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Ginseng farmers hope to restore crop

The Associated Press

FLINTON, Pa. ' For the second year in a row, persistent rain and the fungal blight that comes with it are eating into the state's ginseng harvest.

But a farm operation on a remote mountainside in northern Cambria County aims to ensure future harvests by spreading much more of the valuable herb around the state.

At Pennsylvania Mountain Ginseng, co-owners Dave Thompson and Russell Bollinger are carefully tending small patches of the gnarled gray root, which is prized as a stimulant and aphrodisiac.

Although Thompson and Bollinger have harvested ginseng for decades, and high-quality wild roots can be worth several hundred dollars per pound, they are looking beyond simply selling their most valuable roots. Instead, they're harvesting the berries, hoping to turn their mountainside into a seed farm that will help restore ginseng to forests across the state.

Right now, there's nowhere in Pennsylvania where you can buy Pennsylvania-grown seed. If you want to grow ginseng, you have to get the seed from Wisconsin or somewhere else, said Thompson, who also works in water treatment for the Altoona City Authority. We want to help the spread of ginseng across Pennsylvania with ginseng that was grown in Pennsylvania.

— And the state could use it. Ginseng has been harvested as a cash crop at least since the 1700s, when colonists traded it to China, according to Eric Burkhart, a doctoral student and research assistant in Penn State University's School of Forestry. Even in the early 1900s, ginseng cultivation was common throughout the state.

But changes in the forest environment ' both industrial and residential encroachment ' and overharvesting by ginseng diggers dubbed sangers have limited the wild ginseng patches.

What we're looking at today is the end result of 300 years of conquest and exploitation, Burkhart said. We've clear cut, we've strip mined, and we've harvested way more than we should. There's a lot more niches where ginseng could grow.

The latest hurdle has been the rain so welcomed by some farmers after two summers of drought. Last year, Thompson said, he lost much of his crop to blight, which has already affected potato and tomato crops across the state. This year could be even worse.

Chris Firestone, manager for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resource's Wild Plant Management Program, said last year ' the wettest on record in many parts of the state ' saw just 945 pounds of ginseng sold to licensed dealers in the state. The 2003 harvest was the lowest in Pennsylvania. Typically, at least 1,400 pounds of ginseng are produced.

Although some state action, such as a campaign aimed at preventing ginseng poaching, might have contributed to the drop-off, Firestone said the weather was the primary factor.

Unlike digging wild ginseng ' which can yield a valuable harvest in little time ' ginseng farming is a long-term proposition. Because of the seed's long gestation period, berries picked this year won't be ready to grow until 2006. Even then, it will be at least five to seven years before the plant has any value.

Still, dozens turned out on a weekend late in July for a how-to course on growing ginseng, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Attendees including longtime sangers, forest owners looking for new revenue streams ' including a man who's growing the plant under the deck of his home.

James Steinhauer said he was looking into planting ginseng on 20 acres of forest land in Dauphin County. And Barbara Kline, who has an urban farm in Pittsburgh, said ginseng could be an ideal crop for some steep slopes where she can grow little else.

I'm going to go up there on the slope and see if I already have some, Kline said. If not, I might put some in, give it a try.