From left: Partners Will Lewis of the Yew Mountain Center; Liberty Newberry-Fetty of Natural Capital Investment Fund; Ruby Daniels of Sprouting Farms; Erica Marks of Yew Mountain Center; Tanner Filyaw of Rural Action; Katie Commender of Appalachian Sustainable Development; and John Stock of United Plant Savers.

Ginseng, goldenseal, black-cohosh, ramps – these native Appalachian plants are prized around the world for their culinary and medicinal properties.  The West Virginia Forest Farming Initiative (WVFFI), a new project funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, will help West Virginia become a leader in responsibly cultivating and supplying these plants.  

The WVFFI  is a collaboration of the Yew Mountain Center and Sprouting Farms with support from organizations in neighboring states, including Appalachian Sustainable Development, Rural Action, and United Plant Savers, facilitated by the Natural Capital Investment Fund. Forest farming is defined as the cultivation of plans under the forest canopy.  “Ideal forest crops have a relatively high value and are capable of producing profitable volume.” (University of Georgia Extension)

World-wide market demand is growing for sustainably sourced botanical materials that are free from applications of industrial chemicals. The forests of West Virginia have traditionally been a source for many of these materials.  More than 9,000 pounds of ginseng was harvested in West Virginia in 2018, according to the West Virginia Department of Forestry.  While wild harvesting can be a sustainable practice if managed properly, harvesting activities are increasingly depleting populations of our most valuable species.

“Forest farming is one way we can take harvest pressure off of wild populations of medicinal plants and insure an abundant supply into the future,” said John Stock, of United Plant Savers.

“The West Virginia Forest Farming Initiative will help us to achieve  conservation through cultivation.” 

Consumers of herbal products are becoming aware of these conservation issues and seek products that are responsibly sourced.  Currently, demand far outweighs the supply of cultivated forest botanicals, especially goldenseal, ginseng and ramps.  The WVFFI can help growers obtain certifications, such as Forest Grown Verified  (FGV), that an increasing number of buyers require for sustainability assurance.  Administered by United Plant Savers, FGV can help growers obtain a significantly higher price for their products by verifying that the plants have been intentionally farmed or sustainably stewarded.  For example, diggers are paid about $4 per dry pound, or about 14 roots of black cohosh, one of the top selling herbs in the U.S.  A grower of Forest Grown Verified, organic certified black cohosh can now earn $45 per dry pound.  

“If people are ready to market their forest farmed products, we can connect them to premium-priced markets that value sustainability,” said Katie Commender of Appalachian Sustainable Development.  

 “We currently have much more demand than supply, so the economic opportunities are available now for forest farmers.”

Funds will be used to train a grassroots network of forest farmers who sustainably grow and manage forest botanicals. Beginning and experienced farmers will be provided with mini-grants to start or expand forest farms. Those who are ready for market, will be connected with buyers willing to pay premium prices for sustainability. Partners will work together to visit potential forest farming sites and provide technical assistance to woodland holders who wish to cultivate medicinal plants in their forest.  

“Site visits are a good way to help people identify the botanical resources they have on their property, and how to manage those resources for the ecological and financial benefits they can provide,” said Tanner Filyaw of Rural Action. “Through the site visit process, we can help landowners develop a long-term forest farming management plan that will help guide them through the cultivation and marketing process.”

This initiative will increase access to forest farming educational resources and opportunities to people across the state with hands-on workshops held at Sprouting Farms and the Yew Mountain Center.  A conference planned for the spring of 2020 will provide opportunities to learn from experts in the field of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), like ginseng, ramps, mushrooms and maple syrup.   

Ruby Daniels, of Sprouting Farms, has a deep personal connection to this project.  She learned about medicinal and culinary uses for many of these plants from her grandmother.
 
“I am an herbalist and an earth steward,” she said. “It is important to ensure that the current stands of these plants are preserved and restored.  The part of the country I am coming from, coal country, many of the plants have been removed. I want to repopulate them and conserve my Afrolachian family traditions.”  
 
Erica Marks, of the Yew Mountain Center adds, “This initiative will help connect people who have been responsibly digging, growing and using roots for years with people new to the practice.  It will help us share resources, best practices, and opportunities for those who grow, sell and use these plants. 

“We are excited to help build the network of NTFP stakeholders in West Virginia because we believe that the best way forward for these plants and for this regional economic opportunity is collaboration.”

The Yew Mountain Center is a community-run non-profit organization on 500 acres near Hillsboro.  Their mission is to provide programs that explore Appalachian ecology, culture and arts while promoting community and personal wellness. 

Contact the Yew Mountain Center for more information about the West Virginia Forest Farming Initiative at 304-653-4079, info.yewmountain@gmail.com or www.yewmountain.org

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