Ginseng Farming in Southwestern Ontario
Ginseng is a plant root most Canadians may not immediately consider as being a key export crop but Ontario production alone is worth over $250 million annually, almost all of which is shipped to China and other Asian countries. Some Indigenous communities have been consuming ginseng for centuries for its purported medical benefits, and the high demand in Asia means that cultivation of the plant is a significant economic driver in the few areas suited to its sensitive growth requirements. Ontario is the largest producer of ginseng in North America and, along with small regions in Quebec and British Columbia, represents the only part of the country with the climate and soil characteristics in which the root can be grown at scale.
Alarmingly, within the next 30–40 years, ginseng farming ispredicted to no longer be possible in Ontario due to aphenomenon called replant disease. While ginseng naturally grows sparsely on forest floors, the intense agricultural setting of multi-acre shade gardens amplifies the effects of the disease, putting economically viable farming at risk. While the root causes of the disease are unclear, ginseng seeded in a field where it has previously been grown quickly succumbs to a fungal disease that developed during the previous crop cycle, resulting in an entire crop of plants dying within a year or two. Ginseng is slow to mature, taking around four years from planting to harvest, making it especially susceptible to being wiped out by the disease. Ginseng also has very specific soil requirements, meaning that if it cannot continue to be planted repeatedly in an area, it is only a matter of time before it cannot be grown in Canada.
Mark Bernards and his research group from the Department of Biology at Western University are developing and testing novel protocols to remediate soils after ginseng harvests such that future crops do not face widespread die-offs. “One of the key tactics has been to fumigate the soils after harvest, but chemical fumigants are being phased out within the next decade – we are trying to develop clean and elegant solutions that will ensure future crop viability,” says Bernards. His research group is collaborating with the Ontario Ginseng Growers Association and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to develop and test their technologies, which include trapping the sun’s heat in the soil to kill the fungi without relying on harmful chemicals.
The direct nature of the Bernards group’s collaboration with Ontario ginseng growers allows for solutions to be implemented swiftly and effectively by the growers who are facing the extinction of their industry.
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