Computer programmers, geospatial experts, and land management specialists are developing a customizable, collaborative, and fun eXtension citizen scientist workspace that will help forest farmers in Appalachia and beyond address issues related to site selection for planting medicinal crops. The idea is to train and equip citizen scientists from across the Appalachian chain to go into the woods and inventory habitat where medicinal plants such as goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), black cohosh (Actaea racemose), and ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) grow. To make it fun, the inventory includes innovative photographic and video procedures and a friendly competition called PlantShoe based on data quality and volume, with the annual winner receiving a trophy and special prize.
Citizen Science to Support Farmers
The citizen science inventory data will be used to create an online decision-support application that forest landowners and lessees use to find similar locations on their property where they can farm woodland medicinal botanicals. To manage the citizen-contributed data needed to build the decision-support application, project partners are launching the Appalachian Forest Plant Inventory Citizen Scientists (AF-PICS) workspace where PlantShoe competitors can enter, track, and manage their data along with viewing and commenting on general trends in the cumulative data submitted by PlantShoe competitors.
AF-PICS will use geospatial, pixel inventory and 3D site reconstruction to identify and inventory a broad range of site characteristics. Project partners recently took the prototype to the field for testing. Team members trekked into the woods of the Whitethorne Agroforestry Demonstration at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm, tested inventory procedures and discussed ways to improve the PlantShoe process.
After the first field test, the team traveled to West Virginia University to visit with leading American ginseng researcher Jim McGraw and two of his graduate students, Jennifer Chandler and Jessica Turner, to discuss their work related to forest ecology and growth characteristics of wild ginseng populations. The team gained valuable insights into key environmental considerations for the PlantShoe citizen science forest inventory protocol.
Outside of general use, the AF-PICS decision-support tool will help increase the precision of site selection and management planning for new and beginning medicinal forest farmers in the USDA-NIFA sponsored Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Program. This three-year project is ramping up support for medicinal plant forest farmers in Appalachia and beyond that have been farming for ten years or less. Offerings include technical support, education, and industry networking opportunities across Appalachia.
Most recently, partners took to the road again for two Forest Botanical workshops in Front Royal and Abingdon, Virginia to exchange information across the supply chain and establish grower-industry connections that could lead to contractual trade relationships. Attendees included new and beginning medicinal plant forest farmers, herbal products industry reps, Extension professionals, and researchers. Many present at this meeting are the focus population for the AF-PICS tool and project partners are excited about the prospect of assisting them with establishing new forest medicinal planting sites.