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Compass issue 15
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Compass is a quarterly publication of the USDA Forest Service's Southern Research Station (SRS). As part of the Nation's largest forestry research organization -- USDA Forest Service Research and Development -- SRS serves 13 Southern States and beyond. The Station's 130 scienists work in more than 20 units located across the region at Federal laboratories, universites, and experimental forests.

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Issue 15

Forest Farming

Ramps, Walking Sticks, and Ginseng

People have gathered and marketed herbs, vines, mushrooms—even lichen—from forests since long before the European settlement of America. Today these nontimber forest products hold great promise as an additional income source for private forest landowners. As many of these plants become increasingly hard to fi nd in their native habitats, gathering and raising “alternative products” in family forests brings the added benefi t of helping to restore biological diversity across southern lands.


Nontimber forest products can be defi ned as plants, parts of plants, and other biological materials harvested from natural, manipulated, or disturbed forests. Southern forests are rich in these traditionally used materials; more than 50 plant species collected for nutritional, medicinal, or culinary uses grow in the understory of southern pine and hardwood forests.

Take, for example, ramps.

One of the most important of the Southeast’s culinary products, ramps emerge from the understory of mountain forests in the early spring. With a long history of use as a spring tonic, ramps—known for their very pungent onion-garlic fl avor—have long been the mainstay of fundraisers for rural fi re departments and other services. Over the past few decades, a growing market for ramps has opened up as their appeal has broadened.

“When Martha Stewart started cooking with ramps in the mid- 1990s, the media attention she got stirred up a new market,” says Jim Chamberlain, forest products technologist with the SRS National Agroforestry Center. “I know of one forest landowner who started out about 6 years ago delivering ramps he gathered from his woodlot to local restaurants. That fi rst year he made $15,000; last year he made about $30,000.”

Other commonly gathered nontimber forest products include wild mushrooms, berries, ferns, tree boughs, cones, moss, maple syrup, honey, and medicinal products such as black cohosh, goldenseal, and ginseng. Even though there are still no reliable systems for tracking the combined value of these products, analysts estimate the industry annually contributes billions of dollars to the U.S. economy.

Extra Income from the Forest Understory

In the South, where most parcels of privately owned forest land are 15 acres or less, forest farming—raising rather than just gathering nontimber forest products—is especially attractive. Landowners can start out on a small scale, planting and harvesting in what are typically off-seasons for timber management. If they find local markets for their products, they can limit overhead and transportation costs.

But it’s not just a matter of going out in the forest and planting some roots or seeds. Landowners need to know which plants to grow, where to grow them, how to propagate new plants, and how to harvest and prepare products for the market.

Plant choices vary with the region, climate, and other factors, some still mysterious. Establishing medicinal plants in the woods, for example, is a complex process, and there are many who claim that “farmed” medicinal products such as ginseng lack a certain something when compared to those “wild harvested” from the woods. Research on how cultivation affects the bioactive elements in medicinal plants is still in its infancy.

Agroforestry production systems have been designed to support the cultivation of a few nontimber forest products such as ginseng, but little is currently known about cultivating others such as black cohosh or ramps.

“To realize the potential of these products, landowners need to have a clear understanding of what nontimber forest products already can be found in their forests,” says Chamberlain. “Without an inventory, there’s no way to know what is available, how much can be harvested, or when to harvest— let alone what can be planted.”

Even if plants native to the area are no longer found on a landowner’s tract, the land may still have the forest and soil types traditionally associated with the plants and may be a viable location for forest farming.

Chamberlain and collaborators recently set up a forest farming network of about 12 landowners in southwest Virginia to look at whether forest farming 5 medicinal plants native to the area—American ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh, false unicorn, and Virginia snakeroot— could provide a good alternative income source for landowners.

“We selected these plants because they are all wild-harvested and have ready markets,” says Chamberlain. “We’ll use our research plots to test forest farming methods and estimate how much can be produced per year. This will help landowners evaluate whether forest farming could work for them.”

Market, What Market?

Before landowners decide which plants to grow for extra or alternative income, they need to know how and where to market their products. Formal and informal markets for nontimber forest products have been around since the first years of European exploration, but most private forest landowners are totally unaware of them.

“Though the markets for many nontimber forest products are well-established, and have formal channels through which the products flow, they’re a complete mystery to many forest landowners,” says Chamberlain. “Understanding the market environment and trends is important when considering alternative forest products.”

Though consumer demand indicates that these markets will continue to grow, there have been both “boom” and “bust” years in specific medicinal products over the past few years. “Perhaps the greatest challenge for the forest landowner is to figure out appropriate market entry points,” says Chamberlain. “It’s essential to identify where and to whom the products will be sold and to understand current and projected demand.”

Without this knowledge, the landowner could harvest products without a market, or invest time and energy into cultivating products only to have the market decline or disappear at harvest time.

Connecting Landowners to Information

To realize the full benefits from harvesting or forest farming nontimber forest products, landowners need high-quality and timely information about both production and marketing. Forest managers and extension agents lack knowledge about nontimber forest products and usually cannot serve the needs of landowners with small tracts looking at forest farming for alternative income.

“In addition, with the diversity of products and markets, stakeholder training needs differ greatly, even across the South,” says Chamberlain. “People interested in growing nontimber forest products are also likely to be geographically spread out, often living and working in remote, rural areas.”

In 1997, SRS started collaborating with the Department of Wood Science and Forest Products at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Top of the Ozarks Resource Conservation and Development in Missouri to develop one of the fi rst Web sites devoted to sharing information on nontimber forest products and markets among harvesters and growers, marketers, processors, and endusers.

To help landowners and entrepreneurs assess nontimber forest product production and marketing opportunities, Web site coordinators designed a series of tutorials that provide accessible information about economics, production, and conservation. The Web site also provides access to lists of organizations, markets, and vendors, as well as a schedule of locally based face-to-face trainings.

To learn more about the uses and markets for nontimber forest products:

For more information:
Jim Chamberlain at 540–231–3611

Recommended reading:

Chamberlain, J.; Mitchell, D.; Brigham, T.; Hobby, T. [and others]. 2009. Forest farming practices. In: Garrett, H.E., ed. North American agroforestry: an integrated science and practice. 2d ed. Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy. 219–256.

Chamberlain, J.; Winn, M.; Hammett, A. 2009. Connecting non-timber forest products stakeholders to information and knowledge: a case study of an Internet Web site. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS–116. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 87–94.

Chamberlain, J.; Winn, M.; Hammett, A. 2009. Finding effective ways to provide knowledge to forest managers about non-timber forest products: a case-study of distance learning approaches. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS–116. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 215–222.Chamberlain, J.; Winn, M.; Hammett, A. 2009. Finding effective ways to provide knowledge to forest managers about non-timber forest products: a case-study of distance learning approaches. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS–116. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 215–222.


The SRS National Agroforestry Center online handbook provides landowners the specifi c
information they need to establish and manage silvopasture systems for southern pine
forests. (Photo by Mediassociates, courtesy of Auburn University)
One of the fi rst edible plants to emerge from the forest fl oor in the Southern Appalachian spring, ramps support many rural fundraising efforts. (Photo by Zoë Hoyle, U.S. Forest Service)

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