A farmer’s almanac
I wasn’t about to eat just anything, though. I needed some guidance from someone who knew what an edible crop looked like—both in the garden and around the Truckee Meadows. The stakes are relatively high in foraging, especially for beginners, as it’s well understood that a misidentified plant can make you very sick or potentially kill you. And while plenty of online resources exist, identifying wild plants really benefits from direct oversight by someone who’s already done it. Enter Rebekah Stetson, former president of the Nevada Wildlife Federation, manager of Flint Street Farm in downtown Reno, and owner of the educational nonprofit FARMily Organic Farms.
“I had an experience a couple of years ago where I was walking close to Donner Lake, and I saw the bright tips on the trees at that time, they were like much more neon at the very end of each branch,” Stetson said. “And I was really called to just pick one off and eat it. And it was this incredible, piney, citrusy flavor. They were really delicious, but when I got home and looked on the internet, it’s like not only a super nutritious part of the new growth of the tree, but it’s something that five-star restaurants, they will go out and forage and then serve them pickled on salads or whatever.”
Stetson has spent most of her adult life steeped in Northern Nevada farming tradition and local food lore and is no stranger to what she refers to as “wild harvest.” As a Girl Scout, she remembered and appreciated when adults would show her which plants she could eat on camping trips. Her mother, meanwhile, instilled in her a lifelong appreciation of traditional and homeopathic remedies as well as a firm scientific understanding of how the body works.
When she began dealing with her own health issues in her early 20s, which she attributed to a medical culture overly dependent on antibiotics to treat minor ailments, Stetson decided that she would turn to the Nevada soil for help with both her physical and emotional ailments.
“Even though I was buying organic from the co-op or whatever, I was still having these digestive issues,” Stetson said. “So, when I had the real ‘Come to Jesus’ moment as a banker and was like, ‘I cannot do this anymore. This is the most disgusting job ever. I loved being with animals and I love being with plants, so I’m going to be a farmer and I’m gonna grow my own food.’”
At 22, she bought an acre of land in Lyon County and set about teaching herself the principles of conservation, permaculture, and ecosystem management with the help of mentors and experts from surrounding communities. Along with learning what it takes to feed a family, she’s become familiar with the kinds of plants Northern Nevadans can eat directly from the landscape—but in recent years she’s decided to save herself a trip and simply transplant wild samples directly into her garden at home.
I asked Stetson for some examples of wild plants she might commonly consume:
“I really love dandelions; they are so incredible,” she said. “Bitter greens aid in digestion, and it’s why in many cultures, a small green salad will be served before most every meal. Then clover is edible—Miner’s Lettuce. I found it first when I was in Star Valley, outside of Elko, and I was just like, ‘Whoa, is that like the stuff I bought at the farmer’s market before?’ And then, pine nuts are also an incredible favorite. Like, if I’m hiking and I find a tree that has pine nuts, they’re so good when they’re fresh. It’s just an incredible treat.”
Pinyon pine nuts were something I knew about already, as I’d read about a law that allows Nevadan foragers to legally harvest up to 25 pounds of the nuts per year from land owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest without a permit. The nuts are notoriously difficult to dislodge from their cones and must be used non-commercially—excess harvesters risk a steep fine—but one only has to look at the current price of pine nuts in any grocery store to see that 25 pounds of the stuff for as much as time and effort as it takes to pick them sounds like a deal.
Stetson told me she’d never harvested pinyons in any great quantity, but that she learned about their importance from members of the local Shoshone and Paiute tribes to whom the nuts are an ancient and (still) crucial crop. It’s the native traditions of stewardship and symbiosis with the land that Stetson hopes most to emulate in her work—after all, who could know more about living from the landscape than the people who’ve done it for thousands of years? She stressed that, when it comes to foraging, responsible harvesting practices are just as important as knowing which plants you can eat.
“I would say, first and foremost, to take only what you need,” Stetson said. “If it’s a plant that you’re not familiar with yet, take a little bit, go home, learn about it. … You don’t ever want to take the root of the plant if it’s not the root that you’re after, because you want it to be able to grow back.”
Over the garden wall
Stetson told me the names of a few more plants she turns to for medicinal purposes if she encounters them in the field—Mullein, an invasive plant that also helps the lungs, Mugwort for hormone stabilization, and Stinging Nettle for its deep, mineral-rich taproot—but at the end of our conversation, I tried to frankly assess if there was any real efficacy to eating wild plants.
“I’ve never, like, just from wild harvest lived off the land,” Stetson said. “Even as a farmer, boy, it’s like, the hardest job I’ve ever done next to mothering teenagers was sustenance farming—trying to grow enough food to provide for your family. I think that the practice of wild harvest or foraging is just another way to be in communion and to really explore the fact that everything is connected, and so that increases this level of responsibility … We don’t have to be consumers, right? We can live and exist in a really, truly sustainable and regenerative way.”
Neither Stetson nor I were under any impression that one person could find enough food in the desert to stave off real food insecurity—a real and growing problem in many communities even before pandemic fears drove thousands of Americans to clear out entire store inventories almost two years ago. No, unfortunately, should the food stop coming in by truck or train, at best I would now be able to add some wild greens to my apocalypse salsa and jam rations.
Of course, the shelves are back to being full for now, and I am one of the fortunate ones that has never known—and likely never will know—real hunger in America. But in the time I spent walking the hills and shady sidewalks of my neighborhood that spring, while the shelves were empty and my neighbor’s gardens were full, I thought about how quickly the absence of food begins to dissolve the threads that hold a community together.
The idea that there might be more food in those few square miles around my house lifted my spirits in the face of uncertainty, and at times, fear. In finding edible plants and admiring my neighbors’ gardens, I was happy to see all the food was so close by. But what I think I most needed to see at that time was that my community was still there too.
Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and currently writing for the Sierra Nevada Ally, Double Scoop, Reno News & Review, and other publications. Support Matt’s work for the Sierra Nevada Ally here.
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