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USDA Grant to Assist MTSU Study of Ginseng, Tennessee’s ‘Green Gold’

A special $148,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for Middle Tennessee State University researchers to experiment with ginseng will improve farmers’ income across the state and conserve wild ginseng, considered an endangered species, in Tennessee.

The USDA has provided MTSU’s Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research with this grant to demonstrate the viability of cultivated ginseng in Tennessee from improved techniques reducing growing time, increasing propagation success and determining ideal farming techniques, said associate professor Iris Gao, the project’s lead researcher.

“This grant will not only determine best practices, but will support planting of as many as 100 acres of ginseng in Tennessee, depending on participation by growers. This could add $4 million in farm profit annually once the harvest is normalized,” said Gao, who added Tennessee farmers earn about $620 per acre from corn, but the same land yields more than $40,000 per acre when planted with ginseng—the U.S.’s green gold.

Research will take place in MTSU laboratories and in a remote area in Tennessee. Assisting Gao will be graduate student Shannon Smith, who started Oct. 1.

Ginseng normally takes seven years to grow outdoors, but MTSU lab research methods are effectively shortening the growth time by about two years, said Gao, a School of Agribusiness and Agriscience faculty member.

The program’s ginseng will be sourced from wild stock and maintain the same potency and market price as wild-grown ginseng, which is much greater than the field-cultivated roots, Gao said.

For those in Tennessee who want to grow wild-simulated ginseng, a best-practices manual will be developed specifically for Tennessee ginseng growers, along with bimonthly seminars and expert advice.

This program will also lead to a development of an added-value certification to validate the medicinal potency of harvested ginseng root.

Nineteen states can legally harvest and trade ginseng, with the top three producers being Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee.

In Tennessee, it can be harvested from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 for resale or to transport across state lines. The buying season for green roots is Sept. 1 to March 31, and Sept. 15 to March 31 for dry roots.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Ginseng Program office, has endorsed this grant, and Andrea Bishop, who is a recovery biologist, will monitor and assist in the dissemination of program information.

Professor Elliot Altman is director of the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research.

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