Forest farming seen as sustainable alternative to wildcrafting

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Larry Harding and his family forest farm ginseng in Maryland.
Larry Harding and his family forest farm ginseng in Maryland.

Related tags: Agriculture

An innovative program administered through a Virginia university is fostering a model for increasing supply chain quality and transparency via the cultivation of forest botanicals in situ.

The concept is called forest farming, and is aimed at understory botanicals.  The plants of interest are grown in plots in forests that match their native habitats.  This results in plants that potentially have very similar bioactive profiles to their wildcrafted peers. Depending on the species, this can be something of a sticking point for these same botanicals when grown under artificial shade in a field setting. And the program helps farmers sustainably wring extra cash out of second growth forest lands that might have limited income potential otherwise.

This notion is being fostered through a program called the Appalachian Begining Forest Farmer Coalition.  Holly Chittum, who is a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech University, is co director of the program, which is funded in part by the United States Department of Agriculture.  Chittum gave a presentation on the topic in September at by the Botanical Congress put on in Las Vegas, NV by the American Herbal Products Association. Chittum said the effort is a broad-based one which augurs well for its future longevity.

“There are actually 14 partners in the coalition,​ Chittum told NutraIngredients-USA. “Among them are North Carolina State University, Penn State University and a number of NGOs.

Program helps answer supply chain questions

holly chittum
Holly Chittum

Chittum has done research in the paston the forest farming concept.  She studied forest farming practices in Costa Rica and has investigated the cultivation of American ginseng and other ginseng species in the Changbai Mountains near the China/North Korea border.  And she has attended cork harvests and visited olive plantations in the Andalusia region of southern Spain.  All of that helped convince her that forest farming could help address some of the issues plaguing botanical ingredient supply.  Farming these plants in this way could help make sure the raw material is what it says it is and doesn’t contain any adulterants, and it could also make sure that wild stocks are not depleted in a rush to market. She said the coalition came out of a 2013 meeting at Cornell University coordinated by Virginia Tech titled Forest Farming to the Forefront. The meeting gave an opportunity for many key stakeholders, some who have been involved in forest farming for decades, to come together to identify needs and discuss how they
might move forward on collective action.

“The main goal is to meet the needs of our farmers,​ she said. “It’s also a way of sustaining the environment.  But we also have a growing consumer base for these ingredients.

“We have been looking for some ways to deal with the quality control issues we see with some forest botanicals that are sourced internationally. We seem some botanicals that are native to Appalachia but are coming from international sources and are missing identification for those species, such as black cohosh and goldenseal.  And we are seeing a trend where consumers are demanding more transparency,​ Chittum said.

Steps up the intensiveness ladder

There are several ways in which a botanical native to a forest region could be forest farmed, Chittum said.  In one scenario, the least interventionist, seeds are collected and rebroadcast, to induce more of the desired species to grow in a certain area.  Another step up might be to actively weed out competing species. In a third, more agriculture-like scenario, the grower might even prepare beds under the trees to grow his or her crop.

hardings farm

But in all these cases, the crop grows in soil that has its ‘native’ chemistry, so to speak.  That includes a rich microbial community that would be shaped by the other species of plants and animals in the vicinity.  It makes objective sense that this would by more likely to yield botanicals that have bioactives that match wildcrafted specimens, which is not always the case in field grown crops. But Chittum said that’s not necessarily one of the proven benefits of the process.

“There really isn’t a lot of research yet on that. There are a few studies on ginseng that look at ginsenoside content between wild and cultivated crops.  And there is variability in wild stands, too, and even in different parts of the same hillside in terms of alkaloid content,​ she said.

Rather, Chittum said the story is more about traceability, quality, and working with rather than in contravention to nature. Forest farming is a way to profit from existing conditions, in second-growth plots of hardwood forest where there is little in way of timber value and steep hillsides make other uses of the land problematical.

“It is pretty much working with the environment the way it is now. We have such a varied topography is some of these regions that the land is not suitable for a lot of other types of agriculture except what you can extract from the ecosystem,​ she said.

Old idea that’s being codified

Chittum said the concept of forest farming is not new. For example, Larry Harding and his family have been forest farming ginseng in western Maryland for 50 years.  Her research and her work with the coalition has been more around figuring out who’s doing what, what works, and how to foster the concept and bring it to the herbal market in a more defined and organized way.

“From a cultural perspective this has been happening for a generation. One of our farmers from Pennsylvania who started farming ginseng in this way told us this is the reason he’s still farming. It helped pull him out of the whole debt situation,​ she said.

“We have people who used to be wildcrafting who are transitioning into a more intensive stewardship of the land,​ Chittum said.

Chittum said the presentation at the AHPA event was the first time she has been able to get the word out about the coalition to a supply centric audience, rather than talking to fellow researchers or rural development authorities.

“This is the first time we have been able to present this idea to AHPA members. I felt there was lot of interest. To some extent we are still learning what the market will bear. This will be a supply that could cost more and we’re not sure what that looks like. We are interested in partnering with some companies like Mountain Rose Herbs to find out what the consumer interest is like, and what pricing should be so that the companies can earn a standard profit margin. The interest on the part of consumers seems to be high and growing and that could be a motivator for some companies,​ she said.

To learn more about the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farming Coalition, click here​.

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