Forest farming can be an attractive option for property owners who want to earn more from their land without cutting timber.
It generally involves thinning existing woodlots to leave the best canopy trees for wood production while opening the forest floor to understory crops -- things like mushrooms, blackberries and ginseng.
The combination of those products with timber "is a real winner," said Kenneth Mudge, an associate professor of ornamental horticulture at Cornell University. "It’s a good way to get some early returns while waiting for your trees to grow large enough to be processed into lumber."
The potential is huge, said James Chamberlain, a non-timber forest products technologist with the USDA Forest Service Southern Re search Station, at Blacksburg, Va.
There are about 53 million acres of family-owned forest in Appalachia alone, Cham berlain said. "Much of that area has habitat for growing herbaceous plants that can be harvested."
Almost any shade-tolerant plant or fungus will grow in a wooded setting.
"I recommend native plants, though, that are attuned to the area you’re interested in," Chamberlain said.
The costs of producing non-timber products in forest farm setups can vary dramatically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
"Maple syrup or woods cultivated for ginseng production may need an investment of several hundred dollars or more to purchase the necessary equipment to get started," the agency said in a fact sheet.
"On the other hand, craft materials, leeks, native fruits and nuts that are already growing on a site may not require any out-of-pocket costs other than containers to gather the products while harvesting."
There’s a difference be tween forest farming and "wildcrafting," which is gathering and processing naturally occurring forest products on private or public lands.
"Advantages forest farmers have over wild harvesters is they can produce large volumes of the product that is in demand, their product will be more uniform and they can provide quality control," said Jeanine Davis, an associate professor at North Carolina State University’s Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center, at Mills River.
Is forest farming worth it? Consider these net profit figures Davis compiled for several high value specialty harvests:
n Wild simulated ginseng will generate an estimated $20,460 per half-acre after nine years.
n Organic, forest-grown goldenseal will pay out some $2,490 per one-tenth acre after four years.
n Woods-grown ramps will be worth $770 per one-tenth acre after three years.
"Know and develop your market before you plant," Davis said. "Selling (non-timber) forest products is not a get-rich scheme."
Consider value-added products if you want to make still more money from your woodlot.
Creating wreaths and garlands from forest greenery and vines and selling them directly to consumers can boost the value of that greenery 20 times or more, Davis said.
"White oak baskets, herb extracts, herbal teas, beeswax candles and other products you can make and sell," she said. "You can also run a native plant nursery and sell seeds and planting stock."