Photos provided by and courtesy of Kentucky Educational Television and Patrick Brumback of “The Famer & The Foodie.”

There’s gold in the hills of Lawrence County, Kentucky. The county is rich with Appalachian charm, ripe with hills and hollers for foraging and growing your own food. It’s what you think of when you hear “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight” — and social media sensation Whitney Johnson will tell you the same.

The eastern Kentucky native said she wouldn’t change her upbringing for anything. She grew up poor, but surrounded by nature, which she thinks is more valuable. Whitney is the one-woman operation behind the online persona “Appalachian Forager” and has 844,000 followers on TikTok, 122,000 followers on Instagram and 597,000 followers on Facebook.

Her videos consist of hunting down mushrooms and other wild, edible and medicinal plants and preparing them — either by canning, cooking, dehydrating or making them into salves, tinctures or herbal blends. She’s a self-proclaimed Appalachian Mushroom Queen, Paw Paw Princess, Ramp Tramp and Mother of Possums. She’s one of the most down-to-earth individuals, and it makes sense because she spends all of her free time outdoors.

She has been named Appalachian Arts and Entertainment Awards’ Best Social Media Influencer, Appodlachia’s Appalachian and Content Creator of the Year and has been featured in news segments and articles, including several appearances on The Weather Channel. According to her website, “Whitney continues to be a hillbilly force to be reckoned with; spreadin’ pride for her region, preachin’ girl power, all while keepin’ the old ways alive … with a dash of humor.”

Whitney grew up a “holler baby in the middle of nowhere” in a town of barely 300 residents with no stoplights and one little country store. Her entire family lived in the same holler, with family members dotted half a mile down the road from one another. She lived in four different houses in that same holler. She said for fun they’d go hangout in the woods or a big field.

“From the time I flew out of my mom’s vagine, I was climbing trees, playing with snakes and making mud pies,” she said. “And my friends, we just all enjoyed the same things; we liked getting out in the hills and playing in the creeks. As far as hanging out in my hometown, we’d hang out in a field — somewhere that I wasn’t supposed to be. My mom thought I was at a friend’s house, but I’m on the back of a tailgate of a truck in some random field somewhere with a bonfire that’s really not safe,” Whitney said with a laugh.

She grew up eating food that predominantly came from her family’s garden or the woods — fresh tomatoes, zucchini and other veggies, as well as wild game, deer, and fish.

“I’d get off the bus and walk straight to the garden and choose what I was gonna have for dinner that night. By the time I was like five, I knew how to deep fry my own zucchini. I would do that because my mom would be at work. I would be unsupervised sometimes, frying vegetables — not dangerous at all. But in Appalachia, it’s fine,” Whitney said.

Her favorite childhood meal remains the same today: mac and ‘maters.

“Mac and ‘maters is like the epitome of Appalachian staple food because you don’t even need very many ingredients. You know, you grew these tomatoes, and you can them. Your blood, sweat and tears went into these ‘maters, so they taste better. All it is is elbow macaroni and those tomatoes on top with a little bit of bacon grease, salt, pepper and sugar. Lord God, it’s so good when I eat it, I audibly moan. I can’t help it, it’s involuntary,” Whitney said.

Whitney said her upbringing, while challenging at times, has helped her throughout life.

“I learned from a pretty young age, if it’s gonna get done, you’re gonna have to do it on your own. But I like that. I love being independent. I’m not saying I wouldn’t accept help from people, but I’m pretty stubborn,” she said.

Whitney said she’s a fairly straightforward person — what you see is what you get. But you may not expect her to be passionate about psychology with a master’s degree in counseling, which she received in 2020.

She was the first in her family to graduate from college, which she paid for herself. She attended Morehead State University in Morehead, KY, and graduated with a degree in psychology. After undergrad, she became a forensic psychometrician and loved it. Every day, she would perform an average of four psych evaluations on convicted murderers, sex offenders or rapists to see if they were fit to stand trial.

Around the same time, Whitney started posting her first photos to the Appalachian Forager Instagram account. She said she had a nice camera and would post pictures of mushrooms that she thought were pretty, then she’d list their names, how to identify them and where to find them. Some of her friends and family definitely didn’t get why she was posting pictures of mushrooms online, and some still don’t really “get it” today.

“Everybody else is posting ‘Went out tonight to the bar,’ and I’m like, ‘Look at this Lactarius Indigo that forms on coniferous trees.’ They’re like, ‘You’ve lost your mind.’ And I’d say, ‘It just makes me happy,’” Whitney said.

She grew up without a cellphone or social media, so perfecting her TikToks took some trial and error. Whitney said some of her family members still really do not understand what she’s doing online or why she’s gained so much attention from it.

Some family members are her biggest supporters, and some are (sarcastically) like, “‘Oh, there’s Whitney, the ole TikTok star,’ and I’m like, ‘Shut up and eat your deviled eggs.’”

“Then you of course have people who don’t even use social media or know what a TikTok is. So, I don’t try to explain it because they’re not gonna see it. My dad is so confused about what I’m even doing. A lot of times I’ll just bring him a newspaper article I’ve been featured in and he’ll be like, ‘What are you doing,’ and I’m like, ‘Making videos about mushrooms, it’s no big deal.’ For the most part people know, but I try not to make it the focus of things,” Whitney said.

After a bunch of convincing from her friend, Whitney posted her first TikTok, which instantly received 30,000 views.

“I was like, oh, hell no. That’s just pre- teen kids doing dance routines and stuff. How do I fit in?” she said. “But there’s literally a corner for everybody, you just have to make your algorithm work or whatever. I was so against it. I was like, ‘No way in hell I’m getting a TikTok,” Whitney said.

Growing social media accounts make it difficult to not label Whitney an influencer. She said she had to change the meaning of the word to accept it for herself, since she’s not trying to sell anything to anyone.

“I hated that word, but if I shift it into what I want it to be, I like that word. I don’t get down on people. Do what makes you happy. You do you! But I don’t consider myself the type of influencer who is just trying to promote brands or products and try to get you to buy them. I feel like that’s what the word originally meant,” she said. “I love getting people to try to get out there and spend more time in the woods. If that helps your mental health, cool; if that helps your physical health, awesome. If somebody tells me that a video of mine had them out in their yard picking dandelions, then they made jelly with their bubby or their sissy and they had a great time, I love that.”

Her first TikTok was a compilation of clips of her fishing, foraging and being outdoors with a voiceover that said something along the lines of, “Hey, I’m Whitney, and I forage mushrooms and wild plants and fish better than any man on the planet and cook like your meemaw.” It has since been taken down, though, since she was pan-frying a fish in one of the clips (which goes against TikTok guidelines). It took lots of trial and error, but she said she definitely knows the rules well now.

But Whitney’s videos are more than just work — they’re the best kind of therapy, even a religious experience.

“Mother Nature is who I worship,” Whitney said. “My family, they’re holy rollers, but I’m kind of the black sheep of the family.”

She’s been foraging her entire life, but didn’t develop a love of foraging mush- rooms in particular until college. She said finding her first morel mushroom three years ago is a hard moment to top.

“I had walked my butt into the ground, man. I covered miles and miles, like probably thousands of miles, looking for morels. Morels are a crapshoot. You can check all the boxes — it’s by this tree, near this creek, on this facing slope…but that doesn’t mean you’re going to find them,” she said.

“What you do is find your honey holes, and then you just go there. So I finally found a morel and when I did, I frickin’ lost it. My boyfriend took a video of it and the shriek that came out of me when I saw my first morel,” Whitney said. “It was tiny; it was early in the season. It was just like this little tiny black morel, but to me it was like 50 feet tall, and it was this thing that I had been chasing my whole life, you know, and so I was so freaking pumped. That would have to be it for me, that was like a high that I’ll probably never experience again. No drug will ever make me feel that good.”

It’s hard to beat finding your first morel, but there’s a slew of other cool plants she’s found while foraging, including a massive chicken of the woods mushroom, a hoard of chanterelle mushrooms the size of dinner plates and ghost pipe (which is one of her favorite plants of all time). Whitney said another proud moment for her was when she took a classic foraging picture of herself with a dining table full of mushrooms.

“I always said that I wanted to have one of those pictures — you’ll see them on the morel Facebook groups and stuff — where they’ve got the big spread on the table, some guys behind it like holding a Busch Light. So I took a picture of the table covered with chanterelles, my beer in my hand, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I did that,’” Whitney said.

Ghost pipe is translucent and doesn’t have chlorophyll in it, so its pale color makes it look downright spooky. Whitney said it’s one of her favorites because, in a tincture, it has single-handedly helped with her anxiety. It’s also good for depression and grief. It’s a protected plant in some areas around the United States and considered rare in eastern Kentucky. She preaches how to forage sustain- ably, responsibly and ethically but also loves hearing when people find her products beneficial — especially the Ghost Pipe Tincture.

“I don’t harvest all that I see; I’m very choosy, and I only make a few tinctures a year. I didn’t mention that it was rare in my first video, but also I didn’t expect it to get multi-million views either. So I re-did one this past summer and put a very big focus on saying, ‘Hey, listen, if it’s protected, don’t pick it. If it isn’t and you found it, only take a couple plants from each little patch, don’t pull it up by the root and just don’t be a butthead about things and wipe it out,’” Whitney said.

She sold a tincture of ghost pipe at Healing Appalachia and had several people come back the next day to tell her it helped them sleep through the night for the first time in years.

“Every time I find it, I get really jazzed because I know how much it’s helped me. So if I get to make that for someone else, and let them use it, that makes me want to cry because it is such a game changer,” she said.

Whitney has been in a relationship with her boyfriend Ricky for eight years, and foraging has become one of their most frequent hobbies. While Ricky might help her forage, no one is helping Whitney when she gets in the kitchen. Her operation is hers alone — no agent, just her going to work.

“There’s that stubborn Appalachian woman in me that’s like, I can read my own emails and manage my own calendar. I don’t need anybody else to do that. And I’m also kind of a control freak; I don’t want anyone else’s hands in my products. From start to finish: package it, ship it out, everything is me. My boyfriend will sometimes help me pick stuff, but he ain’t touching it in the kitchen. I don’t do well with others in the kitchen,” she said.

Part of what makes Whitney’s videos so successful is her ability to make scientific, hefty information palatable to a wide variety of people, especially Appalachians. Her voice-overs — which she does without a script — are packed full of silly Appalachian sayings, allowing her fun, bubbly personality to shine through.

When she’s been spotted in public, it’s often been “in town” at Walmart and often not until she says something aloud.

“I feel like people recognize me more in person when they hear me talk. So like Walmart, you know, you might have somebody lurking,” she said. “I’m looking at the coffee creamer, and somebody’s back there. Then, when I finally look at my boyfriend and say, ‘Hey, do we need milk?’ They’re like, ‘It is you. I was waiting. I thought it was you, and I heard you talk, and it is you!’”

Her Appalachian accent catches the attention of many. “People will be like, ‘Oh, my God, I haven’t heard that since my papaw was around.’ I’m just trying to keep that stuff alive and my accent ain’t fake. A lot of people say, ‘There’s no way you sound like that.’ Yeah, I do, buddy,” Whitney said.

She’s proud of where she’s from and how she talks. She has the word Appalachian tattooed on her arm, so she “can’t ever leave.”

Above all else, Whitney wants to break stereotypes. “I do enjoy being able to influence people to try something new, to try getting outside, to try visiting Appalachia. I love to prove people wrong and smash stereotypes,” she said. “When it comes to Appalachia, I’m super proud. I’m always going to stand up on my soapbox and say that we’re a place full of talent, diversity, intelligence, you know, frickin’ strong, kind people — those awesome, humble ass people that Appalachia is built from. It’s not everybody’s story, but we’re able to turn the little that we have into something much bigger.”

When she’s not in the woods, Whitney’s listening to live music and going to festivals. You’ll never catch her at Bonnaroo or listening to the radio (not in a hipster way, though, she notes). Her favorite festival was called “Kickin’ it on the Creek,” but it hasn’t been held in recent years.

She said she likes Americana, folk-type music — think Sturgill Simpson, Billy Strings, Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit type of music. She also loves many of the local Kentucky acts.

“As I look at all these posters on my wall, the show posters, all these people are from around here and it tickles me to death. These mountains are freaking full of talent, and my favorite bands are just people that are from here — like The Local Honeys and John Miller, all these people are great. Jason Isbell is my favorite artist, because I listened to him when I was in high school and always thought his lyrics were like the greatest thing ever. I met him at Healing Appalachia and I about crapped my britches,” Whitney said.

She said Jason’s wife at the time, Amanda Shires, had reached out to Whitney on TikTok because she was interested in foraging. Whitney was vending while Jason was performing at Healing Appalachia, so Amanda said she could just drop a goody bag off to him.

“Amanda is an amazing musician, she can just about saw a fiddle in half. I remember when she reached out. I was working, doing telehealth, and I happened to look down at my phone. I saw Amanda Shires and my face got red … She was like, well, you can just give [the goody bag] to Jason. I was like, shut your mouth! Shut it because he’s my favorite,” Whitney said.

“I was fighting back tears, and I don’t get giddy when I meet famous people, but he’s it for me. I was just like, do I tell him how much I like his music? Because he hears it all the time, right? What do I do? So I just tried to play it cool, but I also had all these tears that were just like wanting to go everywhere,” she said.

Whitney knows people come and go, so she’s not worried about whether her TikTok career will stay relevant. With her background as a counselor and her interest in ecotherapy, she still plans to be an ecotherapist where she takes groups or individuals into the woods to go on grounding hikes.

“I can do my counseling and my outdoorsy stuff and help people through what has helped me. I know, it’s not for everybody, but it is something that a lot of people enjoy and I think that a lot of people could benefit from it,” she said. “It would be similar to what I do when I take people to look for mushrooms, just maybe with a little bit more clinical interventions being used. It would just be taking therapy to nature. I mean, I know, I would do better in the woods than in a weird office. I would much rather sit outside than have to be inside and talk to my therapist.”

Currently, Whitney is nearly halfway done with her upcoming book, which will be available in 2025. Aside from introductory tips about foraging, the “meat and ‘taters” of the book will be a mushroom field guide including 40 species specific to Appalachia — written in Whitney’s Appalachian cadence.

Whitney wants to encourage foraging newcomers to get out there and do it.

“If you already enjoy getting outside, what harm can be done? If you wanted to just add a little something-something on the side while you’re out hiking, just try it. There’s tons of resources out there that you can use to help you along the way. Yes, it can seem intimidating, and yes, there are Latin binomials for like every mushroom or plant or anything that you find. But I promise you do not have to get fancy with it,” she said.

“Foraging is a very dirty, gritty, down-to-earth, almost primal practice. You don’t have to have a Patagonia jacket, those hike-y sticks and a big fancy pack,” she said. “You can go out with a Dollar General grocery bag and a butter knife and get your mushrooms. I mean, I would prefer you use a mesh bag and a mushroom knife, but if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. Don’t let anybody tell you how to do it. If you have your own ways of doing things and as long as it’s responsible and ethical in practice, then awesome,” Whitney said.

The Appalachian Forager is passionate, hard-working, talented and ready to show anyone the secret gems that can be found in Appalachia — whether that be edible and medicinal plants or like-minded Appalachian individuals Whitney will fiercely defend. If you haven’t already seen her on social media, check her out or check out her online store.

Find Whitney online:

Instagram: @appalachian_forager
TikTok: @appalachian_forager
Youtube: @appalachianforager
Facebook: Appalachian Forager