Friends of Forest Farming

As armies of amateur wildcrafters pluck Appalachian ginseng, goldenseal, and other medicinal herbs to near extinction, a coalition of universities, nonprofits, and “forest farmers” are working on a solution that will not only help preserve these wild herbs but also prevent supplement adulteration.

The Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition includes Virginia Tech, Penn State, and North Carolina State University; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, and other government organizations; nonprofits like United Plant Savers and the Blue Ridge Woodland Growers; and Appalachian landowners and farmers. Together, these entities are developing a model called “forest farming” for cultivating traditionally wildcrafted herbs, including black cohosh {Actaea racemosa}, goldenseal {Hydrastis canadensis}, bloodroot {Sanguinaria canadensis}, ginseng {Panax quinquefolius}, blue cohosh {Caulophyllum thalictroides}, stoneroot {Collinsonia canadensis}, wild yam {Dioscorea villosa}, and wild indigo {Baptisia tinctoria}.

During a presentation at last fall’s American Herbal Products Association {AHPA} Botanical Congress in Las Vegas, Coalition co-director Holly Chittum explained the idea of forest farming – cultivating wild species right in the forest – and the various ways it can be implemented in the region. One method involves collecting wild seeds and then encouraging their growth by sowing them across a larger area. Competing plants could also be weeded out to ensure the survival if specific species. Or there could be a more formal type of agriculture, with beds planted under the tree canopy. The Coalition’s goal is to figure out which type of farming works best, and to introduce more farmers to the concept.

The benefits of forest farming? Cultivated herbs can augment wild stock and help assure its survival. The soil and environment of forest farming match the botanicals’ native habitats and will hopefully produce plants with bioactive profiles similar to wildcrafted versions. This isn’t always the case with medicinal herbs grown in fields with artificial shade.

The cultivated plants could also be traced from seed to shelf, assuring the raw material isn’t adulterated.

And forest farming could help provide extra cash for farmers and owners of land that has little value for timber harvesting or traditional farming – a key consideration in an economically depressed area like Appalachia.

Right now, however, there’s not much research showing whether forest-farmed herbs would be genetic matches for their wildcrafted cousins. “There are a few studies on ginseng that look at ginsenoside content between wild and cultivated crops,” Chittum told Nutraingredients USA. “And there is variability in wild stands, too, and even in different parts of the same hillside in terms of alkaloid content.”

Chittum told NutraIngredients there appeared to be a lot of interest in her AHPA presentation, and now the key is to learn what the market can bear in terms of additional costs associated with forest-farmed herbs. “The interest on the part of consumers seems to be high and growing, and that could be a motivator for some {herb} companies,” she said.

covenstead farm plants

Another Note: New Wave Farmers

In a scenario reminiscent of the Green Acres television show, a growing number of young professionals are saying “goodbye, city life” and moving to the farm.

According to the USDA’s most recent Census of Agriculture, the number of farmers in the age range of 25 to 34 increased by two percent between 2007 and 2012. That may not seem like much, but it’s only the second time in the last century that the total number of farmers in that age group has increased, and it’s in sharp contrast to the average farmer, who is 58 years old.

Three-quarters of these young farmers didn’t grow up in agricultural families, either, according to the 2017 National Young Farmer Survey. Sixty-nine percent have more than a high school degree, making them better educated than the general American population. Sixty percent are women, and the number of farmers of color under the age of 40 is about double the amount of those over age 40.

Considering how many farmers are nearing retirement, these 21st-century homesteaders are poised to change the face of agriculture in the next few decades. The National Young Farmer Survey found that 75 percent describe their farms as sustainable, and 63 percent say that they follow organic practices whether or not their farm is certified organic.

The survey also found that young farmers’ two highest income categories are farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture {CSA}. And neighboring farmers are creating “food hubs” that store, process, and market crops collectively. This allows them to sell to grocery and restaurant chains at prices that can compete with national suppliers.

These young farmers are also bucking corporate agriculture by preserving family-owned, midsize farms. The average farm operated by a 20- or 30-something is less than 50 acres. But access to land is a major challenge for first-generation farmers. Many young farmers rent their acreage, and the National Young Farmer Survey found that student-loan debt can prevent newbie farmers from obtaining loans to buy land and farm equipment.