High-Value Ginseng Could Elevate Ohio Appalachian Economy
|Greg Duskey, an expert ginseng grower in Appalachian Ohio, passes on his experiences through a program that trains area growers and ag educators in specialty crop production. He works for a program that aims to increase incomes in the economically depressed area. |
Photo by Jana Pryor
In the sixth year after sowing ginseng seed, part-time Ohio farmer Greg Duskey began, cautiously, to examine his product. As he had expected, Duskey was still too early to harvest his wild-cultivated ginseng.
After seven or eight years, the root finally has enough character to look like wild ginseng, said Duskey, who has gathered the valuable herb from the foothills of southeastern Ohio since he was 12. Now, he helps educate others about how to grow ginseng in the wild for a nonprofit organization, Rural Action, which is trying to improve quality of life in Ohios stretch of Appalachia. Rural Action received a SARE professional development grant to increase knowledge of medicinal herb cultivation among agricultural educators.
Highly prized by Asian cultures, particularly the Chinese, for a variety of uses, from improving concentration to relieving fatigue, ginseng remains a hot commodity. Along with other medicinal herbs like goldenseal and black cohosh, ginseng grows well in the mature forest of the Appalachians, where a rocky, rolling terrain is inhospitable to most crops.
But while ginseng has been harvested for centuries in Ohio, few know how to grow it in wild-simulated conditions, the true route to value in the ginseng market. Wild-cultivated roots fetch as much as $500 a pound, while roots grown in tilled beds underneath shade cloth which lack the crooked appearance of its wild cousins garner about $8 a pound.
Since Daniel Boone, ginseng has been part of the culture in Appalachia, said Colin Donohue, of Rural Action. Harvesting ginseng at the end of summer is part of the turn of the season.
As wild ginseng gets scarcer, however, those looking to raise their incomes in an economically depressed area welcome opportunities to cultivate it in their woods. Such factors as shade, planting depth, soil management and harvest time become crucial to raising the right root for the marketplace.
Rural Actions economic message is opening doors in what has been a closed community. Investment in what some regard as a savings account is also a hobby, Donohue said. Many people here like spending time in the woods and the promise of good returns from limited investment, no new equipment and no land requirements other than using your woodlands.
The profit-making potential, as well as the production know-how, will be passed throughout the region thanks to workshops hosted by Rural Action for agricultural educators. Duskey co-presented four workshops in 2002, reaching about 40 growers and 70 agricultural educators. His co-presenter, a West Virginia extension educator who specializes in ginseng production, tells them in a classroom setting about growing techniques and markets. When they go to the woods, Duskey takes the lead. He shows participants the best growing locations, outlines cultivating tips, conducts a planting demonstration and answers as many questions as are thrown at him.
Duskeys tie to the community helps gain grower acceptance. A fifth-generation farmer in Morgan County, Duskey is close to harvesting and selling his first crop of ginseng, making him something of a rarity. Hes known among area farmers, and his training role allows Rural Action to reach out to people who often distrust government programs and perceived outsiders. Im just a local Joe in the community, and people see me as such, Duskey said. I can build a rapport with folks in the local area and it works well. Even though he has a graphic design business, Duskey finds time to work with growers on Rural Actions behalf because tapping into the valuable ginseng market has the potential to elevate the economy in the entire area.
A direct result of Rural Action workshops was the formation, in 2000, of The Roots of Appalachia Growers Association (RAGA). The group of medicinal herb growers shares research, cultivation techniques and marketing ideas, and now participates in Rural Actions education efforts. Rural Action continues to home in on its goal to increase the number of farmers who can make a profit from ginseng and other herbs. Staffers attend county fairs and events to mingle with farmers, trying to gain their acceptance and willingness to hear their message. They are sure that one of the regions main assets, its forests, can yield high-value crops that can sustain small growers and their communities.
We go out and establish relationships, rather than just advertise a workshop, Donohue said. Weve got lifetime residents of that township at the fair, talking to people they know.
Gradually, the organization is achieving acceptance. At one Rural Action herb workshop, 175 people attended, many of them the early adopters, but also others who want to learn more. Developing growers as educators has gone far toward earning trust, as has the organizations focus on generating economic opportunities.
If theyre struggling to make a living, I want to work with them, not with large, off-site farmers who want to increase their opportunities, Donohue said. We work with rural people who are part of the fabric of their communities.
Appalachian woodlot owners in southeastern Ohio
|Educating Team |
Rural Action, Trimble, Ohio www.ruralaction.org
|Challenges Addressed |
Distrust of outsiders.
Little access to profit-making jobs
Steeply forested terrain
|Connection Strategies |
Promise of profitable new markets
Attending county fairs and farmer gatherings
|Teaching Methods |
Training and supporting program assistants from within the community
Development of a growers association for peer learning