CHEMULT, Ore. – After the first sticky snow of the winter, the lot surrounding Featherbed Inn in Chemult was quiet except for a few roosters pecking at puddles and two men taking down a tarp tent.
The men had been there for two months buying Matsutake mushrooms from the hundreds – some say thousands – of pickers who set up camp in tents, camper trailers and hotel rooms during the two-month-long picking season.
Each fall, from September to November or until the first snowfall, Chemult’s population temporarily swells from 120 people to as many as a few thousand with an influx of mushroom pickers seeking Matsutake mushrooms, which grow in abundance in the Fremont-Winema National Forests near Chemult.
The mushrooms are a delicacy in Japan and can demand a high price per pound in good years.
Pickers bring a surge of diversity to the small town. Most pickers are from Southeast Asia, with a small percentage of Hispanic pickers. Hassan, the buyer at Featherbed Inn who declined to give his last name, estimated 95 percent of pickers are from Laos, Cambodia or Thailand, and about 5 percent are Hispanic. Hassan is originally from Laos, and was a picker until he moved to the buying side.
The Chemult Ranger District issued around 800 picking permits this year, a slight increase from previous years, said Melissa Shuey, customer service assistant there. Don Oldham, who owns the Featherbed Inn, said he heard pickers numbered in the thousands; one estimate was 4,500.
“This is huge to our community,” Shuey said. “Everybody has to be a little more cautious with traffic. In the evenings there’s a lot of hustle and bustle. But as far as business owners in town, the boost to the economy is fantastic.”
This year, despite more pickers, there were plenty of mushrooms to go around.
“You’d see entire Toyota pickup beds full of them,” Shuey said.
A wet spring and dry summer followed by a wet fall was particularly conducive to mushroom growth. The forest floor was covered with them, pickers said. Hassan said pickers were bringing in 6 tons a day of mushrooms – or about 12,000 pounds – worth roughly $24,000.
“It was a bumper crop,” said Mike Bivens, who does maintenance at the Featherbed Inn and has been there through many mushroom seasons.
Pickers, buyers and locals gushed over how the mushrooms this year were “bigger, more beautiful,” he said.
However, more supply drove prices down. The mushrooms were worth about $20 per pound the first day, Bivens said. But prices dropped to $7 per pound, briefly went as low as $1 per pound, and settled at $2 per pound.
Hassan said bulk made up for low price to at least make the stay in Chemult worthwhile for pickers.
When snow came last Tuesday, many pickers and buyers returned to their homes in Washington and California. Some chose to stay, hoping the snow would melt for a few more days of picking.