's economy through morels.

Colford said that a lot of the pickers he spoke to left with some money in their pockets, despite reports of sellers frustrated with the season's low prices.

Joe Salvo, president of Ponderosa Mushrooms, a B.C.-based mushroom-buying business that operates in the N.W.T., said that from his perspective, the year was successful.

"We were able to meet market prices in Europe without much issue this year," he said.

Buyers and sellers alike had questioned inflated numbers in the territory's harvester's guide, which was released prior to the 2015 season.

Morel mushrooms harvested near Kakisa, N.W.T. Buyer Joe Salvo says that he was 'able to meet market prices in Europe without much issue this year.' (Jacob Barker/CBC)

'The market is very fickle'

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

The prospect of making up to $694 per day — according to one 2014 success story from the harvester's guide — was enough to entice a large amount of people to the territory to pick.

"That report circulated like wildfire," Salvo said. "A lot of fruit pickers that would have normally been in the Okanagan picking fruit decided to go there."
Thierry Lemay was one of many morel pickers who came to the Northwest Territories from Quebec. (CBC)

The guide used numerous examples from the 2014 season, in which pickers received between $10 to $14 per pound for morels. The price this season was closer to $5 to $8, on average.

Drew Williams, a spokesperson from the territory's Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, said in a June email to CBC that the department was "speaking about ideal circumstances" in the handbook, explaining that the numbers were based on the size of 2014's record burn.

"In the Yukon in 2013, they saw 227,000 hectares of land burned up," wrote Williams. "From this area, Yukon estimated they saw $3.5 million harvest of morels in 2014. Simple math sees $15.40 per hectare."

Applying that math to the N.W.T.'s 3.4 million hectares of burned land would amount to over $52 million, but Williams said the department said $10 million "to be conservative.

"The statement on potential comes from the same foundation," he wrote. "Last year's burn was one of (if not the largest) burns last summer in a morel-producing area."

Colford, though, said that the handout will be adjusted — and the numbers clarified — for next season.

"The marketplace is very fickle," he said. "And maybe we didn't emphasize that enough. But trying to nail down a future market price is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall."

Adjustments for 2016

Salvo said that other than the economic section of the harvester's guide, the vast majority of the material provided by the territorial government is some of the most comprehensive morel picking material provided by any province, territory, or state.

"It was really well put-together; it was really well thought out," he said.
Brendan and Andrew Matthews of Yellowknife sort morel mushrooms. The territorial government's John Colford said that people like the Matthews' 'who went into the morel mushroom harvest came out intact, and in good shape,' adding that 2015 was a learning year for the territory. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Colford is particularly proud of the material, but will be making other adjustments in addition to the market clarification for the upcoming year.

One adjustment will be to include ideal times for harvesting. Colford recalled seeing as many as 200 people showing up to Kakisa on May 10 to pick mushrooms.

"I remember talking to an elder, and they were talking about morel harvesting," said Colford. "I asked if they were going out [to pick], and they said: 'No, the ground's not warm enough yet!'"

Calling the 2015 season a "learning year" for his department, Colford believes the harvest was about as successful as it could have been.

"One of my measures of success is that I don't kill anyone," he said with a laugh, a nod to the dangers of hiking in remote parts of the N.W.T.

"People who went into the morel mushroom harvest came out intact, and in good shape."

With files from Garrett Hinchey

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