- Associated Press - Saturday, November 26, 2016

PETERSBURG, Va. (AP) - The ginger plants caught Mary Ruth Kipps’ eye at her local farmers market in Madison County.

“I saw that ginger and thought, ‘That’s really pretty. I wonder if I could grow it?’?” Kipps said. “People loved it. It was so unusual and different and pretty.”

So Kipps came to Virginia State University’s Randolph Farm near Petersburg this month to see if ginger was something she might add to the array of crops she grows for her family and to sell at the Madison market.

Kipps joined about 110 people at the farm for a field day to explore the potential and challenges of cultivating ginger and its cousin, turmeric - two spices that promise health benefits as well as a lucrative niche market for small farmers.

Backyard gardeners seeking a personal supply of a natural remedy joined serious farmers weighing the risks and rewards of growing a tropical plant that’s in demand for everything from smoothies to craft beer.

One ginger plant can yield 7 pounds of marketable root, said Dr. Reza Rafie, professor and horticulture extension specialist at VSU.

“It’s remarkable what it does,” he said.

While Virginia growers average 5 pounds of ginger, occasionally VSU has harvested up to 18 pounds of rhizomes from one plant, he said.

At Randolph Farm, the plants are grown in hoop houses known as “high tunnels” - a sort of unheated greenhouse that extends the growing season and allows farmers to feed the local-foods movement.

Representatives were on hand for the event from two such markets - Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market and Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, which uses baby ginger from Casselmonte Farm in Powhatan County to make its Hardywood Gingerbread Stout.

Todd Johnson, executive chef at Ellwood Thompson’s, thanked the farmers for their efforts, calling what they do “a lost art.”

“It’s great to see so many people going back to what we were founded on,” he said as he explained how juicing ginger and turmeric gets the benefits straight into the body, “instead of let’s give everybody a pill.”

Ginger and turmeric are ancient ingredients in Asian cuisine and medicine, sought out for their anti-inflammatory properties and as versatile aromatic spices.

Ginger is a flowering perennial, reaching 2 to 4 feet in height and producing the popular rhizomes that are sold fresh or dried in supermarkets.

Its scientific name, Zingiber officinale, is derived from the Indian Sanskrit name for ginger, singabera, which means shaped like a horn, Rafie said.

Outside a high tunnel, he held up what’s called “the ginger hand,” the rhizomes and stems that remained after he showed the group how to extract them from their “mother.”

As healthy as that hand looked, Rafie cautioned the farmers that bacterial wilt can suddenly and completely decimate a ginger crop.

By contrast, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is easier to grow but not as productive.

Theresa Nartea, a VSU assistant professor, said she grows turmeric in her yard without additional protection from a high tunnel.

An extension specialist in marketing and agribusiness, Nartea told the group there’s added value in turmeric’s broad leaves, which often are discarded before the root is marketed. The leaves can be used as wraps and steamed in rice cookers, or puréed and added to soups.

They also have cosmetic uses - turmeric is an essential ingredient in a facial mask used as a traditional Indian bridal ritual.

VSU, a land-grant institution, hosts workshops and field days for hands-on demonstrations at Randolph Farm, a 416-acre agricultural learning center on River Road. The goal is to help farmers improve traditional row crops and also learn about exotic new possibilities.

Karen and Bob Richardson, who grow fruits and vegetables on their Bottle Tree Farm in Waverly, attended the field day as they considered whether to specialize in ginger or turmeric. Already growing on their porch are five plants of each that they obtained from an earlier extension program.

“We sort of did it as an experiment,” Karen Richardson said.

They plan to set up a 32-by-72-foot high tunnel and initially use a third of the space for ginger, and rotate crops in the remainder of the space, Bob Richardson said.

They have been growing 50 or more types of produce on their 18-acre farm, but it has become too taxing, he said. “It just became too much.”

Richardson said he is looking to turn his unused acreage - about 13 acres - into “a farmer incubator program” for the healthy-food movement.

“I’m simply trying to get more young farmers into growing produce in a sustainable manner,” he said.

Sarah Chabot came from Blacksburg to learn more about whether growing ginger was feasible for her high tunnel.

What she learned, however, was that ginger might not be a crop she should attempt to grow commercially. She grows tomatoes in her high tunnel now, and the two plants are subjected to the same bacterial wilt.

But, she added, “I’ll grow some for myself.”

Like many at the field day, she had attended VSU’s programs before.

Rafie’s programs are “fantastic,” she said, and he follows up to help farmers with their projects. “He’ll actually call you back. He’s legendary.”

Home gardeners can grow ginger and turmeric without a hoop house, Rafie said, although the rhizomes will be smaller.

Just be sure to plant a mature, fresh and disease-free piece of ginger or turmeric rhizome as the seed piece, he advised, and keep the potted plant in a warm place.

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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