Spicing up farming in N.C.: Professors work to make ginger a profitable, predictable crop choice

News & Record
by Lydian Bernhardt Averitt

GREENSBORO — Foodies and health advocates have long known about the benefits of ginger. Now, two researchers in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at N.C. A&T State University are working to bring North Carolina farmers to the table.

Drawing on their knowledge of the public demand for ginger and its potential profitability, Guochen Yang, Ph.D., and Sanjun Gu, Ph.D., are inviting farmers to give growing it a try.

Yang, a horticulture professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Design, and Gu, a horticulture specialist for Cooperative Extension, want to bring ginger off the spice aisle and into more prominence as a niche specialty crop for North Carolina growers. Yang and Gu believe that ginger, though not destined to be a field staple or a production crop, has the earning potential, and the public interest, to help farmers replace some of the income once generated by tobacco.

“Baby ginger sells for $15 a pound, conservatively,” Yang said. “Each plant easily has the potential to generate 1 to 2 pounds of ginger root. Using tissue-culture propagation, we can produce thousands of plants at once. After they have factored out expenses, farmers can make a lot of money.”

Then, there are the value-added health benefits that make ginger not only good to eat, but good for you. Ginger is packed with phytonutrients — natural compounds in plants that can benefit health. Ginger’s phytonutrients are gingerols and shogaols, two compounds that have shown promise in fighting cancer, reducing inflammation, aiding digestion and buffering aspirin. As the public has become increasingly health conscious and aware of these properties, ginger’s appeal has risen, Yang said.

Using a $280,000 USDA Evans-Allen grant, Yang and Gu are testing the viability of a market for U.S.-sourced, tissue culture-propagated ginger. Their research project is one of the few that has not been delayed by COVID-19 restrictions. The professors and their team have spent the year both in the lab and in the field, growing seven ginger varieties and evaluating them for yield, shade tolerance, resistance to disease, tolerance to cold and a host of other qualities. They will seek to extend the project through additional grants to continue their promising start.

A tropical crop, ginger is being produced domestically for U.S. commercial markets exclusively in Hawaii. But Hawaii can meet only about 20% of total U.S. demand; the other 80% is being met by imports.

Growers typically rely on “seed ginger” from Hawaii, the grey, gnarled root with tiny nubs sometimes called the “mother.” These tiny nubs, when properly sliced off, cleaned scrupulously and planted in a growth medium, can grow new plants, each of which can produce a marketable amount of ginger root in a little under a year.

Obtaining seed ginger depends on the situation in Hawaii, Yang said. Weather, disease and other field issues all have an impact.

“If they can’t produce it, we can’t purchase it and then we’re completely reliant on foreign markets,” Yang said. “Tissue-culture ginger has the potential to broaden the places ginger can be grown and remove all those variables.”

Growing plants using tissue cultures, or micropropagation, is Yang’s specialty. In his Carver Hall lab, thousands of tiny, green plants in clear plastic boxes full of growing media chill in a glass cooler or turn rhythmically on a machine under artificial light.

“This is part of the study too,” Yang said, taking one out of refrigeration. “It gets cold in North Carolina during the winter. We need to see which varieties do the best when the weather is colder so that we can work towards extending the growing season.”

Tissue-cultured ginger has shown great promise in the past two years of testing, Yang said, demonstrating better resistance to disease, significantly more vigorous and healthier growth, higher yield per cultivar, and an overall better consistency than seed-sprouted ginger. The amounts of the phytonutrients 6-gingerol and 6-shogaol were significantly higher, too, so tissue-cultured ginger may be healthier for consumers.

“We’re not sure why yet, but the amount of 6-gingerol almost doubled from what is found in traditional seed-sprouted ginger,” Yang said. “That’s something that we’ll study as a next step.”

After tissue-cultured samples reach planting height in the lab, some of them are transplanted into pots in the University Farm’s greenhouses. Madonna, Hawaii Yellow, Big Kahuna and other fragrant varieties are grouped according to tissue-cultured or seed-sprouted origin, and then compared for shade tolerance, adaptability to different types of soil, substrate preference and other qualities.

Other small plants head to the field, where Yang and Gu are growing five varieties next to traditional seed-sprouted plants for comparison in high tunnels, an enclosed section of field designed to shelter the plants and extend the growing season. In the farm’s organic high tunnel area, a forest of green ginger shrubs, several feet tall with slender, almost bamboo-like stalks and long, spiky leaves, grow in well-manicured rows. When crushed, the leaves emit a familiar ginger-y smell.

One of the challenges of producing ginger in North Carolina is that, summer humidity to the contrary, it’s not the tropics. North Carolina growers can rely on a fairly predictable eight-month growing season from early April to early November, Gu said, but the longer the plants can stay in the field, the more money the growers can make.

Because North Carolina’s growing season is not long enough to produce mature ginger, Gu and Yang are focusing on “baby” ginger, the same root only younger. When baby ginger is dug up from the ground, a round, radish-sized, reddish-white ginger root is at the end of each slender stalk. It is smaller, thinner-skinned and slightly less pungent than the larger, gnarled root sold in grocery stores.

“Each variety has unique characteristics and different responses,” Gu said. “Some prefer a little shade, others prefer none. Some grow better in the microclimate we’ve created in the high tunnel. We work to find the best growing conditions, and when we answer our questions, we can arrive at best recommendations for farmers.”

Farmers are taking notice. Yang and Gu have been collaborating with Plum Granny Farm, an organic small farm in King, since the USDA grant launched the project in 2017. Farmer Ray Tuegel and his wife, Cheryl Ferguson, have successfully grown two varieties of baby ginger using the researchers’ methods. They share their experiences in two or three ginger-growing workshops each year on their farm. The workshops have been popular, each drawing between 30 and 40 farmers, pre-COVID-19.

In addition, Gu and Yang have introduced small farmers to high-tunnel ginger growing during Cooperative Extension’s Small Farms Week, held each spring at N.C. A&T.

One thing sparking the farmers’ interest is the plant’s versatility.

“Ginger is very high in value-added components,” Gu said. “You can extract the oil from the roots, you can use the root itself, and there are possible uses for the greens as animal feed supplements. That will be an area for further study.”

Although they are excited about ginger’s possibilities, Yang and Gu are equally eager to resolve some of the questions their research has raised in the project’s next phase.

“Why are tissue-culture plants bushier and healthier than seeded plants? Why are the levels of phytonutrients higher? These are things we need to know,” Yang said. “Our next steps will be to figure them out. I’m very happy with our progress.”

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