Ontario family farm focuses on growing ginseng

Disease and a search for suitable land are challenges for this producer, who married into the business

Every crop comes with challenges. For wheat, quality is always a worry because low-protein or high-fusarium wheat will be discounted at the elevator.

Soybeans can be stressful because a frost in late August or early September could dramatically cut yields.

But those issues are small compared to the challenges of growing ginseng in Canada. After harvesting ginseng on a particular field, a farmer can’t use that land, ever, to grow another ginseng crop.

“There’s actually a thing called the replant disease…. Ginseng can’t be grown on the same ground again,” said Tom Winter, a ginseng grower in Norfolk County, south of Brantford, Ont.

“One of the problems of ginseng is that you’re always looking for land. Once you harvested the crop you’re looking for another farm… or land to rent or to buy.”

In Winter’s case, he lives on a farm near Vanessa, Ont., but along with his father-in-law and brother-in-law, they own or rent farmland at 10 separate locations in the region north of Lake Erie so they can grow ginseng.

“It’s not farming out your back door anymore. I actually have to commute, some days, to work,” he said, explaining that one of the farms they own is 45 minutes away, close to Lake Erie.

Unfortunately, replant disease is not something that goes away. Ontario’s agriculture ministry says it is a poorly understood issue that prevents ginseng cultivation on the same land, even 40 or 50 years later, because of soil borne diseases in the second crop.

Tom Winter and his nine-year-old daughter, Claire, check a sample of ginseng preserved from the first harvest on their family farm.| Sharon Grose photo

The long commutes and the constant scramble for new plots of land may be tiresome, but Winter is dedicated to ginseng and the broader industry in Ontario.

He’s a director with the Ontario Ginseng Growers Association, which represents about 160 producers. Most of the growers are in Norfolk County and other counties south of Brantford.

Ontario’s ginseng sector generates a sizable amount of income despite its small size.

In 2016, Canada exported 2.63 million kg of ginseng, worth nearly $240 million, almost entirely to China and other Asian countries.

In Asian medicine, ginseng has been used for more than 2,000 years to boost energy and promote wellness, says the Ontario Ginseng Growers’ website.

Ontario is the largest producer in the world of North American ginseng, which is distinct from Asian varieties. North American ginseng has a reputation for a sweeter taste and superior quality.

Thanks to those attributes, ginseng is a valuable crop for Ontario and exports to Asia have been happening for hundreds of years.

The first ginseng crop in Ontario was cultivated in the 1890s near Waterford but wild ginseng was exported much earlier from the region.

In the 1700s, Europeans discovered wild ginseng in the forests of eastern North America. First Nations people reportedly used ginseng for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, but the newcomers turned it into an industry. Entrepreneurs dug up the roots from forests in southern Ontario and Quebec and then shipped them overseas and established a lucrative export market in China.

“It was actually the first commodity traded between China and Canada,” Winter said.

Claire, Tom, Hannah and Cate Winter go for a walk in their ginseng field. | Sharon Grose photo

Now 34, Winter has been growing ginseng or helping grow ginseng for about 15 years. He started in his late teens but wasn’t born into ginseng farming.

He married into the business.

He grew up in the town of Delhi in an area known as Ontario’s tobacco belt. Starting at the age of 12, Winter worked on a tobacco farm in the summer months.

“Taking the tobacco slat, which had the tobacco leaves sewn on it, and I would actually pick it off the conveyor belt and shake it. Shake all the sand out of it.”

In his teens, Winter had other summer jobs at the farm, such as hand-picking tobacco.

“As a 13- or 14-year-old, you could make $4,000 to $5,000 a summer.”

Around that time, in the mid 1990s, Winter met his future wife, Hannah.

She grew up on a farm near Delhi, operated by her dad, Doug Bradley, who started growing ginseng in the 1980s.

Tom and Hannah became friends in middle school, remained friends in high school and ended up going to North Bay, Ont., for college.

“After high school I kind of followed her, up to college and university,” Winter said with a laugh. “It was (mostly) to be with her.”

In North Bay, they became more than friends.

By 2002, they were a couple.

Winter began working on the Bradley ginseng farm that year and a few years later, Hannah and Tom got married.

They now have two girls, Cate and Claire, who are eight and six. Hannah was employed at Toyota but she now works on the family farm with Tom.

Dealing with replant disease and finding more land to grow ginseng is challenging, but so is waiting for harvest. With most Canadian crops it’s about 100 to 125 days from seeding to harvest.

Ginseng growers usually wait four years from the time of seeding before they harvest the roots.

It requires patience and perseverance to keep the plants healthy for more than 1,400 days. However, it does feel good when the ginseng roots come out of the ground.

“You plant it the first year and (you) have got four hard years in front of you,” Winter said.

“(When) you finally get to dig that ginseng up and see your hard work pay off, it’s something very satisfying…. I take pride in that.”

Winter enjoys growing ginseng but there are also other things happening on the farm.

With his father-in-law and brother-in-law, Matt Bradley, he also grows soybeans and rye. The straw from the rye is used as bedding for the ginseng plants.

Winter is also trying to diversify the operation beyond crops. He and Matt have built a new barn and are now raising broiler chickens.

For most producers, moving forward with new projects is part of the appeal of farming.

But so is the farm life.

Hannah grew up on a farm and Winter wants that same kind of life for his kids.

“I (saw) how happy a childhood she had and I want my daughters to experience what she did…. I like that idea of my daughters growing up on a farm and knowing what hard work is.”

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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