Whitney Johnson never thought people would want to watch her hunt for mushrooms in the forests near her Appalachian home.
And yet, the Blaine, Kentucky, TikTok star has more than a million followers across social media channels. Having that audience has allowed her to cut back on her day job to focus on foraging and creating her mountain recipes.
It started, she said, with pictures of her adventures on Instagram.
“I’ve always been outdoorsy, and I’ve always liked to take pictures, and I’ve always been kind of silly too,” she told the Daily Yonder. “I’d started taking pictures of mushrooms just out of pure curiosity because I’m like a science nerd and I just wanted to learn about them… Then I was like, ‘Well, this is maybe not something that all my friends want to see, maybe they want to see pictures of me, you know, going out to do other things that don’t involve close up pictures of mushrooms.”
Johnson created a separate Instagram account – the Appalachian Forager – just to post pictures and stories about her foraging in the woods. Picking herbs and wild vegetation, finding mushrooms, cooking what she’d found and showing her authentic reactions to her foraging finds became the theme of her posts.
After a year or so, a friend suggested she expand her presence.
“My friends were like, ‘Whitney, what you’re doing could be up on TikTok,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘Hell, no, I’m not going to do TikTok. I’m in my 30s — that is not me. I’m not a pre-teen doing dance routines. I’m an adult woman hunting mushrooms.’ But everyone was poking and prodding me to do it for two months.”
So she posted a video that said, “My name is Whitney. I like to hunt mushrooms and catch big bass and cook wild food, so you should follow me.”
And they did.
Over the winter, Johnson’s videos were featured on Today with Hoda & Jenna when she shared how to make snow cream and the mountain way of keeping warm during snow storms using bread bags and layers of sweat pants. That video, viewed more than 7 million times, got her featured in Newsweek magazine as well.
Now Johnson has more than 800,000 followers on TikTok, and nearly 300,000 followers on other social media channels. It’s allowed her to pull back from her day job as a mental health counselor and focus on what she loves – spending time outdoors and helping people get back to nature. This spring she cooked some of the mushrooms she’d foraged at the Mountain Morel Festival in Irvine, Kentucky, and this summer she’ll be taking her tinctures, salts and other goodies to various festivals across the state.
TikTok stardom has led to other opportunities as well. In May, Johnson partnered with Brittani Ratcliffe, a chef at Morehead University who has appeared on cooking competition shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Chopped,” to do a “Forage to Fork” workshop. The workshop was so popular it sold out in under three hours and a second date had to be added.
Johnson said she feels like the rural lifestyle her videos represent are the key to her success.
“I think that Appalachian twist on everything has drawn people in because I don’t think there’s a big bunch of Appalachian women out there showing you how to procure wild food and fish and stuff like that,” she said. “I think that I hit on an area that hadn’t been hit yet and that really intrigued people.”
Johnson said she won’t completely quit her therapy job, but being out in the forest is a kind of therapy for her, and something that she hopes helps others.
“I love being a therapist,” she said. “But as a therapist, I also teach self-care and self-love. I’m happy out in the woods running around and being a ding-dong in these little videos and teaching people how they too can get out there and get the joy that I get from it. So in a way, I feel like I’m not really completely just stepping away from my therapy because I still feel like I’m providing therapy through my Appalachian Forager gig as well.”
The responses she’s received from the videos confirm that. Followers have told her the videos have given them the push they needed to get outside or to believe that what they wanted to do was possible.
“In a way, I’m still doing it (therapy),” she said. “I can’t ever completely stop doing my counseling because I feel a calling to do that. I went to school for it. It’s something that I enjoy, but I went with my heart and my gut and my head and took the bigger dive into the foraging thing for now while I can enjoy it.”
And if it brings people back to nature, all the better, she said.
“Sometimes when you watch people’s videos on foraging, they’ll make it very complicated – they’re using all these fancy terminologies and they’re wearing all these fancy-like clothes and have all this fancy gear,’” she said. “I’m just like out in my Walmart sweatpants with a top knot and like saying you don’t need none of that… I think that makes it so much more approachable to where people are watching it and they think they can actually do this.”