August 2008
Featured Articles

Living Off The Land: There’s more to the forest than just trees

By Jerry A Chenault

      The demand for specialty forest products has been growing rapidly over the past decade, no doubt. Specialty forest products do not include John Boy’s firewood service, nor does it mean Ricardo’s left-handed cigarette business. Specialty forest products include numerous plant species (as well as pine straw, wild berries, cedar boughs crafted into wreaths, etc.) which have nutritional, medicinal or culinary uses and benefits. They’re all around us, maybe even on your property … and maybe they’ll provide a way to help you "live off the land" without eating pine cones.

Officially called "agroforestry," the plants grown in the understory of pine and hardwood forests are pretty elusive in their cultivation methods. I mean, really, not much is known about how to intentionally propagate and cultivate most of these plants. But we’re learning, and several of these plants, like ginseng, cohosh, edible mushrooms (like shitake) and goldenseal, already have consumer demand. That’s good.

The downside of that demand is their high economic value is causing them to be over-harvested in the wild. This threatens their long-term existence. The good news is we are gaining knowledge that will allow more and more scientific production of agroforest-type products.

Due to this knowledge increase in the area of ginseng production, growers are now able to grow ginseng under shade cloth at tremendously high production yields. There is a downside to that coin, however. The Asian market prefers wild ginseng. And it’s easy to tell the difference between the big, straight, healthy, shade-cloth-grown ginseng and that from the wild. The price is even more different than the appearance of the roots!

Not ones to give up easily, American producers are learning to grow "wild simulated" ginseng which brings prices very similar to wild ginseng. That’s a good thing.

But ginseng isn’t the only fish in the sea. There are lots of other plants in demand for pharmaceuticals and other uses. Seems like a legitimate avenue of agriculture to me. Want to know more? Check out these websites (source: USDA "Inside Agroforestry" journal 
volume 16, issue 2):

    1) Information on gathering skills, norms, livelihoods, products, uses and more.

2) Serves as a national clearinghouse for harvesters and growers, marketers, processors and end-users.

3) Present definitions, historical perspective, market overview, management and sustainability of resources harvested from oak ecosystems.

4) Helps users look beyond timber and pulpwood.

5) Focuses on ginseng, goldenseal and mushroom production.

6) Free e-mail agroforestry journal for practitioners, researchers, professionals and enthusiasts.

Jerry A. Chenault is the Urban R.E.A for Lawrence & Morgan Counties.