Protecting the Land With Production: Non-Timber Forest Products
Matt Peters, ADP Outreach Coordinator
Nothing restores winter-dry sinuses like making maple syrup. The hours standing in the steam of the evaporator, the mildly strenuous exercise of collecting the sap and cutting the firewood, not to mention the mineral-rich hydration from constantly tasting the slowly thickening sap, is good for the body, mind and spirit.. and can be part of healthy forest maintenance as well.
Our Appalachian forests are so much more than trees, and even a small forest landowner can enhance the natural character of the forest while making a fair dollar off the stand. Non-timber forest products (NTFP) range from baskets and craft goods made from overgrown vines, to the propagation and harvest of native medicinal plants like ginseng, goldenseal, cohosh and others. Combined, they can mean a more stable (and sometime more lucrative) source of income for the landowner than the value of the trees for timber. The trick is to find the right market and be able to reach it.
Some products like ginseng have an extensive network of support, with organizations like the Roots of Appalachia Growers Association (RAGA) and Rural Action helping producers certify and market their harvest. Because of overharvesting and poaching, most states in ginseng producing regions have extensive laws governing the harvest and sale of the valuable roots. Other products, like the sale of handwoven baskets at a local farmers’ market, are hardly regulated at all.
By recognizing the various niches found in the vertical structure of a healthy forest, a private landowner can mimic these natural processes and create a forest system that maximizes production of the desired goods. Pawpaws, persimmons and other mid-sized trees can be grown under a dominant canopy of maples, walnuts, hickory and other edible nut trees, doubling the food production potential of the acreage. Such multilayered systems, when fully mature, can even outproduce agricultural yield on similar acreage. Often these “specialty crops” are high value and can command a relatively higher price. A restaurant putting wild forest mushrooms on their menu special, for example, might give you a better price per pound than, say, a produce wholesaler.
NTFP, being wild or “wild-crafted” by nature tend to be found in smaller quantities and less regularly available, their harvest seasons not as synchronized as that of domesticated crops. But wild cultivated crops are recognized as being of higher value than even their domesticated counterparts, where a domesticated counterpart is available. Berries, already a “high value” soft fruit, are a good example of this. In the case of ginseng, the difference is even more pronounced. Domesticated ginseng, raised in tilled beds under shade cloth, sells for about $24.00 per pound and is as heavily fungicided as the infamous California strawberry. Wild-harvested Appalachian ginseng, the most highly-valued grade of ginseng on the market, can go for as high as $1,300 per pound of properly certified, fresh-dug roots, although prices half that are more typical. Even so, that means that a woodlot with an established ginseng population can expect to generate as much each year as would otherwise be sold once every forty years or more, for the value of the timber.
Added to this are the “ecosystem benefits” inherent to a standing forest, such as the cleaning of air and water systems. Some states or municipalities recognize this value, and offer tax breaks and other incentives to set forestlands aside for conservation. Farmers like Stephen Cleghorn are taking this a step further and attaching a “Rights of Nature” declaration to their deed. With tools like these, we can protect our forest habitats on private land as effectively--or even better--than we can on public lands.