From Death Row to Dealing (Legal) Mushrooms
I know a guy who's got a line on some matsutakes that will make your head spin. His name's Joe Daughtery, and he has earned his throne atop the wild mushroom game.
Photo via Flickr
Hey, psst, you with the toque—need some mushrooms? I know a guy who's got a line on some matsutakes that will make your head spin. His name's Joe Daughtery, and he has earned his throne atop the wild, legal mushroom game. A former log-rolling champion, Joe is intimately familiar with the forest and has been foraging since he could walk. He built his empire while working as an officer on death row, slinging fungus from the prison parking lot on his breaks. Today, Joe's a mushroom buyer in the damp wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, where he owns an assortment of buying stations. And mushrooms are big business in that part of the country—Matt Briggs, owner of Cascade Mushrooms in Portland, estimates 85 to 95 percent of wild mushrooms sold on the commercial American market are foraged in Oregon, Washington, California, and British Columbia.
Like a well-oiled drug operation, Joe's business involves scales, baskets, and a thick wad of cash to purchase the weighted haul of a busy forager in the middle of the woods, far away from ATMs and credit card machines. Once he's bought enough mushrooms, he distributes them to renowned chefs throughout the US. Still, years after leaving law enforcement, he finds himself dealing, on occasion, with drugs, prostitution, former inmates, and meth heads in the thick of the woods, in makeshift camps set up by foragers in need of a place to live while looking for wild edibles.
VICE: When did you start working on death row, and what were you doing there? Joe: When I got out of the police academy I got a job in the Wyoming Department of Corrections where I was placed as an officer on death row. I also worked in a medium security prison in Oregon a few years later. The assistant warden was concerned because I didn't have any facial hair. He said that it would be hard for inmates to take orders from me. I still can't grow facial hair.
I'm sorry to hear that. You started building your mushroom business while working on death row, correct? I grew up selling mushrooms from a very young age, but my business blew open in 2007 when I started selling to a lot of restaurants around the Pacific Northwest.
So you were juggling inmates and mushroom sales at the same time? I was initially running it out of the prison parking lot on my 15-minute breaks, calling buyers from my cell phone. I'd go out buying and selling mushrooms on my lunch hour, and took a lot of graveyard and 16-hour shifts to make it work.
What does a mushroom buyer do, exactly? When you're buying mushrooms from foragers in the forest, you set up buying stations with scales to weigh the amount of mushrooms, and then pay foragers for the weight and quality of their haul. You have to be on top of your game, watching what the market prices are doing and also taking care of your foragers.
Have you ever encountered any of your former inmates at your buying station? My first year after leaving prison work a guy walked up to my buying station, looking at me weird. I spotted his gang tattoos. He asked if I recognized him, and I had my .357 right by me, so he knew I'd blow him away if he tried anything. I told him, "I don't work for the Department of Corrections anymore, and you're not in there."
Did you buy from him? Oh, yeah. I've run into quite a few inmates since and bought from some of them. I'm not in that role anymore, so it's not right for me to discriminate or judge.
So (former) prisoners are still a part of your life. In these poor rural areas in Washington, Northern California, and Oregon State where the mushrooms grow, the jobs at the sawmills are shutting down and there's very little work. People end up dealing drugs or cooking drugs. I don't think it's fair to judge people if they went to prison.
How would you describe the average forager? There's the old forager who is still living in the past in terms of high buying profits, who could sell a high priced mushroom like the matsutake for around $170 per pound back in '95 versus the current 2013 price of $11 per pound. They're the ones who will try to gouge you on the price. Then there's the lazy forager who works for three hours and wonders why he makes no money but has a sack full of beer. There are commercial people, like Cambodian's, who treat this as a real job, following the year-round wild mushroom circuit from Oregon to Washington down to northern California, heading out at 7:00 AM and quitting at 5:00 PM. And then there's meth heads and druggers—I don't support them at all.
I wouldn't have guessed meth heads would be wild mushroom foragers. A meth head wants the fast dollar that you can get in mushroom picking, and a lot of them are running from the law. They might have past-due child support and can't get a normal paycheck… That's the kind I weed out of my operation real quick.
Do you carry a gun when you're out in the forest? I'm loaded to the hill with weapons and ammo. I carry a .357, a .38, and I just recently bought my wife a pistol. I'm thinking about buying a Glock. And my house looks like a damn arsenal.
What are you protecting yourself against? Two-legged creatures. Most people know I'm a mushroom buyer, and I pack money at my buying stations—sometimes anywhere from ten to 20 thousand dollars at a time to buy matsutake, chanterelles, morels… whatever. If I'm out picking I won't carry money on me, but we're in a bad economy so I'm armed at all times out there.
Ever shoot somebody in the woods? A woman almost tried to hold me up at gunpoint in Lewis County, Washington. I was out picking chanterelles in the pouring rain with my kid and this lady came out of nowhere. She said she was lost. I was sizing her up, because she was totally dry and I could tell something was off. I told her to stay where she was. When I looked over to my car, there was a guy hovering nearby. I thought they must have recognized me because I'm a mushroom buyer, and figured that I was carrying cash on me. My defenses were up with my daughter right there, so I told her to back away. I pulled out my .357 and said I'd blast her if she came any closer. I found out a few days later that those two got busted for cooking meth.
With a business based off of scales, weights, and quick cash, are there any illegal substances being sold at the buying stations? I won't drop names but the marijuana drug business has messed up the prices of the mushroom trade. I've seen it. You've got every make and model of marijuana being sold at certain buying stations.
Recreational weed is legal in Washington State now. Has that impacted your business? Some buyers are selling their own marijuana at their buying stations. It's an attitude like, "You sell to me, and I'll give you some marijuana." It's unfair to a company like mine that runs things by the book. In my eyes, that mushroom buyer is a drug dealer. I don't want any part of it tied with my company, so I don't put myself in those situations.
What about cocaine? I've never seen cocaine or heroin being sold. I stay away from all that stuff. I don't want any part of that or have it near my business.
Gambling? There's a lot of gambling that goes on with the people who camp out near the buying stations. And karaoke, too.
Wait, what? Karaoke? Yeah. They're all in Asian languages I can't speak or understand. But I don't want to make it sound like all mushroom camps are rampant with this stuff. Most are conducted professionally and are law-abiding businesses.
So at select camps there is drug use, gambling, and karaoke. What about prostitution? Yep. You have prostitution in some of the camps. It's not rampant. I haven't seen it recently, but I have heard about it in years past.
Mushroom buying stations sound like total dude fests. At times I call it the pit of hell with a bunch of snakes and vultures. When it comes to high-priced mushrooms, some buyers' stupid egos can manifest when they buy up all of the matsutake and aren't conscious about quality or the company they're working for.
Where is the mushroom foraging industry headed? I think the mushroom industry is on its way out. The forests are getting torn up because a lot of people don't have respect for it. There are too many people in the business now, but I think it'll still go on for a long time.
Got it. Thanks for talking to me, Joe.