Goods from the Woods: A Local Forest to Table Movement
On a damp spring day, Seattle floral designer Katherine Anderson climbs a tree in some woods south of Duvall. She clips and collects delicate fronds of licorice fern—which she’ll use as bouquet greenery at her Capitol Hill flower shop Marigold and Mint—then shinnies back down to the ground. Just 30 miles east of Seattle, Anderson’s 100-acre family-owned forest grows cheek by jowl with suburbia, but thanks in part to those little fern fronds, it is—for now—safe from conversion into housing or a mall.
Anderson is part of an emerging “goods from the woods” movement working to grow and sell the bounty of small local forests in order to protect woodlands from development. Proponents are hoping that Seattleites who have been seduced in recent years by the ripe flavors and sustainable story behind local farm produce will fall similarly in love with local forest products. “Small-forest owners face nearly identical issues as small farmers do,” says Mary Embleton of the Seattle nonprofit Cascade Harvest Coalition. Last year, along with the nonprofit Northwest Natural Resources Group, the coalition snagged a King County grant for $20,000 to help promote family-owned forest products, which are currently underrecognized. “We need consumer education about forests and the amenities they provide, as well as the variety of products people can use,” says Embleton. These woodland wares include floral greens, like Anderson’s ferns and salal, and in winter, holiday evergreen swags and wreaths. Edibles are also plentiful: mushrooms, berries and greens such as miner’s lettuce, plus herbs and medicinals. And, of course, there are sustainably harvested timber products such as wood for furniture and home building. Most family forests are too small to supply Costco or Home Depot, but are the perfect scale to produce goods for a restaurant that emphasizes local cuisine, or a furniture boutique, or an herbal apothecary.
In Washington, where many forests have long been owned by the federal and state government or large timber companies, it may come as a surprise that approximately 2,000 family-owned forests exist in King County alone, tucked in between developments in places like Maple Valley and Fall City. Each is between 5 and 1,000 acres. Though city dwellers might not give that land much thought, the trees provide amenities for all of us by slowing global warming, purifying the air, buffering noise and cleaning streams. The biggest threats to these woodlands’ survival are their value as potential residential property and the cost of maintaining them. Aging second-growth (or third-growth) forests can’t just be left alone; they need to be managed, and taxes on forestland can be punishing.
While the movement to bring forest products to the city is nascent, Seattleites will likely find more of these products on local menus, in farmers’ markets, and at small shops and lumberyards as more local businesses work to keep local forests thriving.
The Foraging Florist:
Marigold and Mint
Katherine Anderson, a delicate-featured florist of 40, grew up in Seattle’s Broadmoor neighborhood, but she’s always had an earthy side, gardening with her dad in childhood and decamping for outdoor summers in the San Juan Islands. Her great-grandfather was a logger on the Olympic Peninsula. Anderson was working as a landscape architect and raising two kids with her husband when she decided she wanted to leave the desk behind to reclaim her creative freedom and a more direct connection to the land. Anderson’s family now owns the thriving 100-acre Oxbow Farm in Carnation and 100 acres of woodlands in the Snoqualmie Valley, passed down from her grandfather. While he had originally bought it as an investment, Anderson says she doesn’t want to develop the forest, just selectively cut trees as part of good forest management. That’s because she’s seen how development obliterated the woods she used to admire on the way to her acreage. “Now it’s subdivision after Safeway after McDonald’s,” she says. But Anderson does reap a small living from her forest’s understory; last year, when the florist opened her exquisite flower shop Marigold and Mint at Capitol Hill’s Melrose Market, she began offering cedar garlands and wreaths, and arrangements that make use of forest-harvested moss, licorice and sword ferns, salal, and dramatic branches of deciduous huckleberry, thimbleberry and salmonberry. Brides have begun requesting the forest goods for wedding bouquets, and restaurants also display them. Anderson thinks the market for woodland arrangements is growing. In a way, she says, though greens and flowers from nearby forests aren’t exotic, they are perhaps to many people more special than mums grown in Ecuador or tulips from Amsterdam. “It allows me to have something that you can’t buy from a wholesaler,” she says. “There’s a specialness I can access in the forest that’s completely local and native. It’s a different type of luxury.”
The Forest Food Evangelists:
Roy Breiman & Mark Bodinet
In the kitchen at SeaTac’s Cedarbrook Lodge, Roy Breiman, the hotel’s culinary director, fluffs a giant heap of black trumpet mushrooms, releasing the smell of earth. The fungi were just delivered by Seattle-based company Foraged and Found, a wild-food supplier that culled the trumpets from Washington woodlands. “You can’t find better black trumpets anywhere than what grows within 30 miles of this restaurant,” Breiman, 48, says decisively. This 104-room boutique hotel, a few unlikely blocks from SeaTac Airport, boasts 18 acres of restored wetlands. Behind the scenes is a kitchen staff passionate about serving local foods, including Washington’s forest-foraged bounty. Originally from Santa Barbara, Breiman traveled widely in decades past, making a name for himself in the restaurant world. But he says it was during a three-year sojourn in France that he found his deepest culinary inspiration. Breiman has a formal demeanor, but his face lights up and his posture relaxes as he talks about it. “There’s an inherent quality there,” he says of the history and tradition of French cuisine. “I’m trying to carry this on and pass it down to other generations.” To him, this is what makes local woodland foods—much like locally farmed produce—so desirable.
The hotel’s Copperleaf Restaurant cooks through 10 pounds or more each of black trumpets, hedgehog mushrooms and chanterelles every week or so in fall and winter; a pound of truffles each month, along with many sticky flats of forest-harvested huckleberries (preserved at the end of the summer). Head chef Mark Bodinet, 27, whose previous job was as saucier for the world-renowned Napa restaurant French Laundry, says these woodland foods are special because they have the “terroir”—the flavor, scent and other attributes—unique to the particular forest soil in our region. He proffers a tender, heart-shaped miner’s lettuce leaf to taste. The lettuce is a winter annual that grows abundantly in the Pacific Northwest, is packed with vitamins and is one of the first greens to come into season at the beginning of the wild year. Bodinet uses the lettuce as a base on plates, and the other foraged green, nettles, will be folded into a nettle omelet or a creamy nettle soup. He also likes to combine woodland foods—miner’s lettuce, black truffles, black trumpets, nettles—because they go well together. And diners seem to want more. “The demand is there,” says Breiman. “The more rustic, the more organic, the better.” While Breiman and Bodinet buy most of their wild goods from Foraged and Found, which gathers from Northwest forests of all sizes, both men also serve informally on the board of the Cascade Harvest Coalition’s Forest-to-Market program, which offers guidance to smaller family forests on marketing, promotion and sustainability. Working to keep local woodlands alive is not just altruism, says Breiman. “It’s a way to help guarantee a never-ending supply of the products I believe in.”
Green Tree Mill
“I come from a logging background—rape and pillage version,” says David Kienholz, 35. Kienholz is the operations manager at Green Tree Mill, a custom sawmill based in Seattle and Graham, Washington, southeast of Tacoma. Kienholz’s father worked as an old-growth logger in Enumclaw, and when he joined his dad on the job in the 1990s he grew bothered by the waste—mountains of extra wood left by large logging equipment. In those days, Kienholz was often told, “We’ll never run out of wood.”
So how does starting your own sawmill keep trees in the forest? Kienholz began his company with three logging truckloads of old-growth cedar he bought for $450 in cash from a forest in the Tacoma watershed. The logs were fire damaged, and the logging company didn’t want them. “The production mills [big, industrial wood-cutting operations] looked at it as scrap wood,” he says, and they would otherwise have burned it on the land or left it to rot. Kienholz experimented with a chainsaw on his first log until he’d figured out how to make wide boards of clear cedar—then sold the boards from that one log for $800. So began his business, Pitchwood Lumber. (The name Kienholz is the German word for “pitchwood.”) While industrial mills demand that trees be nearly the same size and shape (hence the uniform trees grown on tree farms), Kienholz’s mission is to mill and dry the unusual wood such mills can’t handle.
His operation, renamed Green Tree Mill, was purchased in 2009 by Meyer Wells, a Seattle business that makes fine handcrafted furniture from local trees. Now “sister” businesses, Green Tree Mill and Meyer Wells work with three types of local wood: urban salvage trees, Forest Stewardship Council wood cut from small family forests in Washington state and wood collected from Washington’s industrial pulp yards that would otherwise be burned. Within a year of the merger, the organization grew from nine employees to 30. Customers began clamoring for its flooring, paneling and timbers. (So far, most of these finished products have been sold directly from the mill, but placement in Northwest home stores is in the works.) Kienholz has aided small-forest owners in finding customers for small numbers of trees, advised them on which trees would be best to cut for forest health, and helped to pay their property taxes. He has had customers so interested in the process that he takes them to the forest to show the exact trees that will be logged to build their house. “People here really care,” says Kienholz. “And now they finally feel like there’s an option.”