How local foragers and hunters take advantage of Iowa’s natural resources

By Sophia Finster, Photos by Chris Grebner and Rachel Vanderwerff

We often take for granted Iowa’s abundant forests, prairies and backyards, and the variety of nutritious foods they provide. Tapping into these resources through foraging, hunting and fishing helps us understand how valuable they are.

“Food is a commonality that everyone needs. As a society, we are so disconnected to where our food comes from and how to obtain and prepare healthy foods,” Rachel Vanderwerff, wild foods advocate, explained.

A handful of local organizations celebrate and facilitate the hunting and gathering of wild foods, including Backyard Abundance, Edible Outdoors (with chapters in Iowa City and Des Moines), Johnson County Conservation, the Prairie States Mushroom Club, Take a Kid Outdoors and the Department of Natural Resources.

Edible Outdoors is a community dedicated to learning about foraging, hunting and fishing in the active classroom of the outdoors. It began in 2016 when a group of foragers, chefs and activists brainstormed how to get more people outdoors and interested in wild foods. Today, Edible Outdoors prunes the land in a respectful and sustainable way. Their mission is “to connect people to people, land and our resources in a way that benefits nature.”

This connection may provide many health benefits. According to the USDA Forest Service and Pacific Northwest Research Station, exposure to green, natural settings can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the level of stress hormones. Research also shows that spending time outside increases energy levels and alertness, releases dopamine, boosts creativity and improves concentration and sleep.

“Hunting, fishing and foraging has been a way that we have secured food for the vast majority of human existence,” Vanderwerff said. “Creating a relationship with these ways to obtain our food, we make a unique connection with our land, people and resources. We become healthier emotionally, mentally and physically.”

Lucky for us, there are more and more opportunities for novice foragers, hunters and fishers to learn these skills. Last year, Edible Outdoors hosted several events aimed at connecting people to their land.

In May 2016, Kathy Dice of Red Fern Farm oversaw an urban food foraging class, focused in part on identifying dandelions, violets, plantain, sorrel and edible greens, often considered weeds, from chemical-free yards.

Harvesting edible greens is different from harvesting other wild foods, Dice explained. For sustainability reasons, foragers are expected to take a limited portion of most plants; when it comes to varieties often considered weeds, you can pluck as many as you want without disrupting the ecosystem.

Dandelion, a nearly ubiquitous weed, is entirely edible from flower to root. Dandelion greens are purported to boost immune function and reduce inflammation, and are rich in antioxidants.

Plantains, another common backyard weed, have traditionally been used in teas to help with indigestion, heartburn and ulcers. When made into a salve and applied to rashes, burns or wounds, the leaves’ antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties are also thought to help with healing.

Edible Outdoors’ wild game chef demo and target practice, which took place in April 2017 at Highland Hideaway Hunting, welcomed everyone from avid hunters to people who had never shot a gun. Some present were members of hunting organizations, including Whitetails Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, that seek to conserve land in Iowa. The Iowa DNR Wildlife Bureau manages more than 356,000 acres of land available to public recreation year round, funded by revenues from the sale of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses.

“There is no better steward of land conservation than the outdoorsman,” Peter Wendler, a local hunter, forager and fisherman, said. “Since we utilize the land and water on which we hunt and fish, we take great pride in maintaining its well-being. The mantra ‘leave it better than you found it’ rings more true in the outdoor community than in any other.”

Glen Schwartz, an avid forager and president of the Prairie State Mushroom Club, added, “It is in the best interest for fishermen to keep the lakes and rivers clean so the fish they catch can be eaten. It is in the best interest of the forager to keep the woods clean so the mushrooms, berries, nuts and other plant life continue to be plentiful and nutritious.”

After practicing safe gun skills, chef Chris Grebner of Provender and The Farmer’s Table taught a demo on different wild pheasant cooking techniques.

Grebner learned to forage at a young age. His family would venture out to see what the outdoors had to offer, often hunting for morels in the spring. His outdoorsy upbringing and time spent as a chef in the Pacific Northwest—where it’s common practice to stock kitchens with food from local farmers and foragers—fostered his love of wild foods, particularly morel and chanterelle mushrooms, wild garlic and ramps.

“When foraging for mushrooms you can’t just scan the ground as you walk, you have to crouch down in one spot and move the leaves,” he said. “You have to be in contact with it. It’s such a tactile thing.”

Every year in the late spring, Grebner hosts a five- to seven-course forager’s dinner. The menu has included stinging nettle ravioli with wild garlic butter, a salad with garlic mustard, herbaceous greens, wild pheasant and, of course, morel mushrooms.

The chef said he appreciates how wild foods welcome him to tune in to the rhythm of our seasons, by “eating the forest as it comes alive in the spring, making jams and sauces from summer berries and hunting pheasants in the fall.”

Grebner never steps into the woods without a local guidebook to ensure he is correctly identifying each plant he gathers. He also recommends exploring year-round to learn what a plant looks like as it moves through its lifecycle. If you are having trouble pinning down a plant in early spring, it may reveal what it is as the year goes on.

Many wild food advocates agree that the best way to start is to go to an event and get hands-on experience under an expert. As you get more familiar with your local public lands, you will find secret spots full of your favorite wild foods. Starting in March or April 2018, Edible Outdoors will be hosting an archery and woodland foraging class, a pond-to-plate fishing class demonstrating how to utilize the entire fish, a wild game and wine pairing, a small hunt for upland waterfowl and a mushroom foray. Each class costs roughly $20. They also offer around three scholarships for each class.

Details for these events are posted to the Edible Outdoors Facebook page and Backyard Abundance website. Outside of classes, Vanderwerff recommends reading The Scout’s Guide to Wild Edibles by Mike Krebill.

Update: The print version of this article misatttributed the following paragraph to Mandy Dickerson. This information was actually provided by Kathy Dice. Little Village regrets this error.

Harvesting weeds is different from harvesting other wild foods. For sustainability reasons, foragers are expected to takes a limited portion of most plants; when it comes to weeds, you can pluck as many as you want without disrupting the ecosystem.

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