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Forest-to-Table is latest twist on “Eat Local” movement

One of the catch phrases of the local food movement is “farm-to-table” -- eating food grown nearby. Now small forest owners want to join the local food party. And no, they’re not talking about feeding you sawdust. Instead, local forest products include edible mushrooms, berries, and a salad green called miner’s lettuce.

Carol Wick and her husband own a small slice of the American dream, 30 acres at the edge of the Cascade foothills southeast of Seattle. She took me for a walk from her doorstop, by some pastures and a falling-down barn to her ten-plus acre fir and cedar forest.

“Our object is not to turn this into a harvestable timber farm, but to do something else with it. If you sit quietly in these woods, you’ll see all kinds of things,” says Carol Wick.

Wick wants her beloved forest to generate supplemental income.

“King County... high property taxes!” says Wick.

...from any number of edible delicacies.

“It just kind of lends itself to have a U-pick in the forest,” continues Wick.

Carol Wick shows me where the family has planted gourmet mushrooms and native berry bushes. She ticks off a long list of forest produce she could potentially sell.

“Wild blueberries, huckleberries, the wild raspberry, wild blackberries. Some of the forest native vegetables that you might have like miner’s lettuce for instance... purslane. Those are not that hard to harvest and they taste good,” says Wick.

I found Wick through a non-profit dedicated to localizing food production. Mary Embleton directs the Cascade Harvest Coalition. Her outfit won a small grant to explore how to expand the “eat local” movement to include small forest landowners.

“It’s I think a very natural progression to start to expand this type of programming and consumer education to a broader set of working lands,” says Mary Embleton.

Embleton wants to play matchmaker between suppliers and markets.

She had a good turnout at an initial information meeting to present the idea to small woodlot owners. An expert panel talked dollars and cents. They said wild mushrooms can fetch $12-$20 per pound. Huckleberries can net $8/lb. in the restaurant trade. Foodies also rave about fiddlehead ferns.

One potential buyer is Tony D’Onofrio of the Puget Sound chain Town & Country Markets.

“I love this idea of forest-to-table because there is more to the forest land than just harvesting timber. If you can harvest sustainably year after year some product that ends up on the table, it means the forest stays intact,” says Tony D’Onofrio.

But he also offers this reality check. Size matters. To be efficient, even a modest chain like his needs greater volumes and scale than a small forest can generate.

“A grocery store needs to have a product available for a consistent length of time, let’s say throughout the chanterelle season. You want the chanterelles there and you always want the bins full because your customers expect them,” says D’Onofrio.

D’Onofrio says farmers markets might be the best outlet for forest bounty foraged on smaller scales.
Professional forester Kirk Hansen consults with small woodlot owners. He says another strategy might be to connect a landowner directly with one specialty shop operating on a similar small scale.

“You know, what we’re talking is boutique harvesting and sales. So if somebody has twenty acres you can only expect to harvest so much sustainably off of that. So if it is a floral green like salal or sword fern you may only be harvesting a few pounds of that every year off your property,” says Kirk Hansen.

Hanson says the most successful forest-to-table business in the region seems to be a Seattle-based company called Foraged & Found. It gets permits to forage on public and private timberland. The company’s founder says his formula for success is a minimum parcel size of four to five thousand acres.

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.