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People Issue 2012:
Dave Odd, the forager

"I take wild plants that we find elsewhere and transplant them and just let them go nuts."

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[The PEOPLE ISSUE]

Three years ago comedian-on-hiatus Dave Odd sold a bunch of wild mushrooms at a farmer's market for $20. Now the 36-year-old is a "specialty provider of weird shit" with a partner, a farm, and a warehouse. Mike Sula

In summer 2009, I was walking through the woods in Indiana with my girlfriend and found some chanterelle mushrooms and roasted them on the side of the trail with some beef jerky. A couple days later we were like, "That was kind of fun, let's go out and see if we can find more mushrooms." After about a week or two it was like, "All right, I'm tired of eating mushrooms. What do we do with all these goddamn mushrooms?" So I started taking them to farmers' markets.

The first time I had a bag of chanterelles, I walked up to the mushroom guy's table at the farmers' market and said, "Hey, would these be something you would be interested in?" He gave me $20 for them. I kept bringing them to this same person, and eventually one of his employees said, "Hey, you should just start talking to restaurants directly." I started selling them to the restaurants right around the end of August, early September, which is when fall mushroom season kicks in. There's the hen of the woods mushroom, and there's puffball mushrooms, and all these big crazy giant mushrooms that you can find 100, 150 pounds of them a day pretty easy.

When the spring came around I started getting calls from people saying, "Hey, can you get me ramps?" I go, "What is a ramp?" I started getting other stuff, and I'm like, "You know, if they'll buy ramps and they'll buy mushrooms, maybe they'll buy juneberries, maybe they'll buy mulberries, maybe they'll buy black raspberries, maybe they'll buy this, maybe they'll buy that."

I've been a standup comedian since 1997. In 2007 I started the Edge Comedy Club at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. I ran one of the best open mikes in the city for newcomers. I also taught comedy classes there.

When I was a comedian, I would actually have to go out in my alley and pick vegetables from the neighbors' gardens hanging over the fence just to have a meal for the night. I started thinking: I could go out on the street for ten hours, hang up posters, and send out e-mails, mobilize all the comics to tell everyone about a show, and maybe make $250 dollars. Or I could spend a day in the woods picking ramps and make a thousand dollars. What sounds better?

At the tail end of 2010, when the foraging season was coming to an end, I was kind of scrambling: what do I do now? I found a company out in Eugene, Oregon—I started bringing in mushrooms from them. I'd go to the restaurants that I brought foraged stuff to and say, "OK, I bought these mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest." They're like, "Well, we already like you and already have a business relationship with you and we need mushrooms, so fuck it, why not?" I started to think of the foraging in a different way. I started going to ethnic markets and weird little specialty shops and finding unusual produce and weird spices and dried fruits. I would just buy stuff in bulk and bring it to the chefs and they're like, "What the fuck is this shit? I've never seen if before and it's weird and I want to mess with it."

Then, 2011, I'm out with a couple friends of mine. We passed this property in Lowell, Indiana. The entire property was just covered in ramps. There was this little house in the middle of the woods. We rang the doorbell and this little old lady answers the door and I'm like, "Hey, we were driving by and we couldn't help but notice you have all these ramps here." She's like, "Ramps? What are those?" I'm like, "These onions, they're all over your property." She's like, "I've lived here for 30 years and I never knew what those were. All I knew was that the lawnmower made the lawn smell really funny whenever we mowed." I'm like, "This is a gold mine you're sitting on."

Earlier this year, I needed somebody to run day-to-day operations. A friend of mine messaged me, his name is Mike Murphy. I brought him on board and he immediately was like, "My friend Jim has this family farm out in Harvard, Illinois. They have eight and a half acres. We can do whatever we want with it and all we would have to do is pay the property tax." This is the worst year ever to start a farm—we had that extremely bad drought—so my idea was just to wildcraft it: putting things on the land that are going to produce food but aren't going to need constant care. I take wild plants that we find elsewhere and transplant them on the property and just let them go nuts.

We're probably going to start offering edible landscaping to people, where we landscape their entire property with edibles. We're also going to find a way to get into the farmers' markets, specialty markets, and start to extend more of our consumer base, and bring more people into the fold of what we're doing. We don't want to compete with anyone. The company is called Odd Produce, so we just want to have things that nobody else has. We want to be a specialty provider of weird shit.

Abra Berens, the farmer

Index: 2012 People Issue

Mitzi Scott, the survivor

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