One year into project, interest in niche crop grows

February 13, 2018
Dr. Rami Reddy with student Tristan Martins
Harvested baby ginger
Various ginger products

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Dr. Rami Reddy, director of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville School of Agriculture, is entering his second year of an endeavor to introduce baby ginger as a niche crop in Southwest Wisconsin. With the help of a two-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, Reddy and a group of students spent the past year growing ginger, exploring market prices for it and creating value-added products. Reddy said the first year of the project was a success, and he has seen interest and awareness around baby ginger start to grow.

The project is sponsored through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Services Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which aims to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops. Reddy chose ginger because it is a healthful plant, widely used for culinary and medicinal purposes, and is less susceptible to pests and diseases. The attractive, bright rosy color of baby ginger – which is harvested at five to six months, before it fully matures – is another advantage to market vendors.

To kick off the project last spring, Reddy and a group of students purchased approximately 60 pounds of ginger, testing two varieties – a Chinese ginger and Costa Rican ginger – so they could compare yields of each. The first stage of the project explored the best culture method and estimated the production or yields under different growing conditions, one being the use of a hoop house structure, which students constructed at Pioneer Farm, a few miles southeast of Platteville. This high tunnel structure, covered with polypropylene plastic, allows sunlight in while protecting the plants from the elements. Reddy explored a cultivation method using grow bags, experimenting with different soil substrates, manure composts and grow mixes.

Growing this sub-tropical plant in Wisconsin’s climate did not come without its challenges, which required Reddy and his students to be flexible and innovative in solving problems that arose. This is what Tristan Martins, a senior soil and crops science major who has been involved in the project since its inception, said he enjoyed about it. “I liked getting to know a crop that doesn’t really exist in Wisconsin and figure out what it takes to grow it,” said Martins, a Postville, Iowa native.

The first obstacle came when strong winds damaged the hoop structure at Pioneer Farm. The group moved the plants to one of the growing spaces at Pioneer Greenhouse – located on campus, adjacent to Pioneer Stadium – where Martins installed an irrigation system. Martins noted that several nutritional deficiencies in magnesium, potassium and iron cropped up along the way, which required adjusting the substrate of the soil.

In the end, meeting all of the challenges paid off. “We harvested the ginger in different segments, one in November and one in December,” explained Martins. “The average yield was about three-fourths of a pound to a full pound per plant.”

Reddy and some of his students then took the harvested ginger to Hyvee in Dubuque, Iowa, as well as Driftless Market in Platteville to test price points.
“Since a lot of people don’t know about ginger yet, it was a little hard to sell,” said Martins, who added that after lowering the initial price point they ended up earning $7 per pound at Hyvee and $10 per pound at Driftless Market.

Reddy is confident that once more people are exposed to baby ginger and its many uses, the demand for it will grow. Since launching this project, he said he has already seen more people express an interest in the crop. “Several people have reached out to me from different parts of the state,” said Reddy. “There is a tremendous amount of interest already.”

The initial goal of the project’s first year was production and market evaluation, however Reddy said there was so much excitement around harvesting the baby ginger that they moved forward with testing some value-added products. This was where Tyler Ernzen, a senior horticulture major, was able to draw on some of his past experience. Ernzen became involved in the ginger project after Reddy discussed it at a Horticulture Club meeting. The Bankston, Iowa native has several years of experience making jams and salsas to sell at local farmer’s markets. After some trial and error, Ernzen – who had never worked with ginger before – produced about 40 jars of jam in six different flavors.

Other value-added products were made, including syrup and candies. Bryan Mulligan, web developer at UW-Platteville, donated his personal time brewing a craft beer with the ginger. The value-added products were only shared among School of Agriculture faculty and staff to garner feedback. Reddy said the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and now that he and his students have refined the process, they hope to explore opportunities for selling products after next season’s harvest. Ernzen said he hopes to explore other value-added products, including kombucha.

“I definitely never thought I’d be making jam in college, but it is really helpful to learn the business aspect of it,” said Ernzen. “I’ve learned how much cost it takes to make an item and how much to sell it for, and I’ve learned about cost variables and organization.”

The USDA grant only funds the project through two years, but Reddy hopes that after this second season students will continue producing ginger and creating products on their own, potentially turning it into a profitable student-run business. “This is just the beginning,” said Reddy. “I’m very positive that after concluding this project some students will continue to take it on.”

Written by: Alison Parkins, Associate Director of Public Relations, Communications, 608-342-1526, parkinsal@uwplatt.edu

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