TALENT — Aaron Fletcher guides the five sheep pulling his self-described “gypsy cart” down the Bear Creek Greenway in search of today’s lunch, then abruptly stops at a patch of greens near a fruitless blackberry bush.
“Aah, dandelions,” Fletcher says. “Haven’t seen good ones in a while.”
He painstakingly peels off the tips of the leaves, leaving the sour leaf base intact. He doesn’t touch the roots, saying the plant needs it and he might need a bit of the plant some other days.
“You have to forage so it maintains the life force in the area,” he says. “I forage to stimulate their growth instead of stifling it.”
Within two hours, he will have a fully cooked meal of wild plants and barley swelled by sheep milk that leaves a white cheese sauce over what amounts to a version of a forager’s stir fry.
The 39-year-old Fletcher is the ultimate urban and rural forager in the Rogue Valley, plying his self-taught specialty into an off-the map lifestyle that sustains him and his sheep.
While many conventional foragers relegate themselves to morel mushrooms in the spring and chanterelles in the fall, Fletcher does it year-round while living out of his small cart equipped with a grain grinder, makeshift refrigerator and signs publicizing his portals for others to join his lifestyle.
He’s well-read in the world of foraging, regularly interacting with other like-minded nomads throughout the country. He’s also a prolific YouTuber with how-to videos shot with a cellphone.
He’s also developed a free map detailing the places to forage on public lands and along public rights-of-way like sidewalks throughout the city of Ashland.
But Fletcher literally cannot collect the low-hanging fruits of his years of mapping efforts. That’s because his sheep and other livestock are now banned from walking through Ashland.
Fletcher could venture into town on his own, but he doesn’t like to leave his sheep unattended. They can get a bit recalcitrant when left alone, and he doesn’t want to deal with that negativity in his life.
So he “guerrilla grazes” his sheep on vacant lots and roadside rights-of-way so his ewe can crank out the half-gallon of milk a day that Fletcher says gives him 2,100 calories toward his diet.
The rest is from trades with landowners, for whom he works as a farm hand in trade for a place to park his cart and perhaps some food. He recently traded a new lamb for a winter’s worth of fresh eggs.
“I’m an anti-consumer,” he says.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Fletcher says he grew up a skateboarding kid in Kansas, and flirted with the conventional world while working as a manager in a furniture store in Kansas City. He was about to pull the trigger on a house purchase 16 years ago, but the thought of being held down to a 30-year mortgage amid what he considered an unstable economic paradigm caused him to back out at the last minute.
“I figured I could be of better use doing something else,” Fletcher says.
Instead, he chose no home, eventually riding the rails around the country before dabbling in living off his bicycle, a moped and hitchhiking before he landed in Southern Oregon about 14 years ago and didn’t leave.
Fletcher is not your average homeless man by choice. His YouTube channel @123homefree that has about 13,500 subscribers and it’s loaded with videos of how he’s parlayed his knowledge and ingenuity into a full-time avocation that he hopes others will emulate.
He makes clothes spun from his lamb’s wool. Grows potatoes — a true staple — on a small plot of land.
Fletcher’s cart is also his advertising billboard, offering his free farmhand services for a place to park his cart and sheep. He’ll barter for meat. It even advertises his status as single and in search of a long-term relationship.
“In all, Fletcher’s extreme foray into foraging has kept him off the financial grid for most of the past decade.
“I can’t remember the last time I worked for money,” Fletcher says. “I haven’t bought a meal in a year.”
Daily foraging can take a few hours or more, depending upon the weather, season and location.
For instance, one recent day he had his sheep tow his cart down the Greenway from Talent, stopping every few yards to gather everything from dandelion leaves to wild broccoli, barley and lamb’s quarter.
When enough plants are collected, he strips the wild barley for its grains, then sprinkles them into a metal tube that is part of his solar oven. The metal sides harness the sun’s power and funnels it into the tube secured in glass. Within a half hour, the concoction is piping hot and surprisingly edible, but in small doses for the nonindoctrinated.
Not all the plants Fletcher forages are for ingestion. Take, for instance. mullein.
“It’s the best natural toilet paper there is,” Fletcher says. “It’s about the equivalent of two-ply.”
Reach Oregon Outdoors writer Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com.