Working with forest landowners, Birch Boys business achieves USDA organic certification
By Holly Riddle
Outdoor enthusiasts in the Adirondacks have likely come across chaga many times. However, while this parasitic growth that pops up on birch trees is easy to overlook, Birch Boys founder Garrett Kopp calls it “one of the most unique organisms on Earth.”
The fungal organ, Kopp explained, drains micronutrients and vital compounds from trees, storing them within a harvestable black growth. “Chaga is basically a concentrated source of protective compounds that protect the fungus living within the tree from the tree’s immune responses,” he added.
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Those compounds make chaga a desirable addition to teas and tinctures and, as such, for a limited time each year, Kopp and the Birch Boys team, based out of Tupper Lake, head into the Adirondack woods outfitted with hatchets and pack baskets to gather this valuable resource.
Kopp first discovered chaga as a teenager, in his grandmother’s kitchen.
“One summer day, after I finished mowing her lawn, I was thirsty and went inside to get something to drink. In the refrigerator, I found this big jug of what looked like iced tea. I drank a cup of it, she walked in and saw me drinking it and her eyes lit up and she told me I was drinking a fungus. Then, she pulled me into her backyard and she actually had a birch tree where there was a piece of chaga growing,” Kopp recalled.
Kopp began harvesting chaga not long after and eventually began attending regional fairs and other vendor events to sell his finds. After studying business at college, he realized what started as a teenage hobby could become a career. Birch Boys launched in 2016.
Now, Birch Boys sells a variety of chaga-based items, as well as similar products made with various fungi, such as lion’s mane and turkey tail. And it recently achieved a USDA organic certification that applies to more than 200,000 acres of Adirondack forestland. A status typically associated with individual farming operations or producers rather than wild-harvesting operations like Birch Boys, Kopp said obtaining organic certification was no easy feat.
“We’re fortunate in that we have a great land partner. We lease 220,000 acres of land from Woodlands Group, all within the Adirondack Park. We had to get landowner affidavits attesting that there’s no pesticide use on the land and there hasn’t been for the past five years. And do an on-site inspection,” he explained. “Then there’s also a general company audit. It’s not just about what we’re doing and what we’re harvesting, but any other ingredients that we work with. For example, we use maple sugar in our maple chaga tea bags or rose hips in our reishi and rose hip tea bag, or we need to purchase alcohol when we make our tinctures. Each of those components needs to be certified organic.”
The hardest part, though, came in considering Birch Boys’ other sources. Beyond the several hundred-thousand acres of land the company leases, it also works with independent outdoorsmen, loggers and foresters to source chaga from other private lands throughout the region (chaga can only be legally harvested within the scope of private land ownership, not on state lands). As such, in order to obtain organic certification, Birch Boys needed to create what Kopp called a “totally custom wild crop traceability mechanism,” to ensure all certified organic chaga products truly are organic. The undertaking is a substantial one, leading to the creation of a full-time, staff role to manage sourcing.
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Currently, Kopp said he only knows of one other individual taking the organic, small-batch, wild-harvested approach to chaga, but that individual is based in Canada.
Responsible harvesting is top of mind for Kopp. “We have a multifaceted list of sustainability protocols (9 to be exact),” he said. Kopp writes about each one in this post on Birch Boys’ website. In addition, he’s in the initial steps of taking his business’s organic certification to another level: ROC (Regenerative Organic Certification). “This goes way beyond the typical scope scope of organic integrity audits and would further subject our company to auditing our impact on chaga in the forests,” he said.
Getting started with chaga
For those interested in adding a chaga supplement to their diet, Kopp offers a disclaimer. “Birch Boys products are “not intended to fight, treat, cure or prevent any disease or illness.” But he also notes the substantial positive feedback from chaga aficionados since he first started harvesting and selling chaga as a teen.
“My grandmother was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer … and to see the energy and excitement that she had for this fungus was unbelievable. Then, as I started drinking chaga [tea], it clicked for me. It does give you energy. You can feel the chaga if it’s good chaga,” he said. “Hearing from people that have terminal illnesses that have such powerful responses to chaga … that’s what ultimately made me realize chaga was an amazing thing I needed to pursue.”
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