Matsutake mushroom Mecca goes from boom to bust

Matsutake pickers in small Oregon town once the centre of the worldwide trade in the 'truffle of Asia' paying the price for glut in the fungus

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 4:55am


While some commercial hubs obsess over the price of stock shares, or real estate, Chemult, a dot of a town in the US state of Oregon, population 135, briefly flowers each autumn into a global capital of the wild mushroom trade.

However, with just US$5 a pound paid recently for the best-grade raw matsutake mushrooms, the market has just about crashed into the dirt.

For the truffle of Asia, as the matsutake has been called, there is now far more supply than demand.

A mostly Asian-American, freelance army of pickers, drawn to Chemult by economic need or family tradition, still floods into the woods each morning armed with digging sticks and hope. But the economic winds at day's end are harsh.

"The price goes down and down and down," said John Souvannasay, 26, of Weed, California, who was taught the lore of the woods and the harder, subtler skills of grading matsutakes - one to five, different quality, different prices - by his father, Soulinh, 58, an immigrant from Thailand.

In truth, there was probably only one direction, in the long run, that matsutake prices could go.

In the fevered market of the early to mid-1990s, when fortunes were made in the sandy volcanic soils near Crater Lake National Park, the price paid in the field to foragers reached US$600 a pound. A basket's worth, if you were lucky enough to collect one and sell it at peak prices, could buy a car.

What happened here was capitalism. High prices set off a search around the world, and it turned out that wild matsutakes were growing in many places, from Canada to China.

"Globalisation at work," said Langdon Cook, a wild-food forager and the author of a recent book about foragers and the odd world of the fungal economy, titled The Mushroom Hunters.

China, he said, now even exports porcini to Italy, where mushroom risottos were invented and perfected.

Cambodian immigrant Dee San, 36, now living in Eugene, Oregon, said that while big paydays are a memory, harder work equals greater reward. "There's nobody behind you, saying, 'Do this, do that'," he said. "There's more independence."

Others in the mostly Cambodian, Thai, Lao and Hmong harvester population are pushed to Chemult by the recession for the two-month matsutake season.

They camp, or stay at places like Crater Lake Inn, a motel where buyers and pickers rub elbows over steaming bowls of pho, sold from an impromptu mess tent at US$5 a bowl. A long and lucky day in the woods, they said, might pay US$100.