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Cash Crops from the Woods; Forest Farming Economy to Shoot Up

Eric P. Burkhart

Harvesting wild food from the forest goes back to the beginning of civilization. But recently, interest in edible and medicinal wild plants has been growing. There’s a movement underway in Appalachia, to create a supply chain of reliably sourced wild plants, for health, well-being and a good living for people doing something called “Forest Farming.”

Katie Commender runs the Agroforestry project of the Appalachian Harvest herb hub in Duffield.  Three years ago, the group began cultivating, harvesting and processing herbs from the wild, for sale, and training others in how to do it.

She says, “More buyers and consumers are interested in where their medicine, where their tea is coming from, where the herbs are coming from, how has it grown, who's growing it? You know, they want more of that connection.”

Robbie Harris reports

John Munsell is professor of forest management at Virginia Tech. “And I believe in this day and age people are more conscious and want to invest, through their consumptions into the communities and places and people, where those products come from.”


He has been working to grow the popularity of “Forest Farming." Two new grants from the Department of Agriculture coming at just the right time when know-how is growing and so is demand, for plant-based remedies, especially from what’s known as the nutraceuticals sector.


“And they're willing, in some cases to pay a higher price points for those raw materials, which translates to economic development in some of those forest dependent communities in Appalachia that have long sourced these non-timber forest products, but at price points that have not necessarily been reflective of the amount of labor and time they put into it.”


Munsell believes there are socioeconomic and demographics issues underway that will change that, ensuring ownership of the production and leveraging that for the benefit of local communities. In just the last few years, at least 700 new forest farmers have joined one of many different coalitions in this region. And they go about their forest farming with basically 3 different methods.


“There is ‘woods grown,’ which is the most intensive. It's almost like gardening. So that may entail some earth work, site prep, right? There may be some infrastructure in place and in many ways, it looks like a monocrop of a particular species underneath the forest canopy.”


Another version is ‘wild simulated.’ It is an intentional procedure where someone will pull back the duff of the forest floor and plant some root starter stock or seeds and then cover that back up. The third though in the spectrum is, is ‘wild stewarding.’


That’s when people look for and find plants in the wild that they nurture, cultivate and prep them for sale.


 “Alright so this is goldenseal or Hydrastis canadensis,” That’s Margaret Bloomquist harvesting the plant in the wild. You see “A stem here and you can start to see a bit of that golden color coming from the berberine that’s used medicinally in the root.”

 And this is where universities like Tech, can add value to these projects, with scientific testing and verification of these plants. Munsell says, “That's been a really kind of a central part of the way we've approached is to leverage what  science we do have and match that against this deep, rich historical knowledge around the production of these plants.”


The goal is to take this forest farming project national, to places in the country with the kind of woodlands and wilderness where gentle foraging has long been tolerated, as it has in Appalachia, for a source of green capital that comes literally out of the land.


“I would like to see you know, not just scores of producers, but hundreds of producers across thousands of acres that are able to really get involved in terms of the evolving supply chain.” Says Munsell.

“At the same time, I also believe there's a great deal of opportunity to invest in our long-standing wild harvesters in the region not to marginalize them or remove them from the supply chain, but to bring those economic actors along as well. In terms of really boosting the stewardship and the ownership of those that supply these raw materials and put a name and a face and a community to those raw materials that end up on the retail shelf so that those discriminating consumers can invest in the people in places and communities where they get their products,


And to help forest farmers find and identify the best places to grow plants like golden seal, black cohosh, and blood root, shitake mushroom, and yes, the poster child for forest crops, Ginseng, Virginia Tech has created an App that can be used nationwide. It’s a plant siting tool that anyone can use, for free.

 To get in touch with Appalachian Forest Farmers, click here.





Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.