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Interested in collecting your food? Try a guided tour

At Horn Farm Center in south-central Pennsylvania, the mission is to teach people how to grow and source their own food while developing a regenerative relationship with the land, including through hands-on foraging experiences.

Jon Darby has been teaching foraging classes at Horn Farm for fifteen years now and leads monthly two-hour foraging walks that emphasize the ethical foraging of seasonal produce such as chickweed and rose hips. But recently, Darby says, “We’ve definitely seen an increase in participation.” While six or seven people per class was the norm in the beginning, foraging walks are now limited to thirty participants – with a waiting list. Horn Farm is now offering a new eight-week training program with intensive foraging classes covering botany terminology, plant identification, safety best practices, culinary applications and more. The programs are primarily aimed at adults, but the organization partners with a nearby farm that focuses on educating young people.

“It’s not unusual for someone to tell me they drove two hours to take a class,” Darby notes. “I think this speaks to an increase in interest and also the lack of places offering this.”

Across the country, foraging tours organized by experts with local knowledge provide an accessible entry point for those interested in learning to gather their own food. And according to some people who organize such tours, they are becoming increasingly popular, especially after the pandemic. Some foraging experts have seen a surge in interest – up to 500 percent. We spoke to some foraging guides about what they are seeing in the field today.

Diversifying the foraging experience

Many guides are working to make foraging more accessible and attract new, more diverse audiences, as the significant increase in interest has sparked conversations about food sovereignty and who is “allowed” to forage and why. In Los Angeles, Jessica Tsae-Ni Lin leads foraging workshops focused on BIPOC and queer participants. And during her new plant and fungus walks, starting this month, Bay Area collector Cindy Li will share the knowledge she’s gained with her immigrant parents. “I’m really excited that I’m starting to see more younger people of color like me,” Li told KQED. “I would like to see people walk away with a sense of abundance where they live.”

Steve Brill – known professionally as “Wildman Steve” – has been introducing New Yorkers to foraging for more than forty years and now leads tours with his teenage daughter Violet. His popular tours take budding collectors not to remote wilderness, but to Central Park and other green spaces in New York City. Brill’s tours give “diverse people of all ages and all backgrounds” a new way of thinking about food and a chance to connect with nature, with a focus on overlooked wild edible and medicinal plants and mushrooms. These types of experiences can be hugely influential, he notes, citing an example of a group of young people who were exposed to nature early on during his travels and subsequently led an effort to build a greenway into their to create community.

Foraging hopefuls can also find an accessible entry point through businesses like farms and restaurants, where foraging trips can be a way to diversify their income while getting new audiences interested in wild foods. In California, Ancient Peaks Winery recently launched foraging tours at the 14,000-acre Santa Margarita Ranch, an outdoor experience that provides additional value for the many visitors who travel to the Paso Robles area to taste the local wines. Ancient Peaks co-owner Karl Wittstrom likes to give wine enthusiasts a chance to take a closer look at the vineyard’s surroundings: “That was kind of the main reason we went down that path,” he said. There is plenty to do for visiting collectors; in addition to the rows of sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and many other grape varieties, Wittstrom notes, there are about 40 different varieties of mushrooms on the ranch. “There’s one in particular called turkey tail. It grows on rotting oak wood,” he says of a local variety.

Ranch naturalist Jacqueline Redinger leads the foraging trips to Ancient Peaks. She notes that they are especially popular with older visitors, but is also excited to see younger people starting their foraging journey early: “Today we had four 27-year-olds on a nature tour, and they were super interested.”

Changing climate, changing seasons

Alan Muskat, founder of No Taste Like Home in Asheville, North Carolina, has created a program with local chefs and restaurants to help his guests discover the culinary potential of their harvested ingredients. “We call it a tour, although you could also call it a workshop,” he explains: The foraging tour takes guests through forests and meadows to collect plants such as slopes and morels. After the tour, guests can prepare something from what they found. They can take any leftover ingredients to a partner restaurant, which turns their wild food into an appetizer by purchasing a main course.

Muskat says the team has – anecdotally – noticed an increase in locals getting serious about learning how to forage, especially since the pandemic. He also notes that it is possible to find edibles even in the middle of winter. “There’s definitely more greenery in the winter when it’s warmer,” he says. “That has also been the case in recent years.” In particular, he points out that changing weather patterns this year caused the morels to emerge earlier than expected. “We planned our trips for April,” he explains, but the first wave of morels in North Carolina came even earlier.

Some collectors who have historically paused their trips in the colder months are discovering that there is now more to find in winter than there used to be. For those new to foraging, this means plenty of time to get out and explore.

“When I was a kid, there would be snow on the ground right after Thanksgiving, and the last of the snow would melt by the time of my birthday (early March),” Brill says. But these days there’s less snow in New York, and some plants that used to disappear in November—and then slowly reappear in March—can be found year-round.

Brill says he saw this pattern coming a long time ago. When he wrote one of his books in the 1990s, he made sure to avoid specific months when discussing seasonality and instead referred only to “early spring” and “mid spring” because he could see that the seasons would change. “The science was completely solid back then,” he said.

Also in Pennsylvania, Darby points out that there used to be deep snow in the winter when he was growing up, but now there is always something to see, twelve months of the year.

The value of expertise

Foraging can be fun, but only if it is done safely. As the popularity of this outdoor hobby grows, mycologists have noticed an increase in the number of poisonings. Foraging guides can teach participants how to forage safely and sustainably.

“If there’s one thing I would tell people over and over again, it’s to learn from someone else,” Muskat says. In addition to leading tours, he employs six other guides; No Taste Like Home leads approximately 400 tours per year. Although foraging is usually a sustainable activity compared to conventionally produced food, he says, “There are certainly things that are better left alone.” Overfishing is a growing problem in some areas. To ensure nothing is overharvested on his tours, Muskat explains, “We focus on what is common when we teach.”

Brill underlines the importance of guidance from an expert. “There are things that took me years to learn because I didn’t have anyone to teach me,” he said. “I can see what I do as a small drop in the ocean,” says Brill, “and I can also see it as part of what many people are doing in different ways to increase appreciation for the environment and protect it). “

For Darby, seeing people get excited about nature is very rewarding, and he especially enjoys educating people about weeds and other plants that are often perceived as unattractive, which he calls unsung heroes. “I think the thing that most people get excited about is learning that all the plants that they already have in their home – those that are very common, that they overlook and pull into their garden, and that they consider weeds – are pretty amazing plants are if you understand to get to know them,” he says. “What makes it the most fun for me is seeing those light bulb moments in the classroom.”

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