Greens Gone Wild

The Chapel Hill News
March 6th, 2013

You never know what kind of weed you’ll find in Carrboro. At the inaugural Wild Food and Herb Market – one of the first in the country – you’re likely to find familiar yard sprouts nestled beside some you’ve never heard about before. All of them are good to eat and good for you, too, experts say.

The most important thing is to ask questions, foraging expert Alan Muskat said. He plans to launch a wild foods market in April as a part of Asheville’s City Market.

“We live in an individualistic, do-it-yourself culture,” he said. “That’s a really dumb way to do things.”

Learn from an experienced forager, get to know your vendors and don’t expect the flavors you might get from store-bought produce, Muskat said.

Education will be a centerpiece of Carrboro’s Wild Food and Herb Market, co-founders Josh Lev and Jenny Schnaak said.

In addition to foragers, herbalists and wild food farmers, the market will have booths featuring Triangle area experts and organizations. They want the market to be a gathering place for people seeking closer connections to nature, said Schnaak, who is the development director and youth program manager for The Abundance Foundation in Pittsboro.

Sarah Haggerty, education director at the Piedmont Wildlife Center in Durham, said she will gather winter and spring greens – chickweed, dandelion and peppergrass – for a salad mix to sell at the market. A good trim often helps a plant grow back faster and stronger, and the younger leaves usually have the best taste, she said.

Other vendors, including Two Chicks Farm in Hillsborough and Alfred’s Farm in Cedar Grove, will sell what they grow.

Schnaak and Lev, a community herbalist and founder of the Carrboro Herb Guild, sowed the idea for the market last year in meetings with Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen. The town board agreed in January to waive $1,575 in fees for using the Town Commons but asked the market to provide a minimum of $1 million in general liability insurance.

The Abundance Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on sustainable food, energy and economies, is a supporting partner.

Schnaak said they were inspired by Muskat – aka the “Mushroom Man” – who has been selling and teaching about mushrooms for 15 years. He could make a special trip to speak at the market later this year, she said.

Muskat said the most common concerns he encounters are about food safety and the potential for environmental damage from amateurs traipsing through the woods.

Education will protect people, forests and the flora, he said. A common example of foraging done wrong is American ginseng, which was nearly wiped out in western North Carolina and is now a legally protected plant. Although poaching does happen, most foragers now meet strict regulations to harvest and sell the prized roots.

“What destroys the woods is grocery stores, because we cut down trees to grow crops,” he said.

And while amateurs do pick bad mushrooms occasionally, it won’t stop people from foraging, Muskat said. The economy is creating more interest in low-cost food resources, and it’s important for experienced foragers share their knowledge, he said.

According to the National Poison Data Center, there were roughly 6,400 calls about mushrooms to poison hotlines in 2011. Of those, most involved unknown types of mushrooms, children under the age of 5 and no reported problems. Only two calls resulted in deaths, and 38 involved major illnesses.

Schnaak said the Carrboro market’s vendors will include professional farmers, botanists, mycologists and herbalists with at least 10 to 20 years of experience. Each market will offer a special theme or event.

Her best advice: Pick a new ingredient, learn to identify it and experiment with cooking it.

“Instead of going around in a disrespectful, unsustainable way, we want to introduce people in a really positive, respectful way that is environmentally sustainable,” she said. “There’s lots of potential for positive change.”