Forest crops, the other money from your forest - Robert Beyfuss

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Greene County, Cairo, NY 12413

Have you ever heard the expression that "He can’t see the forest because the trees get in the way." Well sometimes the trees do seem to dominate our thinking about forested land but there are other opportunities which might provide income for forest land owners. In recent years, the herbs known as ginseng and goldenseal have become very popular among the general public. Both of these woodland plants may be growing wild in your woodlot or you might be able to grow them yourself using the natural shade provided by the trees. The key to success with growing shade loving herbs is proper site selection and learning as much as possible about the particular herb. Not all sites are suitable for all the potentially valuable herbs but most sites may have a "niche" that is worth investigating. In addition to ginseng and goldenseal other forest crops would include ornamental ferns such as maidenhair fern, black or blue cohosh, wild ginger, mayapple, gourmet mushrooms, and many others. Not all of these crops have as well a defined market as ginseng and goldenseal but a cleaver grower could develop lucrative markets, especially in metropolitan areas.

In addition to the plants that grow beneath the trees are the animals which live in the woods. Almost all woodlots support populations of certain game animals such as wild turkeys, white tailed deer and black bears. Young forests which are reverting to woodlands may also support healthy populations of ruffed grouse and woodcock. Wetland areas may harbor ducks or other waterfowl. All of these animals are eagerly hunted by many sportsmen in New York State providing opportunities for leasing the land to hunting clubs or other groups. Hunting leases need not be complicated and may provide enough income to pay taxes while actually improving wildlife habitat.

Growing Ginseng
The roots of Asian ginseng, Panax ginseng, have been used as part of traditional Chinese medicine for at least 4,000 years. In China and elsewhere in Asia, ginseng is considered "The King of Herbs" due to the great value placed upon this ancient remedy. Wild Asian ginseng is virtually extinct throughout it’s native range and along with American ginseng, Panax quinquefolium, it is listed as an internationally endangered plant species. Today, Asian ginseng is widely cultivated in China and Korea and constitutes a very important agricultural export for these two nations.

American ginseng is one of America’s oldest exports. Shortly after being "discovered" near Montreal in 1716 by a Jesuit missionary who had heard of the Asian species and the value placed upon it, a booming export business developed which was primarily facilitated by French, English and later American fur traders. John Jacob Astor’s financial empire was built upon American ginseng and Daniel Boone is reported to have exported more than 50 tons of wild American ginseng during his lifetime. Although records of very early exports are not available, in 1858 the U.S. Commerce department recorded 366,053 pounds exported. Virtually all of this ginseng was gathered from the wild which had a predictable effect on the native supply.
A New York resident, George Stanton, who lived near Syracuse in the 1850’s, is generally recognized as the first person to successfully establish a commercial ginseng growing operation. Ginseng growing was quite popular in New York during the latter half of the 19th century which prompted the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station to publish a series of educational bulletins on ginseng topics, mostly related to controlling diseases.

Although ginseng grows naturally in mature, hardwood forests, it did not take long for growers to figure out that it could also be successfully cultivated in field situations using artificial shade made from wood lathe or, later on, plastic shade cloth. This field cultivated ginseng is still the dominant form of production today in the U.S. and Canada.

The Economic Value of Ginseng
The prices paid for ginseng reflect, to a certain extent, the basic principles of supply and demand. In recent years the supply of field grown ginseng has increased dramatically as acreage has increased. In the mid 1980’s it has been estimated that the entire North American production represented less than 3,000 acres with average yields of less than one ton per acre of dried root. In 1997 at least 6,000 acres were under cultivation in North America with somewhat higher average yields per acre. Consequently the price paid for field cultivated ginseng has dropped from $40 to $60 per pound in the mid 1980’s to $10 to $15 per pound in 1997.

In the meantime, the price paid for wild ginseng or wild simulated ginseng or wood’s cultivated ginseng has increased dramatically, ranging from $150 to more than $600 per pound. The main difference in the price paid for wood’s cultivated versus field cultivated ginseng is due to the age and appearance of the dried roots. Field cultivated ginseng is usually harvested after three growing seasons whereas wood’s cultivated is usually harvested after at least 8 to 10 growing seasons. Truly wild ginseng often averages more than 20 years in age and commands the highest prices. Ginseng is one of the few crops, other than trees, in which the age is easily calculated by counting the scars left on the perennial rhizome. Ginseng is an herbaceous perennial which produces new top growth each year from an apical bud. When the top growth dies down each fall a scar is left on the ever lengthening rhizome adjacent to the apical bud which will produce the following season’s growth. The appearance of woods grown ginseng differs from field cultivated also. Woods grown ginseng roots have a more wrinkled or gnarly appearance while filed grown roots are smoother without as many wrinkles. It is believed that growing conditions, soils and other factors including geographic location also have a significant effect on the appearance of the roots. In general, it is safe to say that ginseng grown in New York forests is more valuable then ginseng grown in more southern states such as Kentucky or North Carolina.

Establishing Ginseng on Your Property
The single most important factor in establishing a wood’s grown ginseng operation is proper site selection. Although ginseng can be successfully cultivated under both artificial and natural shade and in a wide assortment of different soils, the fewest problems and the highest quality roots will come from soils in which ginseng is native. In New York these areas are woodlands in which sugar maple is the predominant tree species. Generally speaking, soils which will produce good, healthy stands of sugar maples will also grow good ginseng. Soils such as these are moist but well drained, rich in organic matter, medium to high in fertility and occurring on north to northeast facing slopes. These are only preliminary indicators of good ginseng soils. A complete soil analysis as well as the presence of "indicator" or "companion" plants is also needed before a serious endeavor is undertaken. A good ginseng growing site also needs to be located in a relatively "secure" area where the landowner can keep an eye on the crop.
If a proper site is found with confirming soil tests and indicator plants, the next step is site preparation. Site preparation ranges from simply raking back the existing leaf litter and broadcasting seed more or less at random to forming raised beds with tillage equipment, incorporating leaf mold and /or other soil amendments.

There is a fuzzy line between optimal yield and optimal growth of ginseng roots. Like most plants, ginseng responds to fertilizer inputs with increased growth, however, the plant also seems to become more predisposed to diseases as a result of added fertilizer. In field situations regular and frequent applications of pesticides are required to keep diseases in check. Despite these pesticide applications, losses from diseases are still very common. This is a major reason why field grown ginseng is harvested after only three growing seasons. Disease pressure tends to increase significantly as the plants grow older. In some wood’s grown plantings (gardens) frequent pesticide applications are also required while in others, virtually no pesticides are used. The origin of the seed is another important factor in ginseng production. Seed that is harvested from ginseng gardens that are infested with diseases will often produce plants that will suffer from the same diseases, therefore, prospective growers should investigate the source of seed as closely as possible.

Ginseng growing is certainly not a "get rich quick" proposition. Even under the best conditions it takes from 7 to 12 years to grow high quality ginseng in a woodlot. Many things can go wrong during this time period including disease outbreaks, insect attacks, rodent or bird problems and thievery from two legged poachers. Still, it can be quite lucrative in the right location with proper care. An acre of "wild simulated" ginseng may bring as much as $60,000 gross revenue after a 7 to 10 year period.

Ginseng growing may offer a good alternative to some traditional forest uses, particularly in sugar maple forests that have been "high graded" during the previous ten to twenty five years. The most important keys to success are proper site selection, a good supply of quality seed and tender loving care for years.


American Ginseng Production in New York State by Robert L. Beyfuss, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Greene County, 906 Greene County Office Building, Cairo NY 12413 $7.00 postpaid

American Ginseng: Green Gold (revised edition) by W. Scott Persons published by Bright Mountain Books, Inc. 138 Springside Road, Asheville, NC 28803 approx. $20.00

Ginseng and other Medicinal Plants by A.R. Harding available from Sylvan Botanicals, P.O. Box 91 Cooperstown NY 13326 approx. $10.00

Ginseng by Kim Derek Pritts Stackpole Books, 5067 Ritter Road, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055

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