Ginseng crops expand to Prairies

RED DEER, Alta. – Ginseng, a $30 million a year crop for British Columbia, could be successfully grown on the Prairies despite cold weather and constant wind.

With some tender-loving care, plots are springing up in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta where some growers are expected to dig up their first harvest of the high-priced roots this fall.

Grain farmer Stan Duma of Athabasca, Alta., has been growing ginseng for three years and has learned about nurturing the plant by talking with B.C. growers and experimenting on his own. The thermometer has dropped to -45 C in his area and with special attention his crop in northeastern Alberta has survived.

“It’s trial and error and basically I think we’ve mastered it,” said Duma at the first Alberta Ginseng Growers Association meeting.

After three years of growth he’s checked the plants’ roots and measured them at 2.5 centimetres in diameter. Larger and better-shaped roots fetch more money per pound. Ginseng is a tap root with offshoots that should resemble a human form with arms and legs.

Researchers like Refe Gaudeil at the Brooks, Alta. Horticultural Centre and John Kort of the federal Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration Indian Head, Sask., station have ginseng research plots and agree the crop can grow in their regions.

“The question is whether we can grow it cost effectively,” said Kort.

The beds are mulched with straw for protection and with the killer frosts that can hit the Prairies at almost any time of the year, research is ongoing to learn how to protect the plants in severe weather.

Unknown acreage

While Alberta and Saskatchewan have formed grower support associations, no one is sure how many people are growing ginseng.

Between Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Kort estimates about 30 people are attempting it and Duma believes there are at least 30 in Alberta.

Of the 75 people at the meeting in Red Deer, 15 said they were already growing ginseng while others said they were there to learn more.

In British Columbia the industry earns about $30 million a year for its 125 growers. With a limited arable land base, there’s room for expansion into other provinces if growers can keep it alive in this unpredictable climate.

Ginseng is essentially a wild plant. Little genetic research and plant selection have been conducted, said Al Oliver, B.C.’s provincial ginseng specialist.

The Associated Ginseng Growers of B.C. are supporting research at Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station in the Okanagan Valley and Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University which are investigating drying techniques.

“It’s a plant that needs about $10 million worth of research,” said Oliver.

Growers know ginseng needs heat, moisture and protection from direct sunlight, all in moderation.

“It’s a high maintenance crop and it’s unforgiving. If you do one thing wrong, you’re in trouble.”

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