How We Started
Learning how something began can give us great insight to the core values of a company, and, not surprisingly, the origin of Forage Culture started by being outside.
I remember elementary school giddily awaiting recess, as every other kid did, but I was the only one who hoped each day that her stockpile of neatly assorted berries, leaves and flowers would still remain in the crevices of the tree roots from the previous day. They were always gone, but that never stopped me from trying again.
My friends were never interested in this game. What was the point? I would join them for swinging and kickball, but what I really wanted to do was to look at the tiny plants and seeds, to touch the rolly polly bugs and find the prettiest flowers.
On the weekends I would join my father at his vineyard, 4 acres of experimental grapevines and muscadines were his hobby. As a day job he was a physicist, and if you don’t know much about vineyards, 4 acres is quite a lot for a single man. The vineyard was situated 30 minutes from our home in Knoxville, TN in the middle of a 40 acre wooded area up a steep bluff from the French Broad River.
He taught me how to look at the smooth stones in the field next to the bluff and explained how the river far below had once washed over these rocks. He showed me charred posts from where teenagers had snuck onto the property in a dry spring to play with fireworks. They had accidentally burned the vineyard down to the ground. We would catch bugs to identify them, and we would collect plants to propagate them. Spearmint and passionfruit grew wild in the clearing around the forest, and he had blackberries and asian pears better than anything you could buy.
At our home, my mother had a willow tree garden and yarrow. She had an entire embankment of lavender, another of rose bushes, another of hydrangea, plots of cosmos, crepe myrtles lining the driveway, dogwoods, tulip poplar, figs and persimmons, and lilac. We had a vegetable garden and a watermelon vine that grew out into the drive. They bought beef by the side, and we ate deer and wild turkey.
I would read in my books like the Little House on the Prairie and imagine if I had to survive in nature, how would I do it? I would search the internet for ideas: willow bark for aspirin if I got sick, yarrow if I needed to stop bleeding or to relax aching muscles, lavender for tea and calming, dry fruit for the winter, hunt deer and animals for food.
I got into highschool and got very serious about dance as I joined a professional level company that toured nationally and internationally. While I still would go with my father to the vineyard, I stopped playing outside. I got a BFA in dance performance and choreography after spending my freshman and sophomore years dabbling in anatomy classes & researching flow states and the relationship of visual perception on exercise habits. Then I spent 11 years as a full time professional ballroom dance instructor teaching private lessons to adults and also competing and traveling with my professional dance partner.
20 years of intense, professional level work with my body came to a final conclusion: I needed to refocus. I knew at the age of 15 that I wanted to devote my life to teaching. My mother was an incredible teacher, among other things, and I knew the opportunity would present itself.
To maintain my high level of physical work and to better serve my students, I had developed a repertoire of knowledge about diet, efficient cooking, how to start transitioning eating habits through psychological means, and the various elimination diets that all seemed to lead to better health.
Enemy number 1 has been unquestionable: sugar, in all its various forms. However, my research led me to question the quality of both meat and fat that was generally available to the public. Nutritional density led me to question even our produce.
When I would travel I would seek out local food producers to truly understand things like olive oil, iberian ham, ceylon tea and salt, and I would look for teachers in wild foods to go on hikes. Two good friends (avid foragers and a water expert) even took me out for a private day with a local foraging guide book. I read it cover to cover.
As we became shut down, I got outside. I remembered the satisfying smell of wet dirt and almost imperceptible variation that comes when the plants start to bud. I knew them all well.
I was on a hike, foraging yarrow from a local park, when a woman approached me. She inquired about the flowers, hoping I hadn’t picked any of the deadly poisonous hemlock growing nearby. I told her there was a large field of yarrow, half in bloom, and that I had taken only small amounts of what was there, using scissors for a clean break.
She was the first person to talk to me about invasive vs. non-invasive and she made me aware of park regulations that reprimand the removal of any item from the park area. She gently pointed out that there were so many edible invasive plants that were overlooked while some native plants were being threatened. She was a biologist with an avid concentration on ecology. It was the missing link for me.
I had been raised to only take small amounts of anything for study or personal use from the wild and to leave sparse plants alone. I knew how to respect private landowners, to ask for permission, to never disperse a plant that could take over a farmer’s work and to be 110% certain of something before ingesting. But no one had really talked to me about the rules for public land.
My older brother had hiked the Applachain Trail, among many other things, and was often picking up things to eat on the way. It had never occurred to me that it could be frowned up or even destructive for certain plants, but it makes sense.
Then I started my own research. Why hadn’t the other classes and websites talked more about the overharvesting of ramps and American ginseng? Why weren’t people having more discussions of what sustainable foraging meant?
It was a lack of widespread, foundational education and resources causing this gap, and I knew that all the foraging community needed was a little bit of support to create a community instead of isolated groups. There were great teachers out there, and I just needed to find them to funnel the public in the right direction.
I am a teacher. My specialty has always been beginners. In elementary school when a student came in from a foreign country, I was the first one to befriend them because I would figure out how to communicate with them. My dance teachers quickly realized that if I was asking a question in class it was because I could see that it wasn’t explained enough for some of the students. Professionally, my retention of new students in ballroom was double the national average.
I’m not the smartest. I’m not the greatest expert. My wheelhouse is in the foundational communication of ideas, and I love to make overwhelming concepts approachable.
The S.E.L.L. technique was born from the need to have structure, to train the mind to ask the right questions. It is impossible to know every plant, fungi, environment, hazard or allergy, but if you know how to ask the right questions, you can find the answer. It was created to convey important foundational concepts in an easy to remember format.
The company, Forage Culture, was created to provide established foraging guides with insurance, access to private land and a wider marketing in addition to creating a more educated public with resources for nutritional education and products that align with the ideals of truly local principles and respect for the land. Consequently, the company also works to steward it’s host site properties with dispersive plant control, introduction of native species and utilization of unfarmable land as well as establishing labor exchange ideas to help landowners manage their properties. We also connect with alternative health care providers to increase knowledge of nutritionally dense foods and how to cook them while introducing students to resources outside of the traditional health care system.
I am an ambitious woman. I have a goal of landowners who are more supported by their communities, and communities who aren’t afraid of wild foods. I see exchanges of support and knowledge gently presented and discussed. I see a food system that becomes more seasonal, consumers who stop buying flown in products.
I knew that to have any footing in an impactful way, we would have to follow the established rules & regulations in each city and state. We would have to be above reproach.
Oddly enough, my background in dance has been the greatest asset I have in this regard. To dance well with another person, you must respect their desires, even if you disagree with it, as long as it is not causing you bodily or emotional harm. When you respect others, you are more likely to be respected in return.
June 30 2020 is the official birthday of Forage Culture, and I am excited to see how it grows.