Sustaining Farms and Biodiversity through Woodland Cultivation of High-Value Crops

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2000: $49,859.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Colin Donohue
Rural Action

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: sorghum (milo)
  • Additional Plants: herbs, native plants
  • Miscellaneous: mushrooms


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: technical assistance, demonstration, display, extension, farmer to farmer, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, cooperatives, value added, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Pest Management: biological control, prevention
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic, holistic management, permaculture
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, nutrient mineralization, organic matter, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, partnerships, public participation, analysis of personal/family life, employment opportunities, social capital, social networks, sustainability measures


    Cultivation of medicinal plants at-risk due to over-harvest in the wild was used as a strategy to protect native biodiversity and generate higher income for grower in the Appalachian region of Ohio. Outreach activities, educational activities, development and distribution of literature, establishment of research and demonstration sites, formation of a growers association, and assistance in marketing were all part of this integrated support system for growers. Total participation in educational activities was over 470. A growers association formed with over 40 members. Significant initial plantings were made by growers and broader awareness of woodland cultivation was developed in the region.


    Appalachian Ohio is a region where long-term economic distress and challenging terrain have greatly reduced the number of viable small farms. Much of the land is hilly and wooded but is used by farmers for grazing of livestock, creating heavy damage to forest soils and ecological health of the forests, reducing biodiversity, and generating only marginal additional income. At the same time, growing worldwide demand for mushrooms and medicinal herbs has pushed some native species, notably ginseng and goldenseal, onto the list of endangered and threatened species. Increasingly, large buyers such as Frontier Herbs are looking for products from forest-based organic cultivation as an alternative to buying wild-harvested materials. The Woodland Cultivation Project has been created to take advantage of this opportunity. Production of CITES listed herbs and other high-value herbs and mushrooms creates opportunities for a viable agriculture which maintains natural forests with their soil and water conservation functions and habitat for native fauna.
    The overall target audience is economically marginal agricultural producers. This includes tobacco farmers, marginal-income dairy farmers, tree farmers, and harvesters of wild ginseng, goldenseal and mushrooms. Most farms in the area include woodlands and many tree farmers are looking to diversify their income streams. Also of note is the fact that many people who wild-harvest herbs have experimented with growing them with mixed results. Drawing them into a group where information can be exchanged about cultivation methods will increase their rate of success. Many wild-harvesters have very low income levels and piece together a living from a variety of sources, many involving agriculture.
    By researching, demonstrating, and widely publicizing appropriate cultivation practices we will be developing a sub-sector of the farm economy that can provide more profitable and environmentally sustainable agricultural production for hundreds of small agricultural producers in the region.

    Proposed Steps Towards Solution

    To develop a base of growers successful and profitable in sustainable cultivation of these species we pursued the following objectives:
    Develop "best practices" for ecologically sound woodland cultivation of high-value
    medicinal plants and gourmet mushrooms.
    Different growers face different site challenges (low pH, non-ideal slope, etc.), and forest-based cultivation of these crops is so new that little in-depth information exists on preferred cultivation techniques. Demonstration plots will examine the effects of spacing, irrigation, and soil amendments on productivity at different sites. Wild-simulated planting, with the lowest environmental impact, will be tested as a means of maximizing conservation benefits. Demonstration sites developed with conservation in mind will allow us to teach by example proper techniques that prevent soil erosion and other environmental degradation.
    Down the road, continuous sharing among local growers could represent an advantage for growers who may eventually face global competition on production of certain crops.

    2. Promote forest-based cultivation of endangered and other native medicinal plants and gourmet mushrooms to preserve biodiversity while creating an economic diversification strategy for area farmers.
    Woodland cultivation of these crops can have far less environmental impact than field cultivation. We will help growers move into woodland cultivation through demonstration sites, workshops and written material (available on web-site as well). Diversification of farm income will be an additional important outcome.
    Cultivation of endangered woodland plants can have significant environmental benefits including a reduction of harvest pressures on wild populations and re-introduction or re-naturalization of endangered native plants both on-site and dispersed by wildlife. Other benefits include reduced soil erosion, water conservation, and maintenance of a functional indigenous ecosystem while creating generating a viable economic diversification strategy.
    Market research and marketing assistance for growers is a critical element and while only dealt with here in a limited way it will be focused on for additional funding from other sources.

    3. Disseminate results to natural resources and agricultural extension personnel.
    Increasing the knowledge, experience, and buy-in of natural resources and agricultural extension personnel will be vitally important in promoting woodland cultivation techniques.
    Even after SARE funding runs out, impacts from the project will be felt if Extension personnel and others continue to make this information available to farmers and other landowners. We hope to use a fairly small amount of funding to start leveraging movement within extension towards sustainable practices. A follow-up Professional Development Proposal could allow us to do this in a significant fashion. Economic benefits would accrue from more focused attention on the medicinal products industry (which has been growing at roughly 15% per year according to Time magazine (Greenwald, 1998)). Environmental benefits will accrue through education relating to organic agriculture, wildlife habitat benefits of trees, etc..
    The target audience for this objective are OSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources personnel. We will also make trainings open to Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation District, and Division of Natural Resources personnel who work with farmers. The ultimate goal is to enable these persons to more fully meet the diverse needs of small agricultural producers in our region.

    4. Disseminate results to area farmers
    At the core of our project will be our educational efforts directed towards growers. For obvious reasons adoption of these new practices and crops depends upon the buy-in of growers. Building in experimentation will also help growers respond rapidly to new market opportunities.
    In our planning for a 5-year Ford Foundation grant we estimate that an additional $1,000,000/year could be generated if growers are able to mobilize fairly rapidly. Through providing information, as well as one-on-one technical assistance, we will be able to greatly speed up the ability of growers to get production and be successful in their endeavors.
    Environmental benefits, again, will be seen as a result of education relating to erosion prevention, organic production, and the benefits of forested lands.

    Literature Review

    Part of the rationale for integrating research with our demonstration plots is that there is not very much known about woodland cultivation of certain medicinal herbs and mushrooms. Publications of a general nature are available from Extension in North Carolina, Kentucky, (Davis, 1996 and Jones, revision yet to be published), but the level of specific knowledge of preferred cultivation practices is relatively small when compared with other commercial crops.
    Historically, and to the present day, most goldenseal, black cohosh, wild yam, and other medicinal herbs we are working with have been harvested from the wild. This harvesting of wild native plant populations , called "wildcrafting" amounts for virtually all of the black cohosh used by the herb industry (Blakley, 1999). Even goldenseal, until recently, came 97% from wild-harvested product (McGuffin, 1999). While cultivation of goldenseal has become much more widespread (McGuffin, 1999) there still is far less known about it than many other plants.
    Because these plants have been primarily wild harvested, less time has been spent developing appropriate cultivation practices, developing cultivars, etc. Currently, work is being done by the New Crops researchers at Purdue (Jim Simon, personal communication, New Crops web-site) on developing varieties that will yield higher key-constituents. Work on cultivation practices is being done by Jeannine Davis from NCSU (personal communication, and Jeannine Davis, 1996). Terry Jones from University of Kentucky Extension (personal communication) has also conducted trials relating to soil amendments, lime in particular. Frontier Natural Products Cooperative (Tim Blakley and Erica Renaud personal communication) is conducting research on cultivation practices of perhaps the broadest array of eastern woodland species. A major partner of ours they have established a privately funded research center, the National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs, and are researching cultivation practices on over a dozen medicinal herbs at-risk of being over-harvested. Most of these are eastern woodland plants being cultivated in woodland settings. Other medicinal herb companies are cultivating goldenseal and learning as they go, but little published literature has come out from their efforts. Wilcox, Frontier and Eclectic Institute are a few of the companies that have moved into goldenseal growing, though from a commercial rather than an academic perspective (personal communication with each company).
    Most of the information we have on goldenseal, woodland ginseng, and black cohosh growing is coming either from on-farm research, research by Extension agents, or academic research that has yet been published. Dr. Jan Salick and her students at Ohio University have established research plots on goldenseal but have not yet published their results (personal communication). Martha Van Der Voort is doing her dissertation work on woodland ginseng but has not published her results yet (personal communication). Mountain Traditions in Kentucky is getting into on-farm research but results are not yet available (personal communication)
    There is a considerable literature relating to ginseng cultivation under shade-cloth, but far less relating to woodland cultivation. Pioneering work has been done by Andy Hankins with Extension in Virginia (personal communication), David Cooke and Jon Scott in West Virginia University Extension (personal communication) and Bob Beyfuss (Beyfuss, 1998) from Cornell Extension as well as Terry Jones in Kentucky (Jones, Szymanski, revision yet to be published).
    There have been a few SARE producers grants that are relevant. A producer project on cultivation of wildflowers and medicinals in the woods was conducted in Massachusetts, a project on ginseng growing in Maine was conducted, and one other project relating to growing herbs in the woods was listed on the SARE web-site. None of the few related projects had education and broad citizen-based research components. (SARE web-site, 1999)

    Project objectives:

    Develop "best practices" for ecologically sound woodland cultivation of high-value
    medicinal plants and gourmet mushrooms.

    Establishment of 4 research and demonstration areas evaluating 8 research questions
    Technical assistance to 5 growers in establishment of on-farm research
    2 meetings of a citizen science group linking researchers with growers needs attended by 10
    Dissemination through 5 growers group meetings and field days attended by 60

    2. Promote forest-based cultivation of endangered and other native medicinal plants and gourmet mushrooms to preserve biodiversity while creating an economic diversification strategy for area farmers.


    One two-day conference on income opportunities in forest cultivation attended by 150

    Distribution of Grapevine newsletters (2 with distribution of 1600)

    Presentations to other practitioners at 2 or more national conferences (Expo East, Expo West, National Network of Forest Practitioners, Rural Communities Assistance Program Conference)
    4 workshops on cultivation of high-value woodland crops with combined attendance of 80
    Development and distribution of "Introduction to Special Forest Products" brochure
    (First printing of 3000)
    Development of 4 demonstration sites (also under 1)
    5 Herb Growers' meetings and demonstration site visits with combined attendance of over 60 (also under 1)
    3 or more mushroom growers meetings and demonstration site visits with combined attendance of 25 or more
    4 individual or small-group visits to demonstration sites attended by a total of 15 persons

    Disseminate results to natural resources and agricultural extension personnel

    One or more seminars or workshops for OSU Extension, NRCS, local SWCDs and other personnel working with farmers attended by a minimum of 10. Much of the initial dissemination will occur through project partners

    Presentation to Hocking College and OSU forestry classes attended by 110

    Develop and distribute informational packets for forest cultivated crops on-paper and on-line

    4. Disseminate results to area farmers

    Conference attended by 150
    Four workshops attended by a total of 80 growers
    Growers groups with 5 meetings of the herb growers group.
    Establishment of 4 demonstration plots.
    2 newsletters distributed to 1600 persons.
    Articles and/or news releases for Farm and Dairy magazine, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association newsletter, Farm Bureau newsletter and others identified as strategic.
    Staff displays at 2 county fairs, Paul Bunyan Show, the Sorghum Festival, and other events

    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.