Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Foragers are fretting about fungi rules and the controversy has mushroomed into a major piece of legislation. So much solution for so little problem.
The story starts three years ago in Portland, where two chefs purchased the wrong mushrooms, cooked them up, and poisoned themselves. They recovered and that should have been the end of the story.
But that's not the way things work in Maine. A large task force was whipped up to look into the problem, and typical for a lash-up like this, task force members created a series of overwrought recommendations.
Faster than you can say fungi, foragers were in trouble. Task force meetings were contentious, some would say ugly, and ended in disarray.
That certainly should have been the end of the story. But those recommendations made it to the Legislature in a bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth.
To my astonishment, the bill has emerged intact from the Health and Human Services Committee with a unanimous "ought-to-pass" recommendation.
Langley, a chef and restaurant owner, told me he hopes his bill will, "open up markets for mushrooms. I'm not going to risk my house, restaurant and family on a forager," he said, unless that forager is certified.
My neighbor, Barbara Skapa, a strong opponent of the proposal, brought this story to my attention a few months ago. Word spread that I was writing this column, and I was swamped with messages from people on both sides of the issue. I've never had so much attention paid to a column before I wrote it. So I knew I was on to something big.
Once upon a time, Skapa had a very successful mushroom business, buying from foragers throughout the state and selling the mushrooms all over the world.
Lin and I joined her one year for a "mushroom walk" hosted by our local library, and thanks to her coaching, became comfortable with harvesting and eating one -- and only one -- mushroom: chanterel-les. They are yummy and plentiful.
Up at camp, we often pick 8 or 10 pounds of chanterelles, and I've toyed with the idea of bringing them home and wholesaling them to the Mount Vernon Country Store. Not anymore, if this bill is enacted.
The bill would require all foragers to pay $200 to take a course and get certified. They'd have to learn the Latin names for mushrooms, among other requirements. And they'd have to repeat this certification periodically.
Not surprisingly, the Maine Mycological Association has pushed the bill hard. The association would be the only entity offering the course, giving it a windfall and total control over who gets certified.
Many foragers are typical Mainers who cobble together a dozen tasks and jobs throughout the year to make a living. They were not available for task force meetings scheduled during the week at the Department of Human Resources. They didn't get to the hearings and work sessions on this bill.
In my mind, if anyone needs a course on mushrooms, it's those two Portland chefs. I want anyone who puts stuff into my food to know what that stuff is.
Let's hope Gov. Paul LePage sees this as another roadblock to economic prosperity and vetoes the bill if it gets that far.
That should be the end of the story. But just when I thought I had a good grasp of this issue, Tom Doak of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine called me with a question and concern.
He'd just read the Kennebec Journal story about the mushroom bill and wondered why no one had mentioned that many of these foraged crops are picked on private land, without permission. It was an awkward moment for me.
I took Doak's call while turkey hunting on private land, had just discovered a large patch of fiddleheads, and was about to harvest a hatful for supper. Without permission.
We have a culture in Maine that allows us to harvest plants and flowers and fruit on private land, without permission. I once saw a woman cutting wild flowers on my woodlot. This is pervasive and common.
That night I called the landowners, who'd given me permission to hunt on their property, to tell them about the fiddleheads and get permission (retroactively) to pick them. Permission was granted, and we scheduled a time when Linda and I could show them where the fiddleheads are so they could pick some, too.
It also looked like a great place for chanterelles. Oh, forgive me. I mean Cantharellus cibarious.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.