Local Flavor: Seasonally Sourced Foods
One misty fall morning finds Gilbert Schwartz, owner of Seasonally Sourced Foods, ready to harvest nannyberries. Where forest meets field he finds a small thicket of the bushes, a native viburnum, and he begins to load up his harvest bags with the dark blue berries.
“I have so many favorite wild foods,” Gil says. “If I had to pick some standouts from across the seasons they would have to be fresh stinging nettles in the spring, juneberries and wild rice in the summer, and then of course nannyberries in the fall.”
Most people are familiar with the farm-to-table movement, but Gil hopes to make more of them aware of what has been called “field-to-table.” This new spin on eating local focuses on wild, foraged foods.
The seeds of Gil’s foraging business started in childhood when he became interested in the delicious realm of wild foods. As an adult, he become more passionate and involved in the field of foraging. After months of research and planning, he registered Seasonally Sourced Foods as a limited liability company in April of 2015 and things have grown steadily from there.
The early phases of the business included making connections with a handful of area restaurants and a couple of food co-ops, as well as vending wild foods at Ashland’s weekly farmers market. Although he came into the business with a few reliable harvesting locations, he also spent many hours and days scouting for likely foraging grounds in swamps, fields, and woods throughout northern Wisconsin.
Gil gathers a wide variety of wild fruits, flowers, ferns, hazelnuts, and more from his own land on the outskirts of Washburn. He is developing a rapidly expanding market garden to supplement the wild foods with some cultivated ones. Most of the foraging for Seasonally Sourced, however, takes place away from his farm on various parcels of privately owned land and some public forests with commercial harvesting permits.
“We are lucky to have a great profusion of amazing edible plants and fungi across the beautiful outdoors of northern Wisconsin,” Gil says. “But one misconception about foraging that I see some people have is that anyone can just walk out in any woods and easily find harvestable foods everywhere.”
To the contrary, it has taken years of self-education, learning from mentors, and experiential learning in order to accurately identify various species, the types of environments the foods grow in, the correct seasons, and the best parts of the plants to use. Foraging can be hard work and requires versatility, time management, flexibility, and stamina. Gil contends with the same things you do when you are out for a hike or harvesting yourself—bugs, variable weather conditions, carrying food and water, sun protection, GPS tracking, bushwhacking, and the list goes on.
Gil currently owns and operates Seasonally Sourced Foods all by himself, which means that when he’s not out foraging or making sales, he is working hard behind the scenes on the various facets of running a small business. He does everything from accounting and office work to marketing, scouting for new harvesting locations, processing, packaging, and making deliveries.
A typical day sees Gil hitting the road early after reviewing his harvesting notes to decide on what can be gathered and where. When he is not gathering from his own land, he commutes to different locations for harvesting, monitoring, or scouting. If he can plan things right, Gil likes to do most of the gathering during the cooler morning or evening hours. However, he will often just go from sunrise until sunset, just to get enough product. When possible he mixes up the type of harvesting he is doing, so he might spend a block of time hunched over gathering greens from the ground before moving onto picking berries from a tall shrub in an upright position.
After returning home, he does any sorting, quality control, processing, and packaging before chilling perishable products in a refrigerator. When he is not out and about foraging, Gil does office work, makes deliveries, or sells his products from a stand at a local farmers market.
As he moves into his second year, Gil has fine-tuned some aspects of running the business based on what worked best last year. In addition to vending at the Ashland Area Farmer’s Market this year, Washburn and Madeline Island have proven to be great venues for showcasing his seasonal selection of wild foods to locals and visitors alike. Another new development this year has been working with the Delta Diner to provide them with a weekly rotating selection of wild veggies, mushrooms, and garnishes that they transform into their “Forager’s Breakfast Bowl” blue plate special.
“I love that I am able to make a livelihood engaging in the multi-faceted and ancient human activity of wild food gathering,” Gil says. “Calling the great outdoors with its rich sights, sounds, and smells my main office is something I am very grateful for. Being able to provide fresh gourmet wild foods on a regular basis and making so many great connections in our local foods movement also make my line of work very satisfying.”