Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday announced $40,000 in funding for a program at Virginia Tech’s Catawba Sustainability Center to help forest farmers produce and market medicinal herbs.

The money — $20,000 from an Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development grant to Roanoke County combined with another $20,000 in matching funds from the county — will be used to establish and maintain a propagation center for goldenseal, ramps, and black cohosh at the 377-acre farm property 20 miles east of Blacksburg.

“As Virginia’s first- and third-largest industries, agriculture and forestry are vital to the health of our economy, and they have been upended by the pandemic,” Northam said. He commended the Catawba Sustainability Center and Roanoke County for “identifying innovative ways to support local farm and forest producers in responding to immediate challenges from the current health crisis and creating sustainable industry growth.”

The project is supported by John Munsell, professor and Virginia Cooperative Extension forest management specialist in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. Its goal is to create a regional network of smaller producer plots that will include farmers, herbalists, manufacturers, and retailers.

“The project will advance the capacity and capabilities of forest farmers in the New River Valley, Roanoke Valley, and Allegheny regions of Western Virginia,” Munsell said. “The goal is to increase support for forest farmers in the region by increasing availability of planting stock, providing post-harvest processing assistance, and aggregating material for sale into a growing specialty market.”

The Catawba Sustainability Center, part of Outreach and International Affairs, will provide technical support, training for growers, plant stock, workshops and demonstrations, processing facilities, and help with the marketing of forest-grown botanicals. 

“Meanwhile, producers will be linked through an agreed upon set of goals, objectives, and expectations,” Catawba Sustainability Center manager Adam Taylor said.

Gov. Northam, wearing a mask, holds a dirty root in his fingers.
Gov. Ralph Northam holds a piece of goldenseal root just dug from the forest floor where it is being grown at the Catawba Sustainability Center. Photo by Lee Friesland for Virginia Tech

Northam and Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring, a Virginia Tech alumna, toured the center Thursday with Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs, and Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment. They saw where goldenseal planting stock has already been established both in the forest and under canopies that create artificial shade. The center is also managing a stand of ramps, black cohosh, and American ginseng.

“This project is a perfect example of how harnessing the expertise of Virginia Tech and applying it in the community can improve the health of residents and create opportunities for economic development,” said Susan E. Short, associate vice president for engagement.

Roanoke County and Virginia Tech formed a partnership nearly 10 years ago to develop the Catawba Sustainability Center into a laboratory supporting university research and community engagement.

“Beneficial for students, farmers, agribusiness, and the overall community, this partnership provides an environment for learning and developing sustainability practices. Roanoke County's Catawba Valley is enriched by this partnership as the numerous initiatives underway enhance our environment and quality of life,” Roanoke County Director of Economic Development Jill Loope said.

The sustainable production of medicinal herbs can provide additional or supplemental income for many farmers and is an efficient way to use steep or marginal agricultural land and maturing woodlots.

The pandemic has fueled interest in alleviating respiratory ailments and improving immune response through the use of herbs such as goldenseal and American ginseng, which are native to the Appalachian Mountains. However, the loss of habitat and overharvesting have led to a decline in these species.

“Harvesting medicinal herbs is a long-standing tradition in Appalachia, where scores and scores of species have been collected and sold for generations,” Munsell said. “However, by offering companies traceability and assurances of a stable supply, forest farming is 10 to 12 times more profitable than harvesting wild produce.”

Munsell, part of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, said the project will also provide experiential learning for Virginia Tech’s agroforestry students, who will be able to participate in post-harvest processing as part of an expanding nontimber forest products project.

A former dairy farm supplying the Catawba Hospital, the Catawba property came under Virginia Tech's supervision in 1988. It serves as a living laboratory to advance environmental stewardship and community engagement to provide a learning environment for the research, teaching, and demonstration of sustainable practices in agriculture, forestry, and land management.

Written by Diane Deffenbaugh

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