The cherries Charley Underwood likes to scrounge in Uptown were too ripe at the end of last week. Still, the Minneapolis man donned his straw hat, leaned his ladder against the tree and grabbed at the ones that were crimson and juicy, dropping them into his Folgers coffee can to take home.
Underwood is a forager. He picks edible plants from public and private places that he'll cook, can or eat.
He has been at it about 20 years, but he is seeing more company as urban agriculture fanatics turn to foraging. Now regulations in Minnesota are changing to match that growing appetite.
On Wednesday, a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board committee will consider a plan that would create "edible landscapes" — areas with food-producing trees, safe from pesticides and vehicle exhaust. Frogtown Park in St. Paul is in the process of developing an urban farm.
The Minneapolis plan, in the works since 2012, doesn't aim to promote scavenging for wild food as much as to contain it safely, said Ginger Cannon, a project lead with the park board.
"We're looking to modify that so we can allow for harvesting of food in designated areas," Cannon said. "We wouldn't look at opening up the full system — that would have a really bad effect on wildlife ecology."
Current rules vary. In Minneapolis parks, foraging is not allowed — not flowers, not leaves, not berries. The same goes for anywhere in the city of St. Paul, including parks. In Minnesota state parks, foraging for commercial use isn't allowed. The Midtown Greenway's manager, Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, doesn't mention foraging in its regulations.
For Ed Quinn, a natural resources manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the math justifies restrictions on foraging. If many of the more than 8 million annual visitors to state parks wanted to take a piece of the park home, "pretty soon, you don't have anything left," he said. He's seen hyperactive foragers before.
"People have come and taken large amounts of garbage bags full of things," Quinn said.
A forager's heaven
Underwood sees several factors behind the increase in foragers: concern about food security, the push for more locally grown food and the recent recession. He has a simpler reason for doing what he does. "Well, it's free," he said.
He forages two or three times a week when the weather is warm, sometimes with his wife, Mary Ann Crolley. He said about 20 percent of what he eats in the growing season is foraged food. All his salads come from foraged ingredients — some of which he finds in his back yard.
His home is a forager's heaven. He has a stove for maple syrup making and a slew of berry plants in the yard.
He took a bite of lamb's quarters, commonly considered a household weed. Underwood sees it differently. "A weed is just a plant that's in the wrong place for you," he said.
There aren't many health regulations regarding foraged produce, said Doug Schultz of the Minnesota Department of Health. For example, only wild mushroom identification experts are allowed to sell morel mushrooms in Minnesota.
Kathy Yerich is a certified mushroom expert and forages for Corner Table, a restaurant in south Minneapolis. She was part of a work group that met with the health and agriculture departments in 2012 to expand mushroom sale specifics. The group hasn't heard anything back yet.
"It's a long process," she said.
For his part, Underwood doesn't pick too close to the sidewalks, for fear of that food being in the radius of dog waste.
Foraging goes official
The national foraging landscape is difficult to quantify, but the number and frequency of pickers became such a problem in New York's Central Park that its staff asked visitors not to "make a picnic out of the Park."
It's official enough in Minnesota to have Maria Wesserle, foraging coordinator with North Country Food Alliance. She said the organization works with other groups to spread awareness of foraging, and holds monthly foraging workshops around the Twin Cities area.
She said foraging is more visible than it was a few years ago. She knows about 10 people who forage in the Twin Cities area, and about 25 in the rest of the state.
"There's like a huge diversity of things you can eat — much more diverse than things you can get at the grocery store," Wesserle said.
Underwood said he knows about 30 Twin Cities area foragers and about 150 across the state, gauging from foraging conferences.
Even with that growth, foragers are still a small group, he said. "I see more people in Cub than I do foraging."