Farming New Fields: Hambel digs for gold in Glouster

GLOUSTER, Ohio – When his father introduced him to ginseng and the herb world 25 years ago, Charlie Hambel had no idea it would grow to be such a big part of his life.

When Hambel moved back to his grandmother’s farm in 1984, he thought about getting into traditional farming. But as he spent more time growing medicinal plants, he felt the hilly, wooded Athens County farm would be better suited for ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh and others.

“The more time I spent with medicinal plants, the more I realized this is what this farm was for. I started buying seeds and liked the idea of having a crop,” said Hambel. “I want to use the land for what it’s best used for.”

Hambel graduated from Hocking College with a degree in wildlife management and is now employed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and works at the Wolf Creek Wildlife Area in Noble County as a wildlife area technician.

He is a member of three preservation groups – Rural Action; Roots of Appalachia Growers Association, where he serves as a trustee; and The National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs. These groups work to promote and educate the public about the importance of medicinal plants.

SARE grant.

Hambel received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program grant in 2000 to study the best cultivation practices for goldenseal.

“It’s an ongoing study and it’s in its first year,” said Hambel. “I will probably apply for a one-year extension do to my final analysis in three years. Three years would be the best time to harvest.”

Goldenseal’s roots are bright yellow, thus the name. Goldenseal root has acquired a considerable reputation as a natural antibiotic and as a remedy for various gastric disorders.

Hambel has an 1-1/2 -acre area of goldenseal and half of an acre of ginseng.

“That may not seem like a lot compared to the grain farmers’ acreage, but it is all hand labor,” said Hambel. “You don’t have to have a lot of land to grow ginseng. You just have to have the right type of land.”

Good as gold.

While the rest of the world is just realizing the value of ginseng, to the Asians who prize it and the American woodsmen who dig it, the root of the wild ginseng plant is a cash crop worth its weight in gold.

“Ginseng has been an important part of the culture for over 100 years in southeastern Ohio. It is the most popular medicinal plant in the world,” said Hambel. “China buys 95 percent of American ginseng.”

A dried pound of ginseng root can bring between $300 and $400, and it takes about 380 small dried roots to make a pound. Seeds are readily available via the Internet for about $40 a pound or 5,000 seeds. Most American ginseng is grown in Wisconsin.

In China, the dried root is chewed, brewed into tea and is used to prolong life, prevent disease and heighten vitality. The older the root, the more valuable it is, Hambel said. Plants have been know to survive for over 100 years.

Plants take two years to germinate and at least five years to mature. The plant grows about 20 inches high in shady areas on well-drained hillsides. In early fall it produces bright red berries.

Growth stages.

In the first year, the plant will produce a single stalk with three leaves, and the second year, it may have a forked stalk with five leaves – or a two-pronger. The third year there will be two prongs with five leaves on each side, and in the third or fourth year, the plant will produce a central berry pod. Plants 8 years old and older will have four prongs with five leaves on each prong.

“It does best on a northeast facing hillside under beech trees and red maple trees,” said Hambel. “Many have probably walked right over ginseng plants on their property. Indicator plants are trillium, ferns, mayapple and jack-in-the-pulpit.”

Alternate growing methods.

The industry has changed dramatically since Hambel’s father first taught him to wildcraft ginseng. In the past, growers would save seeds and replant them. But because the market for ginseng is rapidly expanding, growers are looking for alternative ways to produce a crop.

Many are erecting shade structures, spraying fungicides and intensively cultivating the plants. These growers are producing large quantities of low-quality ginseng that garnered about $10 a pound last year.

Others are tilling beds, fertilizing and relying on tree shade. Woods cultivators got between $80 and $100 a pound for their efforts last year.

Future of ginseng.

Growers like Hambel are going out into the woods raking leaves, spreading seeds, recovering the seeds with the leaves and letting the plants grow naturally. The wild simulated roots can be dug in six years, but it’s better to wait eight to 12 years, for a profit of $400 a pound.

“This is not a get-rich-quick plan. Growing ginseng takes patience, but the rewards are great – a 200 to 300 percent profit margin. Wild simulated is the future for ginseng growers,” said Hambel.

“The Chinese like the older, wild-looking, scarred roots. They prefer roots that are not influenced by man. The future of growers lies in wild simulated ginseng.”

Hambel says there are not enough people growing ginseng, and the biggest limiting factor to people growing ginseng is poaching. As the value of ginseng increases, so has the number of poachers.

Regulations.

Up until 1979, wildcrafting ginseng in Ohio was not regulated. An executive order from Gov. James Rhodes gave ODNR jurisdiction over the state’s dealers and diggers.

In 1984, Ohio adopted legal rules for ginseng management that met federal requirements that allows Ohio wildcrafters to export its product. ODNR’s Division of Wildlife issues permits to commercial herb buyers.

Green or “wet” root can be dug and sold from Aug. 15 to Dec. 31. Selling dried root must be done between Sept. 1 to Dec. 31. Plants with three or more prongs or five leaflets can be harvested. The berries on harvested plants have to be ripe and then replanted after harvesting.

“We’re dealing with an endangered plant. The problem is, once the leaves are ripped off, there is no way to tell whether it was one- or three-pronged. We’re working on new ways to trace plants and mark roots,” said Hambel.

Diggers are not permitted to wildcraft ginseng in Ohio state parks, nature preserves and wildlife areas, but state forests allow digging with special permission. Nabbing poachers.

Wildlife officers are taking a stand against poachers and illegal trading.

Jim Baker, a law enforcement officer with the Division of Wildlife, says there are several poaching cases of wild ginseng each year in the late summer. The fines and jail time for each case vary from county to county.

Hambel takes many precautionary methods to ward off poachers. He says it’s important to tell only those you trust about your operation.

“Having the plants close to the house is important, but most of all, you should try to be there as much as possible to keep an eye on things,” said Hambel. “Barking dogs are also a great tool. They deter would-be poachers and alert you there’s someone in the woods.”

Better prices.

Hambel says with help from the different herbal organizations, he hopes for better marketing cooperation among growers. While Hambel says he would like to supplement his salary with a profit from his ginseng crop, it is also important to him to work to preserve wild ginseng and other herbs. He wants to do things the “right way.”

With the wave of younger wildcrafters, he is concerned there will be less and less wild ginseng on the market if growers don’t make an effort.

“The market needs larger, older roots. Root buyers need to support growers. We need to look for the greater value for the grower,” said Hambel. “I would like to generate a significant profit from ginseng. It’s not a full-time job, but it makes a nice retirement.”

(Reporter Annie Santoro can be reached at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or asantoro@farmanddairy.com.)



Rural Action : www.ruralaction.com

National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs: www.ncpmh.org

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