Sustainable Ginseng Forest Farming
November 1, 2020
The more and bigger the better right? Well, not always. We can learn a lot from commercial ginseng growers. They are experts at efficiency and large scale growing of ginseng for the commercial market. In their world, bigger and more is always better. But in addition to considerably higher costs of production, the key is that they sell to a different market than the average small grower or wild ginseng digger. Understanding there are different markets for ginseng is the first step to understanding prices for this commodity.
Cultivated ginseng generally sells direct or to large brokers often representing international buyers. Wild ginseng (including wild simulated and sometimes woodsgrown ginseng) moves through a traditional channel of local and regional buyers domestically before encountering the international market. The wild market is sometimes also separated to commercial (read low) quality and premium or the gift market. If a buyer is smashing roots to make them fit into the bins or barrels and handling the roots roughly, s/he is a commercial quality buyer. On the other hand, if a buyer is critical towards small, damaged, or otherwise blemished roots but pays a premium for large perfect roots with solid wild character, he or she is a premium market buyer. This is not personal against the digger, it is simply business. The buyer must be able to sell what they buy at a profit unless they wish to go bankrupt.
In any given year, the highest prices paid in the traditional wild market will be for collections of older, larger, perfectly dug and handled ginseng with impeccable wild character. However, this type of root is getting harder and harder to find in quantity. This is where wild simulated ginseng comes into play.
It is important to understand that the market still prefers wild ginseng over wild simulated –and wild simulated over all other growing methods such as woodsgrown or cultivated. We can do this with minimal deviance from genuinely wild roots by using the wild simulated method and allowing our ginseng to mature in the woodland environment naturally.
The goal of growing wild simulated ginseng is just what the name implies –the simulation of wild ginseng. Remember, the goal is to replace as closely as possible genuinely wild ginseng. There are purists who insist that anything touched by human hands prior to discovery and harvest is ‘cultivated’ ginseng. This is an influence from eastern medicine which places a reverence on the roots which one author described –among other things- as the “ultimate panacea, …the spirit of man taken root in the Earth.” Therefore a certain value is placed on genuinely wild roots and all others are considered to some degree to be imitations of the ideal.
However, because of overharvest, increases in whitetail deer populations, and reduction of ginseng habitat resulting in lack of genetic diversity, populations of genuinely wild ginseng has been reduced to the point of a listing on CITES II as an endangered plant. This triggered a whole host of regulations and paperwork required to harvest and sell ginseng to the markets (and a ton of additional paperwork and oversight for its export from the United States). For these reasons –and an ever increasing demand for ginseng- more and more buyers and commercial users are looking for wild simulated ginseng to fill the void left by reduced populations of genuinely wild ginseng available to the market.
So, the goal for small growers is to very closely mimic genuinely wild ginseng.
Once we understand why and what our goal as small growers should be, we really should also understand what it is not. Simply, anything that does not mimic truly wild ginseng should be avoided. Wild ginseng grows slowly over many years in the woodland environment. Trying to cut corners and shorten the process is not mimicking the wild ginseng growing process –therefore it is not producing a simulated wild ginseng product. Fertilizers and other growth enhancers speed up the growth process and produce roots that outsize their age as compared to wild roots. Further, this process can lead to roots which are unusable for certain applications (because of their boney, dense character), and have little resemblance to their wild counterparts.
Simply, in every commodity market the buyer sets the price. Buyers pay more for premium products because they are willing to –not because producers demand it. Ginseng producers have lost sight of this economic fact. Buyers prefer well handled premium wild ginseng roots. With wild root getting lower in quality and harder to acquire as time goes on, buyers are becoming accepting of wild simulated ginseng which closely resembles wild –in fact true wild simulated ginseng IS wild ginseng with the exception of how the seed came to be where it germinated and grew. As producers, it is our job and goal to provide a product which is desirable to the market –not to produce a so-so product and demand the market pay us premium prices for our inferior product. Just forget all about the older agriculture extension documents one might find online which indicates pounds per acre after so many years. This is a recipe for absolute disaster in today’s ginseng markets and particularly for sustainable growing and harvests.
Wild Simulated Ginseng
We have determined we want to produce ginseng in an area of our choosing with as little interference as possible to mimic the growing conditions of wild roots. We do this simply by planting stratified seeds. Obviously, we must have an area suitable for wild ginseng to grow. We look for directional exposure to increase the odds that the conditions will be suitable (e.g., north or northeast facing slope), but understanding that suitable conditions can be found with any directional exposure containing the right soil, shade, and moisture.
Currently the trend on Facebook pages related to ginseng and ginseng growing is to seek soil samples and amend them to the considered ideal for ginseng. However, few of the so called experts who parrot this information actually understand from where it comes or the context in which it was discovered or provided. Almost without a doubt they will tell you to add calcium to your soil to make it suitable for ginseng. Let me ask: Who amended the soil which grows wild ginseng that has such powerful medicinal abilities?
After researching and studying this for about 20 years now, I’ve come to the conclusion that a wild simulated grower should never amend the soil. There is just too much that can go wrong if one does try to amend the soil. First, most amendments should be incorporated into the soil in some fashion. This suggests tilling the soil to some degree. Wild ginseng does not grow in tilled beds. Woodsgrown ginseng, however, does. Another oldtimer’s term to describe woodsgrown ginseng is woods cultivated. Think about that for a minute. Cultivated ginseng is normally harvested at four years of age. Sometimes they harvest sooner, sometimes later. However, commercial farmers do not wait for 10 years or more to harvest their ginseng. While some domestic buyers will seek out 5-7 year-old ginseng, I would estimate that fewer than about 40% of the roots will be ready and desirable to the wild market at that age.
These are 15 year old wild simulated roots planted with the ECF Seeder
Replant failure is a real issue. Commercial farmers buy new farms or pay premium rent for many years for acres of ground that have never grown ginseng to ensure their success when they are ready to plant ginseng on that ground. They simply will never risk growing ginseng in the same ground. In my earlier years of planting woodsgrown ginseng, I discovered that replant failure was also an issue for small growers. I once planted and harvested ginseng roots from a very small bed maybe 3 feet wide by 20 feet long. This bed was tilled, and routinely weeded. In the end, it produced maybe 800 – 1000 rootlets which were of good size that first fall and had absolutely zero disease issues. About five years later, I decided to replant that bed. I tilled and prepared it as I had originally. However, after planting several ounces of seed in the bed, only two plants emerged in the spring. No viable seed was found in the bed otherwise.
So, the obvious issue for a small grower with limited ground is that at some point, replant failure will render all of their ground unproductive if they don’t avoid practices which encourage replant failure. So, how do we avoid replant failure? I spent a lot of time studying this issue and found one constant where replant failure occurred –disturbed soil. Commercial farmers disc and plow to prepare their beds. Woodsgrown ginseng is most commonly grown in tilled beds. Most often the folks who add soil amendments use the rake and scatter method of planting ginseng –which also disturbs the soil. These practices all disturb the soil and can result in replant failure. Disturbed soil is the common denominator –the constant- where the phenomenon of replant failure occurs.
The key to growing high quality wild simulated ginseng sustainably through the generations is to leave the soil intact with as little disturbance as possible. You cannot do this if you are raking the soil up to amend it or plant by scattering seed on the surface and raking it in as if it were grass seed. In my opinion, rake and scatter techniques of planting are woodsgrown growing methods –NOT wild simulated growing.
There are several ways to plant without disturbing the soil. First is the obvious no-tech method where we go through the woods and simply push a seed into the ground about ½-1” deep. Sometimes a tool is employed (e.g., stick or screwdriver). To my knowledge there is only one tool designed for planting ginseng this way through leaves –my own ECF Seeder. I designed this tool to avoid hours and hours of crawling around on my hands and knees in the woods, or bending over to plant seed in wild sim patches. I still make them myself by hand, and they are made of all American sourced materials.
You can watch a video of how this tool works here: ECF Seeder in action at Rumble
And, you can order your own here: ECF Seeder Page
There are other tools being developed, but the ones I’ve seen are generally made of plastic and designed to plant quickly on tilled or otherwise disturbed soil. This is not what we want in order to grow ginseng sustainably.
Initially, I even tried planting rootlets in beds where ginseng had been harvested about seven years before. I found that even when I tilled the bed again and planted hundreds of roots, only a few came up the following spring and they did not return the following spring. So replant failure affects rootlet plantings also.
I’ve learned when planting rootlets, the best way is to take a shovel or small trowel (I like the yo-ho style trapper’s trowel) and push it into the soil at a very low angle just an inch or so under the surface and gently lift the soil by prying the trowel upward. Once a space is available under the trowel while holding up the surface, lay a ginseng rootlet horizontally into the space and spread out the small roots. Then gently slide the trowel out allowing the undisturbed soil to lay back in place over the rootlet. While this method is very time consuming, the results of this type of planting have been very encouraging –especially for younger rootlets.
Making Money Planting Ginseng
In order to make money over time on the ginseng we plant –particularly in small woodland lots- we need to be able to continue our harvest for many years into the future. Now that we understand how to plant ginseng sustainably by using true wild simulated methods, we need to focus on harvesting sustainably as well.
Wild ginseng grows slowly over many years. So too does wild simulated ginseng. What I am suggesting here is that we treat our wild simulated plantings as if they are wild –because they are. In time, our wild simulated plants will begin to produce berries and new seedlings will emerge which we did not plant ourselves. Over time, this will thicken and replenish the patch.
Harvesting only 3-prong plants or leaving a certain percentage of the plants, and planting berries is certainly good stewardship and goes a long way to allowing for sustainability of wild ginseng patches. But one has more control over their own ‘private patch’ so to speak. We don’t have to settle for mere legal plants. Nor should we. We are looking to produce premium quality ginseng for which buyers will be willing to pay premium prices.
Characteristics for well dug and handled wild ginseng is age first factor, size next, followed closely by wild character, shape, and color. Each of these characteristics can surpass the others at times. For instance, long, thin roots (often known as pencils or chicken bones) are not desirable in the market generally. However, if they develop good wild character, are darker skinned, are of larger size and have age, they might be included rather than picked out of a lot. Pick out generally sells for 1/3 going wild price. Older small, bulby root will bring a better price than younger bulby root of slightly larger size.
Generally, I look for collections which consistent in quality, well dug without damage, and professionally handled. I want bulby rather than long thin roots. I want to see excellent wild character. I want to see age on the roots also. When I am digging wild simulated plantings, I look for the largest of the plants that are at least 10 years of age. I carefully uncover the root looking for bulby roots at least as big as my thumb. If they do not meet those criteria, I cover them back up and leave them to grow and continue to produce seed. At some point, age and size will overcome poor shape. As a mentor once told me, you either increase or decrease the value of your lot with every root you did. Never dig roots that reduce the value of the roots you have to sell.
Being very selective about the roots we harvest allows us to not only produce a very high quality and desirable product for the market, but also helps us to avoid disturbing the soil excessively. If we were to just say “well, they are 10 years old so they are ready to dig” and we dig an entire patch, we will not have a premium lot to sell, and the soil disturbance we cause will likely result in replant failure as well. So much for sustainability.
But, let me show you the bright side by doing some math. Refer to my article Estimating Ginseng Seed for more detailed info on this, but the formula for estimating the amount of seed for a given area is Total Square Feet X Seeds per Foot / 7000 Seeds per Pound. An acre of ground at 80% coverage (rocks, trees, etc) takes about 20 lbs with 6” x 6” spacing. So let’s say a person has five usable woodland acres suitable for ginseng. We will break the available ground into units based on the time we wish to wait until we start harvesting. In this case if we shoot for the first harvest at 10 years, we break the whole 5 acres into ½ acre lots which each receive 10 lbs of seed. The first year we prepare and plant ½ acre. We can certainly plant the whole five acres and then weight 10 years also. But going on ½ acre per year, we plant 10 lbs or 70,000 seeds (estimated of course). If we expect 80% germination that would be 56,000 seedlings (70,000/.8 =56,000) which emerge the first spring after planting. Now, if we assume only 40% of those seedlings will survive to 10 years, that would be an estimated 22,400 plants (56,000/.4 = 22,400). Now, of our surviving plants at 10 years, I would suggest that only about 40% of those will be marketable roots at this point. This leaves us with about 8,960 plants (22,400/.4 = 8,960). If we conservatively expect sizes to be in the range of 150 roots per pound (on the smaller side), that would be a possible 59 lbs! (8,960/150 = 59.73). Listen, carefully digging 10 lbs of dry ginseng a year is a chore…20 lbs is a real feat. If the market is only averaging about $500/lb you may be able to get as much as $600/lb (sometimes more) by having only premium roots in your lot. This might be as much as an extra $12,000 in your pocket that first year. So being very selective in our harvest reduces the disturbed soil, increases our quality of future harvest, and increases the value of the lot we bring to market. We are only digging premium quality roots this way.
Keep in mind, we only harvested at most 1/3 of the ginseng which might have been marketable that first year (20lbs X 150 = 3,000 / 8,960 = 33.5%). If we have kept up with our planting schedule and planted ½ acre a year, the second harvest year will see an additional 8,960 plants maturing along with the remaining roots (5,959 roots) from the first planting which are now a year older and have produces yet another crop of seed to replenish the resource.
If we planted the entire 5 acre lot, our numbers would be much larger:
- 80% germination 100lbs X 7,000 seeds per pound = 700,000 X .8 = 560,000 seedlings
- 40% survival at 10 years 560,000 X .4 = 224,000 plants
- 40% marketable at 10 years 224,000 X .4 = 89,600 roots
- 150 roots per dry pound 89,600 / 150 = 597 lbs
- 5 acres X 20 lbs seed per acre = 100 lbs of seed
The amazing thing about this method is that the ginseng patches we start will begin to produce seed on their own by about year four. That means in year six, we will start seeing seedlings we did not plant. Further, we are all but guaranteed that our lots will increase in quality over time because we are being selective, and we are growing more ginseng than one person can reasonably dig in a year. By focusing on only harvesting the highest quality, premium roots, and handling them professionally, we increase the value of the products we bring into the market and the buyers will be willing to pay for that quality.
This is how we can grow ginseng sustainably and pass it onto our children and grandchildren –even on very small family farms. Even if we only plant a single pound of seed each year, our potential first harvest would be about six pounds of dry ginseng. Six pounds of dry ginseng at $600 per pound is a potential $3,600 Christmas bonus.
In closing, I am suggesting we get away from all the fads and go back to stark basics when growing ginseng. We can grow ginseng sustainably in small woodland lots if we avoid disturbing the soil (woodsgrown - rake and scatter or tilling beds). If we avoid adding things to the soil. If we avoid overharvesting. If we accept that growing quality ginseng takes a long time. And finally, we will make money doing so if we realize that producing a high quality premium product our buyers want requires us to selectively harvest only the highest quality roots grown in the wild in conditions the same as genuinely wild ginseng.Brad Castle, PhD