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I once cut 1,000 pounds of balsam fir branches to sell to a Christmas-wreath maker. As a child I collected driftwood, seashells, and other items found on Lake Michigan beaches, and fashioned them into artistic creations to sell at craft shows.
I didn’t make much money with either of those projects, but sometimes natural treasures can be worth a fortune. For example, last October in a man in MIchigan found a meteorite worth more than $100,000.
It fell on a farm in the 1930s, and it was being used as a doorstop by the current owner of the property when its true nature (and value) was discovered.
Then there is that occasional piece of whale vomit that’s worth tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars to its discoverer (really). You can read more about that below.
But even if you never make a valuable discovery it can be fun to get outdoors on a treasure hunt of sorts. You’ll get exercise and fresh air, and maybe you’ll make a little extra cash.
What other natural treasures can you find for free and sell? Here are a dozen examples, starting with one of the most obvious…
I’ve panned for gold in several states and two countries and have only collected a few shiny flakes. Yes, there are probably some big discoveries to be made still, but you probably won’t get rich prospecting for gold.
On the other hand, you probably won’t regret panning for gold. You’ll enjoy the sun, the water, the beautiful settings, and the chance of seeing a nugget show up in the pan.
What do you need to get started?
- Buy a gold pan (decent ones can be had for under $20).
- Pick a location using one of the many websites that show you where to find gold (it’s still legal without a permit in many places).
- Watch a few YouTube videos on how to pan for gold.
Most local coin shops will buy gold if you find some. Otherwise you can find buyers online.
2. Morel Mushrooms
If you haven’t eaten morel mushrooms, you’re missing a real treat. Gathering a few of them for dinner can be your first goal, but if you find enough, why not make some money as well?
Two friends of mine have made hundreds of dollars per day collecting morel mushrooms in the woods of northern Michigan. They sell them to local restaurants. You can also find buyers on websites like Morels.com (check the classified ads).
There are guides online to help you find the best locations for morels. They’ve been found in every state in the U.S. and throughout most of Canada.
Prices vary widely from year to year and by location, ranging from as high as $40 per pound to as low as $4 per pound, so you may want to check current prices near you before heading out into the woods.
3. Walking Sticks
Okay, you can’t “find” walking sticks in nature, but you can find plenty of small trees, and the processing needed to turn them into walking sticks is pretty minimal.
A hand saw cuts the tree in a minute, and a pocket knife may be the only other tool you need for finishing them, depending on what kind of walking sticks you’re making.
When I was making and selling walking sticks at craft fairs and flea markets I could cut and finish dozens in a day. Old leather jackets from thrift stores provided strips of leather to make hand grips, and just about anything could be used for decoration (I embedded coins, mirrors, marbles and more in my creations).
Invest a dollar and get creative and you’ll have something you can sell for $20 or more. If you look for natural walking sticks on Amazon you’ll see that they start at about $30.
You could hunt for gems at commercial operations and parks. I’ve written about these places in one of my treasure hunting articles. At Crater of Diamonds State Park, in Arkansas, for example, an average of two diamonds per day are found (and there have been some really valuable ones found there).
But this article is about finding treasures for free. So, while you might start by perusing a list of gem prospecting sites that charge a fee, why not then look for nearby public lands where you can prospect without paying?
Again, coin shops are a possible place to sell what you find. Otherwise Google “we buy rubies” (or emeralds or garnets or whatever you have) to find buyers.
Gemstones are rare, but rocks are everywhere! And interesting ones can be sold. In fact, my wife and I used to sell rocks we found to crafters at craft shows and flea markets. They made artistic pieces, sometimes gluing figurines to the rocks to create a scene.
I’ve even sold a few of the larger (and more interesting) rocks at rummage sales, usually for $5 or so (people use them for landscaping or interior decorating).
If you happen to have abandoned mines near you, they provide one of the best places to find interesting rocks, crystals, and minerals. Just rummage through the slag and debris piled up outside the mouth of the mine. Rivers and streams are good places to prospect as well.
Want to get more creative? Some people paint flowers or other things on large smooth rocks and sell them that way.
If you live in a larger city you may have seen street vendors selling bouquets put together from flowers they find discarded by florists. That’s one way to sell something you get for free.
Another way to get a free supply of flowers is to get out in nature. You can’t pick endangered species, but usually nobody will bother you if you pick daisies and other common wildflowers. Common ferns can provide a nice touch when arranging your bouquets.
You can sell your flowers in bunches from a bucket for a couple dollars, or put them in vases from a dollar store and double the price.
7. Wild Berries
When I lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan I used to gather wild blueberries by the quart on national forest land. I also harvested wild raspberries and juneberries, among others.
I ate what I gathered, but I’ve seen stands along Highway 2 offering wild blueberries, thimbleberries, and other berries for sale. At a few dollars per quart you’ll be working hard to make your money, but you’ll be working outside and making cash.
8. Other Wild Plant Foods
In Florida my wife and I found an abandoned orange grove on public land and harvested dozens of tasty oranges at a time. We never thought to sell them, but we could have. Many wild edibles can be sold.
In fact, Dan Lipow, in New Jersey, makes a living selling wild foods to restaurants. His edible products include bitter dock and spring beauty, and the common blue violet.
To find wild edibles near you, check out FallingFruit.org. Their maps will direct you to people’s favorite foraging sites around the country (and world).
When I lived in a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula pickup trucks would park at the culvert at the edge of my property in early spring. After scooping up hundreds of pounds of migrating smelt from the stream, the drivers would head off to sell their catch to restaurants locally and into northern Wisconsin.
Now, for most fish you need a commercial fishing license if you’re going to be selling them. But that’s not always the case for smelt. In fact, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources lists several fish for which no commercial license is needed.
Smelt are particularly easy to catch at night, usually with a simple hand net (I even caught 40 barehanded one evening).
The wholesale price might only be a few dollars per pound (it varies), but given that you can sometimes scoop several pounds at a time when they’re running good, you can see the profit potential here.
What exactly is ambergris?
It’s a waxy substance that forms in the intestines of whales and is then vomited up. Sometimes the vomited lumps find their way onto the beach, where lucky people might find them.
Ambergris is used (believe it or not) for making expensive perfume and other fragrances. It’s rare enough that it’s very valuable, selling for up to $10,000 per pound or more. The most valuable find to date is a chunk of ambergris worth $3 million found by three fishermen in Oman.
If you plan to do any beach-combing, or you just like to walk along the shoreline, read up on how to identify ambergris. Then keep your eyes open — you might get lucky.
When I lived in the woods of northern Michigan, one thing we had a lot of was “dead and down” trees. At that time the permit for harvesting them was free, so a friend and I made good money selling it as firewood.
Around that time, I also harvested several jars of club moss spores. This yellow powder is used for many things, ranging from a pill coating to flash powder. You can see fireballs created by club moss spores on YouTube.
Club moss spores sell for about $35 per ounce retail; less if you’re wholesaling (I used all mine to make giant fireballs).
If you notice anything out there in nature that’s abundant and free for the taking, investigate to see if there’s a market. You never know. Birds nest soup, for example, requires the nest (made of saliva) of a certain swift, which can sell for thousands of dollars per pound.
If you’ve made some extra cash with things you’ve found in nature, tell us all about your experiences below… and keep on frugaling!