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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

April 2000

A forkful of green, gathered by a mosser on public land. and © Katherine Esposito

Bringing in nature's bounty

You know all about hunters in Wisconsin. Now meet the gatherers, who harvest moss, cut boughs and collect seeds from state properties.

Katherine Esposito

A forkful of green, gathered by a mosser on public land.

© Katherine Esposito

Raking in a livelihood
Know the rules before you pick, prune, harvest or gather

In Wisconsin, some people make money off the land without ever owning an acre or weeding a furrow. They are gatherers, who burrow deep within state forests and other public lands to cut or collect, and then sell, what's already grown: moss, branches, berries, rice, seeds, and nuts.

From the view of most forest managers, gathering is a harmless and sometimes helpful public service that brings some extra money into state coffers. But certain regulations and restrictions, including where and how much can be taken, do apply.

As a personal pocket-liner, this kind of harvesting can provide the lion's share of an income or just a little holiday money. Those with ambition can bring in some serious cash – about $400 a ton – by picking balsam boughs from state forests, such as the Brule River and the Northern Highland-American Legion, and selling them to wreath makers. Collecting tree seeds is another labor-intensive way to earn money outdoors; the DNR buys baskets of walnuts, bur oak and red oak acorns, shagbark hickory nuts, and other tree seeds each fall from state residents. The highest price: $70 a bushel for sugar maple seeds. In west central Wisconsin, sphagnum moss harvesting has furnished jobs for people for three and four generations.

Whatever the incentive, gathering natural products is a tiring enterprise, mostly pursued by rural residents in need of funds to supplement seasonal jobs. "People are kind of 'hardscrabble' up here," said Sue Brisk, a DNR forester based in Trout Lake. "A lot of locals don't have a year-round income, so they look around for little ways to make money."

Some people gather to meet a specific need, such as heating a home. In the Brule forest region last year, 15 people paid $5 each for the right to gather up to 10 cords of firewood. The romance of an old-fashioned, fresh-cut Christmas tree was even more popular, with one hundred $5 permits issued in 1998 from the same state forest. Some people coordinate tree cutting with deer hunting – at least they know they won't come back empty-handed.

When it comes to the state's profit margin from gathering enterprises, the concept of "public service" is a good one to keep in mind. Consider this: Income from timber sales in state forests runs about $2.2 million a year. In 1996, three contracts to harvest sphagnum moss on a total of 25 acres of bog were awarded for a price of $442 – about $17.68 an acre, according to Jack Halbrehder, a DNR forester in the 67,000-acre Black River State Forest.

Sphagnum moss grows naturally from seedlike spores with no assistance from anyone, but it takes a full seven years before a marsh is mature enough to cut again. If a mossing firm had to own all the land needed to turn a profit – well, there wouldn't be any profit.

"If you owned that much land, the taxes would be staggering," said Richard Hancock of Hancock Brothers, a family-run mossing business in northern Monroe County. "We're talking thousands and thousands of acres of land." The family owns no marshes, but leases some and also mosses at times in the nearby Jackson County Forest.

Of course, there's another reason why state lands are heavily used by gatherers, according to Jim Rau, Brule property manager: "The majority of boughs picked come from public land because the majority of land up here is public land."

Raking in a livelihood

On a balmy day last August, the Hancock brothers and Jack Halbrehder took visitors out to the Hancock's mossing site at Circle Hill Marsh, deep inside the woods. Killdeer called, and the air carried a hot, earthy fragrance of decaying plants. Surprisingly, biting bugs were few. "A lot of people think flies will almost carry you off, but that's only on bad days," said Richard, in a laconic drawl.

Instead, a mosser's major concern is hot sun, a sore back, and an occasional mired tractor. Pulling sturdy rakes with long, curved tines, the smart mossers are in the bogs before dawn and out by noon before it really heats up.

Dried moss can hold up to twenty times its weight in water – a fact recognized by early Native Americans, who used moss for baby diapers, and by World War I medics, who found the plant's absorbency useful for surgical dressings. Today moss is packed around the roots of trees and shrubs for shipping, for hanging baskets, mulch, and for decorative topiary. It's a mainstay of the international floral trade to keep flowers and greenery moist in transit.

Four generations of Hancocks – starting with Richard's great-grandfather Frank Hancock in the early 1900s, followed by grandfather Francis, then to father Richard L., his sons Richard T. and David, and now Richard T's 17-year-old son Randy – have ventured into the Black River State Forest to pull out moss and an ample livelihood.

Finding buyers has never been a problem: the Hancocks (and every other mosser) sell every bale they package, up to 35,000 3 -cubic foot bales a year. The Hancock's retail clients include the Earl May Seed and Nursery Garden Centers, based in Shenandoah, Iowa, and Jung Seeds, of Randolph, Wis. in addition to wholesale distributors who then ship moss to other nurseries. Their ledgers remain private, however; it's a very competitive business, Hancock said. The business can gross $370,000-$400,000 a year.

Richard, 45, attended welding school as a younger man and once tried his hand as a car painter at American Motors in Kenosha. "I didn't work there too long," he said. The shop was too confining, he said, so he picked up a moss hook and returned to the forest.

In 1977, he bought out his dad and established Hancock Brothers Associates with David. Wives, daughters and sons are involved, as well as six to seven seasonal employees. But his family may be one of the last in mossing, Hancock said. "The family thing is getting harder," he said. "It seems like you have to be a pretty good-sized business if you want to make a living."

For one of the Hancock's seasonal workers, the pay can be as high as $64 daily for forking mounds of moss onto a "boat" or toboggan, pulled by a vintage Oliver tractor that's fitted with wooden slats on the tracks. The slats function much like snowshoes, spreading out the weight and keeping the heavy machine from sinking in the soft muck. Even so, machines still can get stuck, Hancock said.

The moss raked from Wisconsin bogs – green, dripping dreadlocks with pitcher plants and wild cranberries occasionally attached – is not the same as sphagnum peat moss, which is the dead and decomposing sphagnum steadily accumulating underneath the live moss. A meadow of cut sphagnum moss reestablishes as a luxurious carpet within a few years, and can be harvested again in seven years. Peat moss, on the other hand, takes years to form as decaying wetland plants settle, compress and carbonize to form the dense earthy brown product that is sold at garden centers. Once peat is cut, mined and removed, the area does not recover by forming new peat. It is, nevertheless, a valuable product in its own right, used as fuel and a soil loosener. Peat moss is not harvested in Wisconsin.

Over 500 acres of sphagnum bogs are available for mossing in the Black River State Forest, but only about 70 acres are mossed in a given year, with the smallest bog, a tiny three acres – much too small for large companies to bother with. The sphagnum is concentrated in that forest and in nearby places, including the Jackson County Forest, the Meadow Valley Wildlife Area, the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and some private lands, because of the behavior of glaciers thousands of years ago. When the last of them receded, Glacial Lake Wisconsin took so long to drain that it stimulated the growth of wetland bog plants like moss, pitcher plants, and tamarack.

Before the Hancocks began last year's harvest at Circle Hill, acres of light green moss had carpeted the meadow, a 50-acre expanse fringed in the distance with tamaracks, birch and jack pine. By August, large sections were naked and mud-brown, stripped of their new growth, which lay drying in rows of miniature haystacks.

It was a clear-cut, and it wasn't a pretty sight. But the bogs recovered. Horseshoe Marsh, in the same forest, had been mossed three years earlier. By comparison to Circle Hill, it was fresh; an undulating sea of green, with the only scar a short, narrow road left by small tractors.

Those involved think there are benefits to the practice. "I've been here all my life, and when I come back, the marshes are exact duplicates of the ones left," Richard said. "It keeps it like a prairie. My father used to say that if we didn't harvest, it would be like a forest."

Without natural fires to suppress weedy growth, that may be true, said Jack Halbrehder. "If you let it go long enough, it would be a complete tamarack stand," he said.

In some places, such as the 60,000-acre Meadow Valley Wildlife Area in northern Juneau County, a federally owned, state-managed property, the trees may eventually win. Moss harvesting took place there for half a century before the DNR outlawed it 10 years ago, over concerns that ecological damage might be occurring. There's no proof of that, but scientists have found rare dragonflies and birds in sphagnum bogs, and there's a sense that a wait-and-see approach might be best. The decision displeases some mossers, like John La Course of Mosser Lee in Millston, who misses the fine moss once available from that area's bogs.

"There wasn't a lot of concern in the past about what the impact could be," said Bill Smith, a DNR zoologist working on the Natural Heritage Inventory. Mark Chryst, a DNR forester out of Babcock, echoes Smith. "There's never been a study that would really prove there aren't detrimental effects to the moss," he said. "But until we have proof, we just don't want to get back into the mossing business."

Know the rules before you pick, prune, harvest or gather

Any kind of gathering from public lands requires permission, or, at a minimum, an appreciation of the rules. To harvest moss, individuals or firms such as the Hancocks compete with a few others by submitting bids on the few tracts available each year.

Trees are more abundant than moss marshes, so no bidding is needed to get a bough-picking permit. A permit to sell boughs commercially costs $35 for the first ton, and $10 thereafter – though not everyone reports their totals, according to both the DNR and Steve Perry, whose family has been in the bough business for 35 years. Bough picking also has its rules, such as the ones prohibiting pruning trees near roadways, limiting cutting at the bottom of the tree and prohibiting all-terrain vehicles from leaving logging roads to get closer to cut boughs.

If your goal is to eat what you pick, such as berries, nuts, mushrooms, and wild asparagus harvests, no permit is needed, though picking from state natural areas is forbidden.

Blueberries, ripe for the picking.

© T/Maker Company
Blueberries, ripe for the picking. © T/Maker Company.

If you like rocks, a permit is necessary, and there's a limit: five pounds a day, for personal and educational uses only. But taking ginseng from state lands is absolutely verboten (and there are strict rules governing ginseng harvests on private lands).

Of course, these are today's regulations. New master plans for state properties sometimes contain new rules, but the aim is to protect the land rather than deny access, said Eric Epstein, DNR ecologist. In that light, closing Meadow Valley to mossing made some sense.

"There may be a move toward not accommodating every possible use on every acre," he said. In some scenic places and recreational areas, gathering memories of relaxing days outdoors is enough.

Katherine Esposito writes for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine from Madison.