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Small-Scale Farmers Don't Have To Wipe Out Forests To Grow These Crops

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you've ever driven through farmland, you know the view is often miles and miles of identical rows of corn, soybeans or wheat without a tree in sight. But a different method of farming is growing in popularity - one that does not remove trees and that uses the shaded ground underneath those trees to grow specialty crops. Jonathan Ahl of St. Louis Public Radio has our story.

JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: Dennis Lindberg's five acres in southern Missouri don't much look like a farm. After making our way past a fence and through a thicket of pricker bushes, we're in a heavily forested area on sloping ground. All around the forest floor are smatterings of small green plants. They're intentional. These are the crops he's raising.

DENNIS LINDBERG: Here's some ginseng here that I planted. And I'm taking the seed from it and just planting it right down in here, so it'll spread.

AHL: Lindberg grows ginseng, goldenseal and other shade-loving plants. They're used in cooking, medicines and supplements. He's one of an increasing number of farmers who are growing in forested areas to serve niche markets. Lindberg says it's possible to make a decent living this way.

LINDBERG: You grow 100 pounds of ginseng root up in the woods at five, 600 a pound - well, that's pretty good money.

AHL: It's not quite that easy, though, because ginseng needs seven years to grow before harvest, and it's worth more if you wait longer. Lindberg has been forest farming for almost 40 years, and much of that time he had another job raising hogs. Forest farming advocates say it's an underutilized form of agriculture. Hannah Hemmelgarn is with the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry. She says the key is to find the right crops to plant in the right kind of forest.

HANNAH HEMMELGARN: And I think there are ways that people who are doing this are getting really creative and creating markets and creating interest in these value-added products, especially.

AHL: Forest farmers are also finding markets for products like black walnuts, witch hazel and ramps. The Hellmuth Family owns Ozark Forest Mushrooms in Missouri, where they grow a special variety of shiitake mushrooms on white oak logs. Instead of building shade shelters, they grow them under a stand of yellow pine trees on their land, about 150 miles southwest of St. Louis. Stacks of logs under special blankets are covered with mushrooms waiting to be picked. Henry Hellmuth compares these specialty mushrooms to heirloom tomatoes.

HENRY HELLMUTH: These have a stronger flavor, are more unique. And it's also just a different variety, so you'll see the ones in the store look slightly different. They have got just a subtly different flavor.

AHL: The Hellmuth Family harvests between 100 and 500 pounds of mushroom a week all year round, delivering them to St. Louis, where they sell wholesale for about $10 a pound to restaurants and specialty grocery stores. He says his farm is profitable in part because it also runs a B&B that is booked months in advance and includes mushroom tours.

HELLMUTH: Not to be too pessimistic, but there's many easier ways to make a living. Just any small-scale farming operation, you're going to realize it's not that profitable an endeavor. It's a hard endeavor, seven days a week. But also, a lot of people love that lifestyle, you know, feeling connected to your work directly.

AHL: And that draw to farm and work with the land may get more people into forest farming, in part because setup costs are much lower than conventional farming. Another allure is mitigating climate change. More intact trees means less carbon in the atmosphere. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies forest farming as a good alternative for supplementing farm income, it stopped short of considering it a full-time agriculture job. For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl in Rolla, Mo.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIGHTBLACK MORNING LIGHT SONG, "EVERYBODY DAYLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.