Entrepreneurs turn growing interest in mushroom foraging into passion careers

A man holds a basket
Mike Kempenich, owner of Gentleman Forager, walks through the forest carrying a basket he hopes to fill with morel mushrooms on May 20 near Melrude. On this rainy and wet spring day, Kempenich was not able to find any morel mushrooms despite what was described as ideal conditions.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Minnesota’s rainy spring has resulted in a bumper crop of morels, the distinctive mushrooms with the pointed, honeycombed caps that are prized by the rapidly growing number of foragers exploring the state’s forests in search of tasty fungi and other wild foods.

Longtime foragers say it’s been one of the best morel seasons in years. While the season has ended across southern Minnesota, people are still finding the elusive fungi in northern forests.

Mushroom foraging has increased over the last few years.
Courtesy of Richard Steih

“It’s kind of like a game of hide and seek,” said Stephanie Lockwood, who produces maps of morel sightings across the state. “Morels are the elusive treasure of the woods.”

Lockwood and other longtime foragers say there are a lot more mushroom treasure hunters than there used to be. Foraging has surged in popularity over the past decade or so. Numbers spiked during the pandemic, when people flocked to the outdoors in large numbers.

And interest continues to grow. Membership in one of two popular Facebook foraging pages that Lockwood runs grew nearly 25 percent in just the past two months, to about 15,000 members.

“People just want to learn, get out and get active,” said Lockwood. “And it’s kind of like winning the lottery when you go out there and you find stuff. Because not only is it free, but it’s delicious.”

Mushroom entrepreneurs

In late May Mike Kempenich walked through a rain-spattered stand of young aspen trees, eyes down, scanning the forest floor. He drove to this out-of-the-way stretch of woods in the Cloquet Valley State Forest about an hour outside Duluth in late May in search of black morel mushrooms.

“You’ll learn pretty quickly when you get interested in mushrooms that the key to success has a lot to do with trees,” Kempenich explained. The morels in southern Minnesota grow near elms. The black morels up north sprout among aspen.

A man talks about mushrooms
Mike Kempenich talks about searching for morel mushrooms.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But they’re tricky to spot. He dodges branches and brushes away mosquitoes as he searches for the camouflaged mushrooms.

After more than an hour of looking in several different promising looking spots, he comes up empty. But he says the challenge in finding morels is part of the allure.

“Sometimes you’re going all day long. Maybe it’s the middle of the summer, it’s 90 degrees and you’re hot and tired,” he said. “But you know, around every corner there can be a big patch of something. And the reward you get, the rush you get from it, it never gets old.”

Kempenich turned his love for foraging into a career after he was laid off from his job as a corporate recruiter about 15 years ago. He began by cultivating mushrooms, and opened a retail store.

A man looks for mushrooms
The Minnesota Mycological Society has seen its membership expand from 200 to about 1,400.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Now, through his business Gentlemen Forager, he supplies wild mushrooms to restaurants, and hosts classes and special events. He's even partnered with a brewery to make mushroom sparkling beverages.

Kempenich is one of several entrepreneurs in Minnesota who’ve tapped into the growing wave of interest in mushroom foraging over the past decade.

Part of the appeal is the low bar to entry, said Peter Martignacco, president of the Minnesota Mycological Society, which has seen its membership expand from 200 to about 1,400. All you really need is some knowledge and a basket or bag to collect what you find.

Martignacco believes people are craving a more engaging, hands-on experience with the outdoors. Something more than just walking through the woods like it’s some sort of museum.

“And by collecting food, that you're able to enjoy, you have developed a very visceral connection to the outdoors,” he said.

a man forages a mushroom
Chef Alan Bergo forages. He runs a website "Forager Chef."
Courtesy of Andy Berndt

For others, foraging unlocks something more primal.

“One of the things that is so like therapeutic about it, is that you lose yourself,” said Alan Bergo, a chef, author and longtime foraging and wild foods advocate who has operated the popular website Forager Chef for more than a decade.

“There’s this instinct that takes over, this like primal instinct that is in all of us,” said Bergo, who was introduced to mushrooms and wild plants while working in Twin Cities restaurants. One afternoon playing disc golf he saw something he had just cooked at work — a chicken of the woods mushroom. He picked it, and just like that, he was hooked.

Bergo has devoted his career to foraging wild foods because he was convinced early on it’s not just a passing fad.

“I felt this in my bones,” he said. “This is like the greatest pastime that I've ever found. This is my thing. And so many other people are going to just love this. It’s incredible. Like, how do people not know about this?" he remembers thinking.

two yellow mushrooms
Chanterelles mushrooms on the forest floor.
Courtesy of Alan Bergo

Now, more and more people are discovering it. Tim Clemens founded Ironwood Foraging in 2017 to offer hands-on workshops in the Twin Cities metro area. He educates thousands of people a year. He saw interest spike during COVID.

“People were worried about their access to food. And people had a sense of returning to their archaic human roots.”

But he said people weren’t comfortable picking mushrooms on their own — even if they had a field guide — because there are toxic mushrooms in Minnesota, and it’s important to be 100 percent sure of the identification of the mushroom before eating it.

“So my classes filled up drastically,” Clemens said. “And it hasn’t really stopped since then.”

‘My passion, my career’

Other foraging educators have experienced a similar boom. Ariel Bonkoski taught a class in Grand Rapids last week that sold out and had a waiting list.

The Duluth-based mushroom expert teaches classes around the state, leads mushroom forays around the region, and has traveled the country identifying mushrooms, something she now does for more than 30 Facebook groups around the world.

A mushroom
A mushroom rises up from the forest floor.
Courtesy of Tim Clemens, the Minnesota forager

During a recent mushroom scouting mission at Hartley Park in Duluth, she pointed out a mushroom growing on the side of a stump called an Artist’s Conk, popular for etching intricate designs onto its underside.

A few years ago she launched her own business called Ariel's Mushroom Company.

“It’s pretty incredible that I made this my passion and then I was able to make my passion my career and get to introduce people to the wonderful world of mushrooms,” she said.

Every forager interviewed for this story could recall the moment that got them hooked on wild mushrooms. For Bonkoski, it was when she found lobster mushrooms growing on the Superior Hiking Trail during her honeymoon.

A woman holds up a mushroom
Ariel Bonkoski holds up a Pheasant Back mushroom she found at Hartley Park in Duluth on May 30.
Courtesy of Ariel Bonkoski

For Stephanie Lockwood, the moment came when she was a small child, walking with her grandmother along the Root River outside Lanesboro, when they stumbled upon a huge patch of morels.

Lockwood turned the bottom of her shirt into a basket to carry as many mushrooms as she could pick; her grandma filled up her hat. That night they enjoyed a feast of morels.

“And it had to be one of my happiest moments,” she recalled. “It’s a moment that will always reside with me.”

That’s why she volunteers her time to share information about mushroom hunting, she said, so more people will pass along the knowledge and love of foraging to their children.

A part of a mushroom
A devil’s urn, from the Sarcosomataceae family of fungi, resides on the forest floor near Melrude.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News
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