Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Prairie Infusions

Non-Timber Forest Products – a Rich, Renewable Resource 

Elisabeth Poscher and Harold Wudkevich moved to the Nipawin area in 2009. The local economy was struggling, but the region’s natural beauty was stunning, and Elisabeth was sure that if they looked long enough, they would find local employment opportunities.

And they did, but not in an office or any other man-made setting. Instead, they spend their days tramping through the nearby provincial forests harvesting the mushrooms, plants, and berries that grow in undiscovered abundance, passing them on to consumers through their brand-new business, Prairie Infusions.

Treasure Hunt
Elisabeth is originally from Austria. She trained as an Arid Lands Resource Scientist at the University of Arizona, but she soon moved north because she missed the seasons. She worked with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Swift Current for three years before moving to Nipawin.

Elisabeth’s science background comes in handy when she is researching the habits and habitat of the local plants and mushrooms in order to track them down. Winters are spent foraging for balsam poplar buds (massage oils, healing salves), chaga (a mushroom growing on birch trees that can be ground into a powder for tea) and bottling the birch syrup they harvested earlier in the year. In the spring, there are fresh, green fiddleheads and morel mushrooms, while summer brings chanterelle and matsutake mushrooms, and heaping baskets full of wild berries – blueberries, high-bush cranberries, lingonberries, chokecherries, pincherries, and Saskatoon berries.

All the foraged products are found deep in the provincial forests, miles away from agricultural land. “These are our local, completely uncontaminated resources,” Elisabeth exclaims. “We are so lucky that we have this food right in our backyard. It’s unfortunate that most of it is taken out of the province and sold around the world.”

Elisabeth emphasizes that they walk everywhere and do not use an ATV or any other motorized vehicle that could harm the fragile forest floor.

They obtain permits from the provincial Ministry of the Environment for each product, stating the quantity and the location.

Wild & Healthy
Prairie Infusions was created two years ago, and they are currently selling their products through SaskMade Marketplace in Saskatoon. The product line continues to expand. First to appear were the dried mushrooms and frozen berries. Last year they added birch syrup and frozen fiddleheads. This year there will be single-herb tisanes made from fruit, leaves, or bark. Fresh fiddleheads and mushrooms will also be available in season.

“The flavour of wild plants is so much more intense,” Elisabeth says. “The full flavour is a side benefit of the phytochemicals wild plants produce, perhaps to protect themselves or else to attract animals for pollination and seed dispersal.”

Birch syrup should not be compared to maple syrup as it has its own distinctive flavour. The Prairie Infusions’ website says it has a rich, spicy-sweet taste that resembles molasses, honey, licorice, and caramel, all at once. Elisabeth says some people take a spoonful a day as medicine as it’s been found to be beneficial for skin health as well as in treating arthritis, cramps, and muscular pain.

Mushroom Fantasies & Frustrations
I’ve gone mushroom picking, and it’s such a treat to find the fantastically-shaped fungi peeking out from beneath dried leaves and grass. Europeans have a long history of foraging and eating wild mushrooms, but North Americans are often intimidated and afraid that the mushrooms will be poisonous. It’s a great shame as mushrooms are extremely healthy and flavourful.

“The Saskatchewan chanterelle is the perfection of a chanterelle,” Elisabeth says. “It has a golden colour, a scent that resembles pine needles and apricots, a mild to peppery flavour, a low moisture content, and a firm texture that stands up well to cooking. Our Prairie climate and the vast expanses of untouched wilderness in northern Saskatchewan provide the optimal environmental conditions.”

Society’s ambiguity about wild mushrooms spills over into the commercial arena. Prairie Infusions is restricted to selling their wild-harvested mushrooms through retail stores as public health regulations prohibit selling them at farmers’ markets or directly to restaurants in Saskatchewan.

“I find it strange, even offensive,” Elisabeth says. “Wild-harvested mushrooms are sold to markets and high-end restaurants around the world – but not in Saskatchewan.”

Non-Timber Forest Products 
Canadian timber has been a valued economic resource for many, many years. And yet, we ignore or underestimate the value of non-timber forest products, as a source of food and income. Non-timber forest products generate $7.4 billion annually and, unlike timber, they are a renewable resource that can be harvested every year.

Elisabeth believes that both timber and non-timber products can be productively harvested from our forests, but there needs to be effective communications between the two industries. We shouldn’t sacrifice renewable non-timber forest products for the sake of short-term gain through timber sales.

The Nipawin community is particularly concerned about plans to clearcut the Torch River Provincial Forest as it is one of the main harvesting areas for chanterelle mushrooms. Even a partial clearcut could destroy the mushroom habitat as the big equipment would have a serious impact on the forest floor where the mushrooms grow.

Making a Life
Prairie Infusions is a small company, and they want to stay that way. They depend on helpers during the peak of the blueberry and chanterelle seasons but otherwise do all the harvesting and packaging themselves.

“We are not simply trying to make a living,” Elisabeth says. “We’re trying to make a whole life for ourselves and for our local community by recreating what we think jobs and society should look like.”

Elisabeth and Harold grow a large garden, preserve food through canning and drying, hunt, fish, and gather in order to keep their carbon footprint as low as possible. “We’re modern day hunters and gatherers.”

“Every region has its own wild non-timber forest products,” Elisabeth says. “We’re opening up possibilities for other businesses in other places.”

Additional information about non-timber forest products is available from the Non-Timber Forest Products Network of Canada.

Further information about Prairie Infusions can be found in the April issue of SaskMade Marketplace’s newsletter.

Photos by Elisabeth Poscher

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