Rural foraging offers several advantages: lesser likelihood of contamination, large tracts of land, and a higher diversity of species. If you live in a rural area or are able to visit one, it's a great place to look for wild foods and medicines!
Where to Go
If you live on or own a piece of property in a rural area— great! Start there. Even if a significant portion of the property is managed in some way (with a lawn, garden, livestock, etc.) there are probably edible weeds, shrubs, or trees growing.
State parks and forests are good places to explore from there. Though the law varies from state to state, generally it is legal to harvest edible fruit and mushrooms for personal, noncommercial use. This is the case for Minnesota State Parks and Forests. Here is a map of Minnesota State Parks, and here is a map of Minnesota State Forests.
Picking fruits, nuts, and mushrooms is usually legal in US National Forests. To learn more, check out this map of National Forests and click on the forest name for more information.
Harvesting plants, fungi, and other items is generally allowed in Bureau of Land Management areas. You may want to check with your regional office before picking to determine if there are any local statutes, protected species, or preservation areas.
Harvesting vegetation and fungi in US National Parks is highly regulated. Some parks allow the harvesting of certain fruits, berries, or nuts, as long as it is harvested by hand for personal use. They may set a limit to the size and/or quantity harvested, define a specific area where edibles may be harvested, and restrict the possession and consumption of wild edibles to the park area. For more information, find a specific park here.
Private properties such as homes, hunting grounds, and farms may hold excellent foraging opportunities. Just be sure to ask the property owner, renter, or manager before picking! We recommend only harvesting near farms that use organic practices to avoid ingesting dangerous chemicals. For more information on pesticides, see the contamination section below.
Disturbing wildlife, fungi, and vegetation is generally not allowed in nature centers or preserves, but contact your local one(s) to make sure.
Though rural and wilderness areas are often thought of as pristine, looks can be deceiving! Railroad tracks, roadsides, power lines, mining sites, and conventional farms present potential contamination sources. Even in areas far from human development, one should be wary of certain bacteria and parasites from animal feces.
Chemical herbicides are typically sprayed along railroad tracks and power lines to clear vegetation, and conventional farms spray pesticides on their crops. Some people think that ingesting wild foods/medicines that grow near pesticide applications is the same as eating conventional produce from the grocery store, but this isn't true! In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates what kinds of pesticides are applied to food crops, the timing of those applications, and the potential for pesticide residue on food. Therefore, when foraging near railroad tracks, power lines, or conventional farms, you don't know when pesticides were last applied, which means the amount of residue could be much higher than what you'd find in a grocery store. Furthermore, if it's not a farm producing things for human consumption, they are probably spraying pesticides that aren't considered safe to eat by the EPA.
Pesticides— even those considered safe for foods— have “potential human risks... from short-term toxicity to long-term effects such as cancer and reproductive system disorders," according to the EPA. Also be aware that bodies of water near agricultural areas can contain pesticides from run off. In fact, agriculture is the number one polluter of rivers and streams, and the number three polluter of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, according to the 2004 EPA National Water Quality Inventory.
Foragers should also exercise caution in areas that contain animal feces. When harvesting aquatic plants, take steps to prevent contracting giardia, an intestinal parasite that causes cramps, vomiting, and watery diarrhea. The risk of giardia infection is higher in areas with lots of livestock, because runoff from manure can enter water systems and introduce the parasite. However, wild animals are known to carry it as well, hence the nickname “beaver fever." The good news is that giardia is destroyed by cooking, so it's fairly easy to avoid.
Here is a guide to soil contamination and how to best avoid it. Though it's specifically for gardening in urban areas, it also contains pertinent information for rural foragers. For Minnesota residents, here is a database of toxic sites compiled by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Also for Minnesota residents, here is a list of Superfund Sites on the Minnesota Permanent List of Priorities.