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California's Drought Could Mean Less Wild Food On Your Plate, Forager Says

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Wild foods (Photo courtesy of Urban Outdoor Skills)
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Though many SoCal transplants are reveling in the incessant sunshine while the rest of the country shivers, the lack of rain has been a real damper on the state's agricultural sector, which is the largest in the nation. The drought has been talked about quite a bit in the context of how the ag industry—namely California almonds—will suffer, but another area that is being seriously impacted by the lack of water is foraging.

Harvesting wild foods in the form of both native and non-native plants has become quite popular on a national scale as well as in the Southland, partially due to the popularity of Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that has twice been named the best in the world. There, chef Rene Redzepi works with foraged foods, showcasing the seasonality of the region which is known for extreme temperatures. The trend has spread across the U.S.

Los Angeles-based foragers Mia Wasilevich and Pascal Baudar of Urban Outdoor Skills currently supply wild edibles to top chefs like Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Mec, CJ Jacobson at Girasol, and Josiah Citrin at Melisse. Their wares showcase the diversity of Southern California's landscape—from edible wildflowers to unique salad greens and native pine needles used for smoking meats.

Baudar and Wasilevich also do consulting and host their own wilderness dinners. But Baudar says the biggest part of his business that will be impacted by the drought is his ability to supply chefs and restaurants. We talked to Baudar about what he's seeing out in the field, and what it might mean for Los Angeles diners.

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With a business so dependent on nature, what are the main challenges you're facing due to the lack of rain?

To tell you the truth, the big issue here is the question of time and sustainability. This morning I was looking for sweet clover, which is usually everywhere, but I had to track one mile uphill just to go get it. The things that chefs love like wild mustard and wild radish are also becoming difficult to find [in abundance] ... Usually I have so many fields I can visit with acres of mustard, but now there’s only one. This is a fatally terrible drought.

So how does that impact your process as a forager?

I've never made a dent with my foraging, and I don’t want to start. I’m really thinking of sustainability right now. I never pick up more than 20% of an area to make it so that I can come back year after year.

If I keep over-foraging my spots, that becomes a problem. Usually I know exactly where to find things. It’s like real estate, it's all about location. But now I have to be really careful, because my goal is to be sustainable. I can't just go and pick everything out of the one field that's producing.

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A barren mustard field, which in typical years would be a sea of yellow flowers (Photo courtesy of Pascal Baudar)
If we were to get some good rain now, would that help make wild food more available and abundant?

I think it’s too little too late at this point, which is why I have to start thinking about reducing my hours, or maybe take a break foraging for some restaurants.

What natives are really being hit the hardest and why?

I've never seen such a drought in 12 years. Things are just not growing, things that I expect like lamb's quarter, native spinach, or chickweed. They are usually everywhere, but now they are so hard to find.

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What will you do if you have to take a break from foraging for restaurants? What does that mean for your business?

We can still do our dinners, consulting and classes. But providing for restaurants that are serving 150 people a night might not be possible.

The restaurants are looking for something that people like. They have to be more conservative. We are not [with our dinners]. When they come to us, people want to eat the wilderness. We do 100% wild food like wild beers, food with insects, and things like that. For a restaurant who is looking for specific things it’s more difficult.

You travel to several different areas to find wild food. Which ones seem to be suffering most? Is this something that the fire department can use as a cue for fire season?

They're pretty aware of what's going on already. But just last week I was hiking near Altadena on the Gabrielino Trail. Usually it’s loaded with chickweed, chervil, watergress, dock—just tons and tons of plants. There are usually 20-30 different edible species. I went through it, and it was like a desert. Nothing was growing. And what was growing was extremely low-quality.

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What does this mean for the future of foraging?

Honestly, I'm having so much fun looking into alternatives and using the native way of preservation to my advantage. You have to do what the native people used to do — making preserves, vinegar, beers, sodas, and floral cordial using things like pine needles, white fir, acorns, wild berries, and things that you can actually find.

I’m looking at the environment for alternatives right now. Believe me, I do tons of research. I might come out a bit stronger, in terms of abilities with wild food.