There are two ways to increase revenues for any crop or product: increase prices or lower the cost of production. If we assume that price is outside of the grower’s control (which is not entirely accurate), then cutting costs can also increase profits. When root prices are high, the high value of the crop often means that input prices are not a major concern. Adding some extra fertilizer or an extra fungicide application may make sense if it means there is potential to increase yields by even one percent. However, when prices are low and finances are tight, those extra crop inputs may no longer make economic sense. Now that inputs are becoming more expensive due to global supply issues, it is a good time for growers to examine all their practices and determine which of their efforts have the greatest return on investment and which are less important and can potentially be dropped until prices improve.
Here are some areas for which growers could consider lowering costs:
- Foliar Fertilizers: Leaves are not designed to take up nutrients, roots are. Foliar fertilizers are best for correcting deficiencies identified during the season. If growers are routinely applying foliar fertilizers year after year, they could be replaced by soil-applied fertilizers in the spring, cutting costs for both application and the product, since foliar nutrients are more expensive.
- Supplements, Biostimulants and Snake Oils. It is likely that 99% of these types of products have never been tested on ginseng. Furthermore, a majority of them either have no effect at all (i.e. they are snake oils) or their effects are just from the nutrients or organic matter in them that could easily be replaced by cheaper compost, manures or fertilizers. Before applying anything other than a fertilizer to enhance crop growth, make sure there have been valid, replicated experiments in ginseng to prove they work.
- Macronutrient Fertilizers: Most growers of high value crops like ginseng fertilize to excess as insurance, since fertilizers are cheap relative to crop value. For example, the recommended rate of nitrogen for ginseng is 40 kg/ha (36 lb/ac) applied annually, but growers routinely apply much higher amounts. High yielding ginseng crops in wet years may require more than the recommended amount, but anything more than double this rate is likely wasteful and potentially harmful. More costs, especially labour, could be saved by reducing the number of applications per year. Anything more than 3 applications in a year likely has no added benefit unless very heavy rains necessitate replacing nitrogen lost by leaching.
- Pest Control Products: Given the high costs of pest control products, there is a high potential for savings in this area through:
- Calibrating sprayers and improving coverage. A properly calibrated sprayer will improve coverage by ensuring an even distribution of product in the field. The use of drop nozzles down each row in older gardens will improve under-canopy coverage. Together, better coverage will reduce disease outbreaks and reduce the need for additional sprays. For more information, consult Sprayers101.com and search for “ginseng” or other topics of interest.
- Reduce the frequency of sprays in periods of lower risk. As long as your coverage is good, growers should have some faith in the products they have applied and follow recommended spray intervals on labels when risk is low and scouting does not indicate outbreaks in the field.
- Spray only when necessary for less important pests. Many insect pests like aphids, four-lined plant bug, leaf rollers and folders, and grubs are only occasional pests of ginseng and are often patchy. Many times, the cost of an application to control them may be higher than the damage they are causing. For patches of damage, consider going in with a backpack sprayer to reduce the overall cost of application.
- Choose products based on efficacy not cost. The cost of a product is an important consideration but sometimes products that cost more are more effective and may end up reducing damage in the field and the need for subsequent sprays. Conversely, some expensive products do not work well in ginseng due to resistance and are best avoided.
- Labour: This is a major cost of ginseng production and not an easy one to reduce. Anything that reduces the number of inputs to the crop in Steps 1 to 4 will also reduce labour (and fuel) associated with the application. There may be some areas to cut costs here too such as:
- Weeding less often in older gardens, especially later in the season when weeds would have less impact. A few weeds do not necessarily affect crop growth unless they have a potential to get out of hand. Sometimes the desire to show off a perfectly clean garden to the neighbours comes at a cost.
- Debudding less thoroughly. Not all flower buds have the same impact on root yield. Taller tops with more prominent flower buds capture more light, and debudding these will result in a larger increase in root growth compared to shorter tops that have flower clusters hidden within the canopy. While this has never been studied in ginseng, crop physiology suggests that debudding the outermost 50% of the buds may have 80-90% of the effect on overall root growth.
Don’t forget about the other half of the equation: increasing prices. There are ways to diversify your markets through local sales and events and creating value added products for domestic sale. When I compare ginseng farmers to lavender farmers, I see a marked difference in approach. Lavender growers spend about 25% of their time growing the crop and 75% of their time on marketing, agritourism and value-added product development. Ginseng growers likely spend 99% of their time growing the crop and 1% on marketing. These crops are very different, and we will never replace ginseng exports with domestic sales to any large extent, but a little effort on marketing could potentially yield large benefits for at least a portion of your roots.