Medicinal Root Production for Small Scale Agriculture

Progress report for FNC20-1230

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $3,370.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Sacred Sun Farm
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Jessica Layton
Sacred Sun Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

We have been farming with our current space since 2015, when we started growing vegetables as a market farm. We have since started to incorporate medicinal herbs, grains and expanded the vegetable production to a total of 3 acres. Since the beginning we have practiced sustainable land management with cover cropping, crop rotations, compost application and minimal tillage.

Summary:

Most small scale farmers are focused on annual vegetable production to meet their community’s needs.  However, the demand and need for US grown, medicinal plants is on the rise. Many people are interested in organic and fresh herbs grown by small producers, the same standard they want their food grown.  This presents an opportunity for farmers to add medicinal roots into their crop plan to help satisfy the demand. 

Planting medicinal roots can diversify the species on a farm, both with plants and beneficial insects.  The perennial roots offer benefits such as windbreaks and erosion control, with the possibility of bringing back native prairie plants, like Echinacea. There is a need to educate farmers about medicinal root production as a source of income and to find ways to mechanize production, for it to be an efficient crop to grow.  The research supported by this grant could work to educate more farmers and also find ways that medicinal roots can be grown efficiently in the Midwestern climates and soils.

Project Objectives:
  1. Set up 3 medicinal root trials (Ashwagandha, Elecampane and Marshmallow) in 80 foot beds and research production.
  2. Trial mechanized harvest and process data about yield.
  3. Do cost/ profit analysis to determine economic sustainability for farmers.
  4. Share research with on farm field presentation and in a talk with the Sustainable Agriculture Program at Johnson County Community College.

Research

Materials and methods:

This project will use our past research of medicinal roots to determine how to grow them on a larger scale.   The plants will be started in trays in the greenhouse to ensure good germination, taken care of daily, and kept at a controlled temperature.  The beds will be prepped with the rototiller and will be 3, 80ft long beds at 4 ft wide.  The dimensions of the beds are the standard at the farm, and the equipment is already set up to do the bed work this way.  At Sacred Sun Farm, longer season crops are planted into paper mulch, to help retain soil moisture in the summer and keep weed pressure down.  Each of the three beds will be mulched with paper before planting.  Then the plants will be transplanted into their beds, 2ft apart and two staggered rows, with one bed for each crop.  This will give each plant enough space to grow and access to proper fertility, and will also use the space efficiently. 

The three crops chosen are Ashwagandha, Marshmallow and Elecampane.  They have all shown excellent growth in a single season, while also being well known and desirable herbs for herbalists and the community.  There will be weekly evaluations of growth, weed management, and irrigation throughout the growing season.  After the first killing frost in mid-October, the roots will be harvested using a bed lifter, washed and chipped.  Then they will be spread on screens to dry until shelf stable.  The profitability of the herbs will be determined after fresh and dry yields are counted and price points are made for each crop.  After that point they can be sold, made into products or processed further into powders to aid in their profitability.  Marketing and sales will be through our Farmer’s Markets and a wholesale herb store in Kansas City.

Reporting from the Field:

In the first year of this grant we are able to see the growth and resilience of these medicinal root crops.  The Ashwagandha, Elecampane and Marshmallow were seeded into flats in the greenhouse on April 13th of 2020, with excellent germination from the Marshmallow and Elecampane within a week or two.  The Ashwagandha was very slow to germinate and gain size, so it would be recommended to start this crop much earlier in the greenhouse the next season.  The beds were tilled, fertilized and mulched with sheet paper in order to transplant Marshmallow and Elecampane on June 6th and Ashwagandha on June 12th.  All crops were planted with two rows in a bed, 18 inches apart in the row and the rows 24 inches apart.  The plants were staggered in their planting to give ample room between plants.  They were monitored and their progress was tracked with pictures throughout the season.  After the last frost, the Ashwagandha was harvested by hand on November 28th.  We decided to harvest it by hand because the plants were much smaller than we thought and the yield fairly low.  For an 80 ft bed of Ashwagandha, our crop yielded just 25 ounces of dried roots (this crop would be sold in dry form).  We are looking forward to a better yield in the second year trial. 

The top growth of the Elecampane and Marshmallow die back in the winter, and we pruned it back to make space for the new growth in the next spring.  The 2020-2021 winter was mostly mild, with the exception of 10 or so days of very cold temperatures at the beginning of February, where some nights got as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit.  Despite these chilling temps all of the Marshmallow and nearly all of the Elecampane plants have come up in the spring of 2021.  The new aerial growth has been tolerant of spontaneous cold dips and a very late spring snow in late April. 

Research results and discussion:

In our first attempt of growing Ashwagandha on this scale, it had a fairly poor yield, with an 80ft bed only growing 25 ounces of root after dried.  We are looking forward to trying this crop again for the second year and believe starting the plants many months earlier will help with the yield.  

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

We have posted updates on our Instagram page to share as we go, but haven’t had any tours or presentations due to Covid and also inconclusive information.  We are looking forward to sharing our findings more completely in the fall of 2021

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.