Interested in foraging your food? Try a guided tour

"Foraging tour guides can teach participants how to forage safely as well as sustainably"

Published May 30, 2024 4:30PM (EDT)

A woman foraging in the woods for wild leeks, also called ramps, or wild onions. (Getty Images/Fertnig)
A woman foraging in the woods for wild leeks, also called ramps, or wild onions. (Getty Images/Fertnig)

This article originally appeared on FoodPrint.


At the Horn Farm Center in south central Pennsylvania, the mission is to teach people to grow and source their own food while forming a regenerative relationship with the land — including through hands-on foraging experiences.

Jon Darby has now been teaching foraging at Horn Farm for 15 years, leading monthly two-hour foraging walks that emphasize ethical foraging of seasonally available staples, like chickweed and rose hips. But recently, Darby says, “We’ve definitely seen an increase in participation.” While six or seven people per class was the norm when starting out, the foraging walks nowadays are capped at 30 participants — with a waiting list. Horn Farm is now offering a new eight-week training program with intensive foraging classes that cover botany terminology, plant identification, safety best practices, culinary uses and more. Programs are mostly geared towards adults, but the organization partners with a nearby farm that’s focused on teaching younger people.

“It’s not unusual for someone to tell me they drove two hours to take a class,” Darby notes. “I do think that kind of speaks to an increase in interest and also the lack of places offering this.”

Across the country, foraging tours run by experts with local area knowledge provide an accessible entry point for those interested in learning how to gather their own food. And according to some of the people who run such tours, they are becoming more popular, especially after the pandemic. Some foraging experts have seen stark increases in interest — up to 500 percent. We spoke with a few foraging tour guides about what they’re seeing in the field today.


Diversifying the foraging experience

Many guides are working to make foraging more accessible and bring in new, more diverse audiences, as the significant increase in interest has sparked conversations around food sovereignty and who “gets” to forage and why. In Los Angeles, Jessica Tsae-Ni Lin leads foraging workshops focused on BIPOC and queer participants. And on her new plant and fungi walks, starting this month, Bay Area forager Cindy Li will share knowledge gained foraging with her immigrant parents. “I’m really excited that I’m starting to see more younger people of color like me,” Li told KQED. “I would love for people to walk away with a sense of abundance in the place that they live.”

Steve Brill — known professionally as “Wildman Steve” — has been introducing New Yorkers to foraging for more than 40 years, and now co-leads tours with his teenage daughter, Violet. His popular tours take budding foragers not to the remote wilderness but to Central Park and other green spaces in New York City. Brill’s tours give “diverse people of all ages and all backgrounds” a new way of thinking about food and an opportunity to get in touch with nature, with a focus on overlooked wild edible and medicinal plants and mushrooms. These kinds of experiences can be hugely influential, he notes, citing one example of a group of young people who got an early exposure to nature on his tours, and then went on to spearhead an effort to establish a greenway in their community.

Foraging hopefuls can also find an approachable entry point through businesses like farms and restaurants, where foraging tours can be a way to diversify income while getting new audiences interested in wild foods. In California, Ancient Peaks Winery recently launched foraging tours on its 14,000-acre Santa Margarita Ranch, an outdoor experience that provides additional value to the many visitors who travel to the Paso Robles area to sample the local wines. Ancient Peaks co-owner Karl Wittstrom is happy to give wine-lovers the chance to look more closely at the vineyard environment: “That was kind of the main reason that we started down that path,” he said. There’s plenty for visiting foragers to enjoy — in addition to the rows of sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and many other grape varieties, Wittstrom notes, there are around 40 different species of mushrooms on the ranch. “There’s one in particular called turkey tail. It grows on decaying oak wood,” he says of one local variety.

Ranch naturalist Jacqueline Redinger leads the Ancient Peaks foraging tours. She notes that they are especially popular with older visitors, but has also loved to see younger people getting an early start to their foraging journeys: “Just today we had four 27-year-olds out on a nature tour, and they were super interested.”


Shifting climate, shifting seasons

Alan Muskat, founder of No Taste Like Home in Asheville, North Carolina, has created a program with local chefs and restaurants to help his guests engage with the culinary potential of their foraged ingredients. “We call it a tour, although you could call it a workshop,” he explains: The foraging tour takes guests through woods and meadows to gather plants like ramps and morel mushrooms. Then, after the tour, the guests are able to cook up some of what they have found. They can take any leftover foraged ingredients to a partner restaurant, which will turn their wild foods into an appetizer with the purchase of a main.

Muskat says the team has — anecdotally — noticed an uptick in local people who are serious about learning to forage, especially since the pandemic. He also notes that even in mid-winter, it’s possible to find edible things. “There are more greens, certainly, through winter when it’s warmer,” he says. “It has been that way the last few years.” In particular, he points out that this year, the shifting weather patterns meant that morels started popping up earlier than expected. “We planned our tours for April,” he explains, but the first wave of morels in North Carolina came even earlier.

Some foragers who have historically paused their tours in the colder months are finding that, now, there’s more to be found in winter than there used to be. For those who are new to foraging, this means plenty of time to get out and explore.

“When I was a child there would be snow on the ground right after Thanksgiving, and the last snow would be melting by the time of my birthday [in early March],” Brill says. But these days, there is less snow in New York, and some of the plants that used to disappear in November — and then slowly re-emerge in March — can be found all year round.

Brill says that he saw this pattern coming a long time ago. In fact, when writing one of his books back in the 1990s, he took care to avoid specific months when discussing seasonality and instead referred only to “early spring” and “mid spring” because he could tell that the seasons would be changing. “The science was completely solid even back then,” he said.

In Pennsylvania too, Darby points out that there used to be deep snows in winter when he was growing up, but now there is always something to see, 12 months out of the year.


The value of expertise

Foraging can be fun, but only if done safely. As the popularity of this outdoor hobby grows, mycologists have noticed poisonings increase alongside. Foraging tour guides can teach participants how to forage safely as well as sustainably.

“If there’s anything I’d tell people over and over, it’s to learn from someone else,” says Muskat. In addition to leading tours, he also employs six other guides; No Taste Like Home leads approximately 400 tours per year. Though foraging is mostly a sustainable activity when compared with conventionally produced foods, he says, “There certainly are things better left alone.” In some areas, overharvesting is a growing concern. To ensure that nothing is over-foraged during his tours, Muskat explains, “We focus on what’s common when we teach.”

Brill echoes the importance of seeking guidance from an expert. “There are things that it took me years to learn because I had no one to teach me,” he said. “I can look at what I’m doing as one little drop in the bucket,” Brill says, “and I can also look at it as part of what lots of people are doing in different ways to increase appreciation of the environment and help protect [it].”

For Darby, seeing people get enthused by nature is very rewarding, and he especially loves to educate people about weeds and other plants often perceived as unattractive, which he refers to as unsung heroes. “I think the thing that most people get excited about learning is that all of the plants they already have at their house — that are very common, that they overlook and pull in their gardens, and consider weeds — are quite amazing plants if you get to know them,” he says. “The thing that makes it most enjoyable to me is kind of seeing those lightbulb moments in the class.”

By Hollie Stephens

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