Ginseng research rooted in farm profits

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PIKETON, Ohio – A group of tiny plants, no more than an inch in height, inconspicuously grow in a wooded area on the grounds of Ohio State University’s South Centers at Piketon.

But within three years, the plants will be more than a foot high and have produced a root highly sought after for its health benefits.

It will be another four years before the plants are mature enough for the roots to be marketed.

Growing ginseng. Ohio State researchers are trying their hand at growing American ginseng and other non-timber forest products to boost economic sustainability for farmers looking to raise alternative crops.

“Ohio is a good place to raise ginseng,” said Shawn Wright, an Ohio State horticulturist.

Wright said wild ginseng can be found throughout the state, especially in the southern region, where acidic soils and shady Appalachian slopes make for ideal growing conditions.

Wright and Ohio State soil and water specialist Rafiq Islam are practicing agroforestry, a widely accepted production technique in developing countries that is regaining favor in the United States.

Agroforesty is the concept of growing agricultural products in forested areas to help manage the natural environment while producing a marketable crop.

Good candidate. Ginseng makes a good candidate for agroforestry production because wild simulated ginseng roots are a more highly valued crop than ginseng cultivated in greenhouses, Islam said.

Wild simulated ginseng is normally grown in untilled forest soils over a period of 9-12 years. Roots from wild simulated ginseng most closely resemble the appearance of true wild ginseng.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agroforestry Center, prices for wild simulated ginseng have risen enough to be extremely profitable for those landowners with suitable land.

“Root buyers will pay between $300 and $400 per pound of wild ginseng root, compared to $10 or $15 for roots cultivated in greenhouses,” Islam said.

“Some buyers will pay as much as $700 per pound of roots. Wild ginseng has a better bioactive component and produces roots of acceptable size, color and shape that markets are looking for.”

Medical benefits. Americans, Europeans and Asians, specifically, value ginseng for its medicinal benefits. The roots, boiled in teas or soups, or ground to a fine powder, have been known to relieve fatigue, mental and nervous exhaustion.

Ginseng also is useful in controlling loss of appetite and digestive problems. Countless over-the-counter herbal remedies contain ginseng or ginseng extracts.

“There is a growing interest in Ohio for producers to grow and market wild-simulated ginseng to those Asian markets,” Wright said.

“If we can conduct trial plots on the best way to grow ginseng and what techniques to use, we can aid producers in growing a high-quality product they can get a good price for.”

Takes time. Although the researchers have just begun their ginseng trials, they do know that it takes many years – generally, at least seven – for a ginseng plant to reach an age where the roots can be harvested.

Ginseng plants also prefer shade and should be planted on northern or eastern slopes where little sunlight penetrates the forest canopy. Ginseng plants are water-sensitive and grow best in areas with high organic matter.

The researchers noted that raising wild simulated ginseng is a time-consuming practice that takes many years of investment and patience to turn a profit. They added, however, that it isn’t a management intensive operation.

Profits. In a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agroforestry Center, a projected nine-year budget for a half acre of wild simulated ginseng comes to more than $7,600, which includes the cost of seed, labor, materials and equipment and drying techniques.

If an expected yield of 80 pounds of roots garners a profit of $24,000 at $300 per pound, the estimated net profit is roughly $16,300.

American ginseng has been cultivated in the U.S. since the 1800s. According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, Wisconsin leads the nation in ginseng production. In 2000, the U.S. exported more than $41 million worth of ginseng.

Wild ginseng is an internationally protected plant. In order for it to be exported from any state, the USDA requires the crop be certified as cultivated.

If wild plants are gathered, they must be harvested according to the regulations of a state certification program approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Currently, only 20 states, including Ohio, have a certification program.

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