Growers Drive the Agenda When No One Has the Answers

owenOntario ginseng is the class of its field. The species grown here, called American ginseng (versus Asian ginseng, the other popular variety) is the apple of ginseng exporters’ eye. It now generates $130 million in export sales annually, and it’s growing every year.

That’s great news for farmers who work the unique sandy soils in Norfolk County, in what used to be known as tobacco country. They’re still looking for replacement crops for the tobacco crop that ruled the region for decades, then fell out of favour politically.

But production-wise, there’s a big, big problem. Ginseng takes at least three years to reach maturity, representing a significant capital outlay before you see a nickel of return.

Worse, though, is this: once a field has grown ginseng, it can never grow it again.

And no one knows why.  Even though — thanks to Norfolk area farmers — Ontario leads the continent in ginseng production, experts have so far been unable to figure out what it is that cripples the second planting of a ginseng crop in the same field.

Fungus? Virus? Nematodes?  The culprit is unclear.

That mystery weighs heavily on ginseng farmers’ minds.

“We figure that in 10 years, we’re either going to have an answer to this problem, or we’re going to run out of good land on which to grow ginseng,” says local grower Remi Van De Slyke.

Farmers also figure they aren’t getting enough support to solve this problem.

Ottawa closed down the nearby research station in Delhi, where they would have usually turned for help.

So they took matters into their own hands. The growers’ research committee, now chaired by Van De Slyke, is working toward its own solutions with on-farm test plots and with a hoped-for research agreement with the province. Growers have also formed a replant committee specifically to look at their biggest production issues.

A country pinning its hopes for economic recovery on exports can’t turn away from farmers who need help with such a desirable commodity on the global market. Political agendas may be short and unstable, but research agendas must be clear and long.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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