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MTSU Ginseng Initiative Takes Root Nov. 13 at University Farm in Lascassas

Middle Tennessee State University will immediately begin the exploration and study of growing ginseng at the university’s Experiential Learning and Research Center in Lascassas, Tenn.

Driven by an idea from state Sen. Bill Ketron to grow ginseng as a research project, MTSU and state officials formally will announce the MTSU Ginseng Initiative at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13, at the MTSU farm, 3001 Guy James Road. The public is invited. People attending should turn at the farm entrance near the one-lane bridge, turning onto a gravel road.

Earlier Wednesday afternoon, officials will visit the research area of Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research Director Elliot Altman in Davis Science Building and tour the $147 million Science Building that’s still in progress.

“I’m just excited about Wednesday’s announcement,” said Ketron, who has been both to China and East Tennessee and seen the ginseng potential with Altman, MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee and other officials.

The state senator, working with McPhee, suggested to MTSU’s partners with Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants in Nanning, China, it would be in the university’s best interest to study ginseng.

Ketron, an MTSU alumnus, said it eventually occurred to him to “get some Chinese ginseng and some East Tennessee ginseng and see which has more strength. … I thought the Guy James Farm (now owned by MTSU) would be the perfect place to start.”

McPhee praised Ketron’s initial vision and role.

“Senator Ketron’s leadership on the potential of this crop for Tennessee propelled our university forward in the study and application of ginseng as a statewide crop,” McPhee said. “Our collaborations with China, ongoing botanical research and the strength of our agribusiness and agriscience program uniquely positions MTSU to study this opportunity.”

Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said 1 billion people utilize ginseng in China, and it sells from $700 to $900 a pound in the U.S. He added that state Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cosby, Tenn., has told him Wisconsin annually generates $400 million in revenue from the sale of ginseng.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t do something similar in Tennessee,” said Ketron, who accompanied McPhee to China last summer as a member of the university’s delegation. “We’ve got suitable soil, it’s well drained and with suitable compost, we should be able to accommodate it in many areas across the state.”

Growing ginseng at the MTSU farm will be a collaboration between Altman’s research group, MTSU School of Agribusiness and Agriscience Director Warren Gill and MTSU Farm Laboratories Director Matthew Wade.

“Our partnership will investigate how best to cultivate ginseng as a crop as opposed to trying to look for natural ginseng, which is becoming scarcer and scarcer,” Altman said. “We will investigate a number of parameters so we can teach Tennessee farmers how best to grow the crop and reform testing methodologies so the bioactivity of ginseng grown under different conditions can be easily determined.”

The botanical research center at MTSU and the Guangxi garden are partners in an exclusive collaborative agreement that seeks to accelerate the development of Western medicines from plant extracts.

The partnership, which began in 2011, plays to the strengths of both institutions. Garden researchers cultivate and prepare extracts. Then, MTSU scientists, led by Altman, screen the samples to determine their promise in the treatment of ailments.

Biology professor Bruce Cahoon said he will provide “some initial plant tissue cultures from the micropropagation process” that will be part of the research project.

Gill said it will be the university’s role “to develop new knowledge of how to most economically produce ginseng” and it will be a team effort.

Altman said Ginseng is used as a natural supplement or over-the-counter remedy to stimulate the immune system. The primary users are people with colds or flu and cancer patients and in these situations boosting the immune system makes a lot of sense.

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee (left) watches state Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, (second from left) describe a ginseng root found during a visit to Cocke County Oct. 4 by MTSU researchers Ying Gao (center) and Elliot Altman. State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro (right), also accompanied the team to East Tennessee. (MTSU file photo)

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Ginseng is found only in the Northern Hemisphere, in North America and in eastern Asia, and typically in cooler climates.