April 5, 1999 | By: Mark Eclov

Hundreds of years ago, the native Americans who inhabited the mountainous areas of Eastern Kentucky had what could be described as a natural drug store at their feet.

The knowledge of how woods-grown plants could be used to improve digestion or diminish the pain of a sore tooth were eventually passed on to generations of European settlers who tamed the mountain land for their homes.

That tradition of collecting medicinal wild plants is still carried out along the tree-shaded valleys and hillsides of today's Appalachia.

While hunting these plants in a wild state is a seasonal hobby and an income source for a few individuals, others envision growing medicinal plants as a year-round proposition. They would like to see their recreational pursuit generate a modest payback and produce jobs in the area.

"There is a booming market for medicinal plants. The hardwood forests in Kentucky are a perfect setting for growing these plants and many are already there in a wild state," said Marcella Szymanski, Extension forest resource management and economics specialist in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

"For people who already own forested land, growing plants such as ginseng, black cohosh and golden seal may provide an alternative enterprise," said Szymanski. "They can always grow timber, but there is a potential to produce other useful products collected off the forest floor."

The key to developing such an industry is not to leave the introduction or maintenance of wild plants to chance.

One of the movements now under way is to organically cultivate certain types of highly prized woods-grown plants and then process and market them through local industries. One example of this movement is the Leslie County Mountain Tradition Cooperative. The group was formed by a half dozen individuals who were collecting wild plants for sale. As their numbers increased, so did their goals.

The cooperative members hope to determine what kinds of plants grow best under the natural forest conditions found in Leslie County, cultivate these plants using an "organically grown" philosophy, build a local facility to process their harvest and then market their value-added products nationally.

About a year ago they approached Angie Begosh, Leslie County Cooperative Extension Service agent for agriculture, for some answers.

"There wasn't a lot of information on how to organically cultivate wild plants," said Begosh. "Organically cultivated crops must be able to stand up to insects, weeds and diseases without the aid of pesticides or intensive manual cultivation," added Begosh.

The Cooperative is now undergoing a feasibility study to determine what kinds of plants will grow best under natural conditions in the Leslie County area.

Cooperative members are bringing Begosh soil samples from sites that might sustain some of the plants they wish to grow. A big problem in some of these mountain areas is highly acidic soils.

Begosh also introduced the group to Terry Jones, an Extension Horticulture specialist based at the UK Robinson Experiment Substation in Jackson, Kentucky.

Jones, who has set up experimental plots of golden seal and ginseng, was able to provide the group with some useful information on these two alternatives. The group continues to seek additional information from any reliable source.

After the group determines what will grow best in their areas and begin to harvest their crops on a regular basis, they must face the bigger challenge of finding a way of processing and marketing their products.

If they are to reach their ultimate goal of getting a processing plant, the Cooperative members will have to go through the involved process of developing a business.

To help expedite that process, Begosh is going through an agent training program called "From Ideas to Enterprise" sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

According to Tim Woods, Extension Agribusiness specialist in the UK College of Agriculture and the course instructor, the program is aimed at teaching people who want to set up small business enterprises how to conduct a business feasibility study and then follow that up with a business plan. Around 25 individuals from the Natural Bridge area are taking advantage of the training. A similar course is being conducted for clients in the Somerset area.

"What is exciting about this Cooperative is that they are looking towards the future,"said Begosh.

"Woods-grown medicinal plants are really in a special niche all their own. It doesn't fit into the traditional description of an agricultural or silviculture enterprise," added Szymanski. "It may represent a unique business opportunity for some enterprising folks who live within the Appalachian region."

 

Contact: 

Writer: Mark Eclov
(606) 257-7223

Source: Marcella Szymanski
(606) 666-2438 Ext. 223