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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.
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, adding that 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 idea of growing agricultural products in forested areas to help manage the natural environment while producing a marketable crop.
Islam said ginseng makes a good candidate for agroforestry production because wild simulated ginseng roots are more of a high-value crop than ginseng cultivated in greenhouses. Wild simulated ginseng is normally grown in untilled forest soils over a period of nine to 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 high 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," said Islam. "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." Americans, Europeans and Asians, specifically, highly prize 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 and are 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," said Wright. "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." 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 also 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 any kind of a profit. They added, however, that it isn't a management-intensive operation.
In a report released by the USDA National Agroforestry Center, a projected nine-year budget for a half-acre of wild simulated ginseng comes to over $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 of roots, estimated net profit is roughly $16,300.
American ginseng has been cultivated in the United States since the 1800s. According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, Wisconsin tops the states with the highest ginseng production. In 2000, the U.S. exported over $41 million worth of ginseng to foreign markets.
Wild ginseng is an internationally protected plant and in order for it to be exported from any state, the USDA requires that it be certified as being cultivated. If wild plants are gathered, they must be harvested according to the rules and regulations of a state certification program, approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently, only 20 states, Ohio included, have such a program.