When Beck Ferguson, a professional mushroom grower and forager, agreed to bring me along for a day of mushroom hunting, I did not expect we’d be starting the day by looking up. But as we travel in his Subaru to our classified destination in central Vermont, he tells me to keep my eyes on the ridgeline. It’s late spring, morel season: when the highly-priced and eagerly-coveted fungi thrive on the root systems of ash trees, which are barely beginning to leaf at the top of the hills. Across the eastern United States, morels are revered for their earthy, nutty flavor by home cooks and chefs alike.
By observing the hillcrests, Ferguson is able to easily deduce if a wooded area is worth a day of foraging for mushrooms. “There’s all of this amazing research that has come out in the past 15 years showing that fungi basically dictates where plants grow,” Ferguson explains to me. “Instead of competing for space, trees and fungi are in relationship with each other. The trees need the fungi, and the fungi need the trees.”
The second-growth forest we’re travelling to today has been a favorite of Fergurson’s for a few years now. It’s on private land, but in Vermont it’s legal to forage anywhere that doesn’t have posted signs (best practice is to still try to get in contact with the landowner before foraging). After we park, Ferguson looks both ways as he removes a wicker basket with back straps from his car. He explains that when he enters the woods he doesn’t want people to know where he’s going.
“You would never ask another forager where they get their mushrooms,” he warns. “That’s like giving away money.”
Ferguson is the owner of Mansfield Mushroom Company, a business he started in 2019 with the goal of providing wild, fresh food for the central Vermont community. What began as a weekend passion project quickly grew into a full-time business, with both a cultivated mushroom CSA (community-supported agriculture) and a wild mushroom operation. Ferguson now divides his time between the forest and his home mushroom lab, where he cultivates a variety of fungi, such as oyster and shiitake mushrooms. This model allows him enough stability to be able to spend at least two days a week hunting mushrooms in the forest, where he prefers to spend his time.
Ferguson knows which ash tree patches to head toward from memory alone. He explains to me that he’s developed a sense of where mushrooms want to be, almost like speaking another language.
“Oh my gosh,” Ferguson exclaims, his eyes landing on a mushroom that I cannot see. “Morels!”
Ferguson admits that he still gets just as excited as the day he started foraging when he finds a mushroom. It doesn’t hurt that morels are the most expensive mushrooms he sells at the farmer’s market, coming in at a whopping $40 per pound. The morel-hunting season lasts about a month and is eagerly awaited by farmers and market-goers.
“I call them steak of the woods because they’re so tasty,” Ferguson says with a smile as he carefully removes the stem of the fungi and shoves it back into the ground. As long as the bottom of the mushroom—the sclerotia—goes back in the ground, the mycelium—the vegetative part of a fungus that helps it reproduce—will regenerate.
Soon enough, we’re on our hands and knees carefully removing the elegant honeycomb-like fungi from their home, a swatch of soil that stretches over 60 feet away from their mother ash trees to the outer limit of the tree’s root systems.
Ferguson’s interest in mushrooms started off as a personal quest for naturally-derived forms of immune support. “I discovered that the best medicine in the world grows right under our noses,” he explains. After reading “every book out there on mushrooms,” he enrolled in a class at Green Mountain College with educators Les Hook and Nova Kim. Hook and Kim “are probably some of the most knowledgeable people on wild foods in the country,” Ferguson says. Both teachers realized that for Ferguson, wild food was more than a side hobby, and they began mentoring him as he transitioned to making wild food his living.
“They taught me how to read the forest,” says Ferguson. Rather than enter the woods with a single mushroom in mind, Hook and Kim encouraged Ferguson to understand the value of hundreds of different species and gather with an abundance mindset while engaging in sustainable practices.
Ferguson emphasizes the importance of not gathering mushrooms near a roadside (they absorb pollutants) and only foraging a small percentage—leave at least half—of available mushrooms when harvesting. He also instructs foragers to leave a patch if they see someone else there, no matter how fruitful it is. “It took me six years of hiking miles and miles before I found enough spots to make this business sustainable,” Ferguson says.
Ferguson’s hard-earned attunement to the language of the forest is clear as we round a corner and find a patch of ginseng (which, to me, closely resembles every other plant in eyesight). Ferguson brushes back layers of soil to reveal the plant’s tightly coiled root system, revealing the age of the 8-inch-tall plant to be somewhere in the range of 50 to 100 years. It’s not the legal season to forage ginseng (there are strict sustainability laws in place to protect it), so we blanket the roots once again in soil. Ferguson explains to me that “folks indigenous to this region believed ginseng was actually sentient, so if you weren’t attuned to the language and energy of the plant, it wouldn’t show itself to you.”
As I gain my foraging eyes and forest footing, I begin to see morels everywhere and take great pride in each discovery. Ferguson’s exclamations of excitement—and imparting of insights—are unbound by the number of morels we add to the wicker basket. By our fifth morel patch, I deduce that mushroom foraging seems to lend itself well to developing what can only be described as mushroom philosophy.
“Mushrooms have this incredible intrinsic connection to humanity,” Ferguson says. “Mushrooms have to be cooked in order to obtain their nutrients, and we’re the only animals that use fire. Mushrooms are made for people.” The fascinating role of mycelium in our lives stretches far further than diet, though. Ferguson likens fungus to the earth’s neurological system. It’s this unseen vein network with billions of miles of fibers, like the nervous system in our body, that regulates trees and plants.
As the incredible ways in which fungi contribute to the ecosystem become more widely known, Ferguson has noticed an increase in customers eager to learn more about mushrooms.
“It’s important for me to instill in people that they can learn [foraging] too, that this is knowledge that should be accessible and utilized,” Ferguson says. For hikers interested in gaining mushroom foraging skills themselves, Ferguson recommends reading foraging guides, such as Mushrooms and Other Fungi of North America by Roger Phillips and North American Mushrooms by Orson K. Miller Jr, and always cross-referencing information to make sure you’re confident in your identification.
Ferguson emphasizes the importance of only consuming mushrooms if you are positive you’ve identified them correctly. He also suggests looking into local mushroom foraging groups and joining foraging pages on Facebook. Above all, though, Ferguson encourages people to slow down and savor time in the forest. “Coming into the woods regularly allows you to see things you didn’t before,” he says.
That much feels true after a day of foraging. Later that evening, I sauté my morels in butter as directed by Beck. With each bite of morel, I feel increasingly grateful for the hours of hiking and layers of wisdom that went into my dinner. Rather than mere sustenance, the aptly named steak of the woods seems to me a gift of the forest.