Exploring sustainable options for conservation of small woodland parcels through wild-crafting crops

Final Report for FNC09-757

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $3,583.98
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Lisa Jackson
Growing Obsessions Nursery
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Project Information


Farmer Rancher Grant Program

Final Report
• Name: Lisa Jackson
• Address: 1322 US Hwy 12
• City, State, Zip Code: Galien, MI 49113

• Phone: (269) 545-8100
• Website: growing-obsessions.com
• Project Title: Exploring sustainable options for conservation of small woodland parcels through wild-crafting crops
• Project Number: FNC09-757
• Project Duration: 3 years
• Date of Report: 3/21/13

I am the owner of a small wholesale propagation nursery. I partnered with the owner of a large organic beef farm, and also with a disability advocate who is a Native American medicine woman starting an herb farm. All three of us donated unused sections of woodlands, ranging between 1 to 10 acres for this project.

Before starting this project, my woodlands were being conserved, and had been unused for 30+ years. Adjoining sections had been sold off recently due to financial pressures of land taxes. The connecting nursery land follows a mostly organic practice, wetland protection, and low maintenance planting for 6+ years. The other donated parcels were also unused.

1. Determine if these specific herbs (fairy wand, goldenseal, snakeroot) would grow well in this area, under these conditions and treatments.
2. Determine if this planting method would suit the projects target audience (elderly, disabled, non-farmers, females).
3. Determine if this herb growth would be financially feasible to help offset the cost of conserving small woodland plots.

Three woodland locations with widely varying microclimates, soil types, light, etc. were selected, to give the widest assortment of growing conditions; 2-3 plots per location were used.

Several people with physical limitations would plant specially selected herbs using a process known as wildcrafting, in a box or X pattern of 5 plants per spot, 2-3 spots per plot, on all 3 locations. The ease of the planting style, the success of the plantings, and the growth would all be evaluated.

Four crop types were selected for this SW Michigan area. All had established markets already existing, and involved an assortment of woodland conditions and physical exertion. These were also starting to disappear in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains.
1. Fairywand. An Appalachian herb not native to this area.
2. Goldenseal. Found in this area, but not generally farmed here.
3. Snakeroot. Sometimes found in this area, but rarely harvested.
4. Mushrooms logs. Using smaller logs and a “spore and ignore” technique, it could provide several years of harvesting for local markets. Shitake and Oyster were selected.

One location was fenced off, about 8x8 ft, to control animal impact on the herb and mushroom growth.

An herb specialist was hired to locate the optimal sites at all locations. The herbs were then planted and allowed to grow unattended.
Growth, growing conditions, and survival rates were evaluated. Proposed financial gains would be based on expert evaluation of marketable roots after 2 years of growth.

Several previous SARE grant recipients gave advice to streamline the project and increase the odds of success. Most of the plant materials were purchased from a SARE grant recipient.

The local conservation society.

A local herb expert.

Experts from Fernwood, a local botanical garden and Master Garderner training center.

We had very mixed results with this project.

Method: The planting method for the herbs was easily done. The 5 plants forming an X pattern was easier to relocate, as the GPS’s range was only +- 9 meters.

The logs needed for the mushrooms were very challenging to locate, especially for the target audience. A tree trimming company’s extras were the best option. Using plug spores was much easier to handle and assemble than the standard spore mash + hot sealing wax method. Even small logs less than 6 inches in diameter and less than 2 ft long proved difficult to manage.

Survival: Unusual weather patterns (including 2 years of drought and record heat waves) might have affected the survival rates of these plants and mushroom logs. The mushroom plugs, while being easier to assemble, also dried out faster than the hot sealing wax method. Those probably died the first summer. No mushrooms were collected from the logs. Mushrooms collected from tabletop kits using that same spore showed that the spore was fine. Pictures of the log process and tabletop mushroom kits are on the website.

After the first year’s drought and delayed planting, more herbs were planted the following year. Older plants were planted earlier in the year, in new spots. More effort was taken to reduce transplant shock and shipping stress. A local herb expert helped identify better planting locations the second year, along with an analysis of potential problems in the first years locations. Exact reports are on the website. Despite those changes, few plants survived to the end of the project.

Area 3 showed the highest survival rate of all 3 types of herbs, and from both planting years. Area 1 showed survival of at least 1 herb (goldenseal) in plot B from the second years planting, but none survived from the first years planting. The herb expert commented that the recent record breaking heat wave could have sent some of the herbs into a type of early hibernation, so failure to relocate some of the plants may not have meant death of those plants. Area 2 showed no survival from either year’s plantings.

The Fairywand was the most questionable herb in this project, in terms of whether it would survive here or not. This project proved that it could, and that it could grow well.

The fenced-in plot (Area 3) had the highest survival rate, but also had noticeably different soil type than the other two locations. The soil was very soft and uncompacted, easily dug with bare hands. Soil analysis was done on location 1 and 3, with results posted on the webpage. The best survival spot also had more shade than expected to be useful, and fewer competing undergrowth. The area with the least survival had sandier, more compacted soil (ex – old tractor path), despite being within 20 ft of a small lake.

Using these herbs is an option for woodland conservation in this area. The method is doable, non-intrusive, and the market exists. Not enough is known about the financial return, however. More testing on ideal conditions would be very helpful, and whether animal impact had as much to do with the success of the fenced in area as the soil. I personally would like to eventually see a chart comparing the energy output of this type of project with the possible financial return. Ex – if you have low energy but high initial investment, try this. If you have more energy but less initial finances to invest, try this.

I plan continue to look into these herbs. I’m also looking into gourmet varieties of pawpaws, now that the cancer, insecticide, and gourmet food markets for pawpaws are increasing. If I do any more with mushrooms, it will more likely be on straw bales or using the totem method, as opposed to log plugs. Both of those will be shorter lasting, but involve less initial energy/time output.

I believe the environmental impact of this process is potentially high, allowing for increased conservation while providing minimal negative effects. The economic impact is unknown, but it has good potential. As for social impact, it seemed to provide a unifying aspect, and generated a great deal of discussion/interest whenever it was brought into a conversation.

Outreach on the project was mostly by phone and computer with local conservation, farming, and gardening groups. Outreach for the results had to be adjusted from the original expectations. The most successful site (Area 3) was the most inaccessible site, so holding a public field day there was not feasible. The most accessible site had low survival, so not much to show people (Area 1). A showing of Area 3 is planned for local neighbors and possibly the local newspaper. A more complete webpage is being created in lieu of field day, with pictures and reports. http://growing-obsessions.com/home/sare-herb-project/ Multiple groups have asked to be informed of the results of this project.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.