The Woodlot Association of Manitoba (WAM) says the province’s privately owned forests are a cornucopia of foods if entrepreneurs are willing to take a walk on the wild side.
Following a number of interviews and public meetings, WAM has prepared a report that sees a bright future for wild food foraging and farming, in short, a wild food industry in Manitoba.
“In this project, we are concentrating on the foods and not the other aspects of non-timber forest products and how people might be able to be involved in supplying to a market in a small way,” said Mike James, co-author of the report and former WAM president.
WAM is a non-profit corporation representing owners of woodlots and family forests. This research project was funded through Growing Forward 2.
WAM conducted extensive research, initiated more than 80 interviews and held six public meetings throughout the province.
“The interest and enthusiasm was great. At the public meetings we were able to talk with people about what they had in mind for the wild food industry and what non-timber products were, got their input and the agreement was pretty consistent,” said James.
Manitoba currently has 2.4 million acres of privately owned wooded land shared by approximately 13,500 landowners, which WAM believes could offer an untapped opportunity for economic diversity.
Products stemming from woodlot areas include wild nuts, berries, forest honey, birch and maple syrup, edible fungi, herbal tea sources, essential oil sources and wild salad ingredients.
The report indicates that the connection between forages and processors is currently fragmented and identifies the challenges of linking them together to build an industry, recommending the first step to be the creation of a wild food advisory council.
The advisory council would be a working group that draws in the expertise of foraging, growers, harvesters, buyers, sellers, processors, educators and researchers.
“We would try to have representation from as many different areas as possible. You would want representation from all parts of the industry so everyone has a voice,” said James.
Following the development of the advisory council, the report recommends introducing integrated wild food farming in order to mitigate the risk of overharvesting.
The report also outlines the need to build a knowledge base, develop training programs on species identification, sustainable foraging practices and develop a wild food assessment tool to assist landowners with identifying wild foods on their land.
“We would look at establishing some workshops to train foragers in collecting the material because there is a certain way to do that in a sustainable way and it is also important to know how to store these items to minimize waste,” said James.
It also suggests the advisory council examine the need for regulations, governing registrations or certification, as well as rules for foraging on Crown land.
A co-operative system
To combat the disconnection between foragers and processors, the report has also proposed the creation of a co-operative that establishes agents throughout the province to buy wild food products from foragers and then take the products to market.
“Over the course of the interviews, the idea of the co-operative evolved. The idea would be to have one co-operative and a number of local agents,” said James.
James says the co-operative system would also help create a sustainable and predicable supply for buyers.
“The agents would be buying product from a number of people, which would give them some volume. Quantity has been an issue in the past, but if we have a number of people contributing, we can get those volumes up,” said James.
However, Scot McTaggart says that those who are currently sourcing wild foods might not be too interested in buying through that kind of system.
McTaggart is the owner of Fusion restaurant in Winnipeg and would likely be a potential customer for the future co-operative.
“Our restaurant focuses on answering the question of what is Prairie cuisine? And so, using wild or foraged products is certainly a big part of that,” said McTaggart.
Fusion restaurant dishes up a menu featuring fresh and local products, including many wild foods, most commonly fiddleheads and various wild mushrooms.
“I hate to stand in the way of progress but for my business, I don’t think we would be very interested,” said McTaggart.
Fusion currently sources its wild foods directly from local foragers throughout the province. McTaggart says one of the reasons he likes to use wild foods is that it creates a connection to the land, local harvesters and produces rich stories behind his menu items.
“My fear is that the development of something like a co-operative will take away from the story that accompanies these products and would reduce the direct relationship that we have with the people who are growing and harvesting,” he said. “It also brings up the concern of involving more individuals into the supply chain, which could affect prices and profit for these local producers.”
Although McTaggart admits to having difficulty in sourcing wild food sometimes, mainly due to Mother Nature, he passionately believes it is worth it to be able to deliver fresh, locally grown and harvested menu items.
“There is something to be said about the ability to serve a dish and tell the customer about where the product came from, who grew or harvested it and how it has reached their table.”
WAM has recently applied for further funding for Phase 2 of the project, which would consist of the creation of the aforementioned advisory panel and possibly a pilot project of the co-operative system.
“The first phase of the project went well in terms of what we got out of it and now we are looking at getting funding for the second phase to see if we can set up a pilot project to see if we can actually make a go of making a wild food industry in Manitoba,” said James.