STATE DAIRY farmers, tobacco growers and others struggling to pay their bills might want to switch to the production of raspberries or something even more exotic, ginseng, to boost the viability of their farms.
That's the suggestion from two recent University of Maryland studies that conclude that the two high-value crops could take the place of other, less-profitable products and significantly boost farm sales.
They may also help young people move into farming by offsetting the high cost of land. At an average price of $4,500 an acre, Maryland has the fifth-most expensive farmland in the country.
A farm can produce about 6 tons of raspberries from 1 acre of land for a value of $30,000 to $40,000, according to Harry J. Swartz, a University of Maryland researcher.
Swartz has developed a new variety of raspberry and designed growing techniques that allow state farmers to equal the quality and quantity of the fruit produced by growers in California, he says.
School officials hail the development as a breakthrough that could pave the way for a new agricultural sector in the state.
The berries grown in Maryland "are big, firm and tasty - as good as you'll find," Swartz said.
He used a grant from the Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology to establish successful raspberry operations in Garrett County and to develop cultivation guidelines to help farmers enter the market.
Traditional raspberry-growing areas include Mexico, Chile, Britain, Poland, the Pacific Northwest and California.
Raspberries are highly perishable and Maryland's proximity to the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest markets could make production here attractive, according to Swartz's study.
Fred Wells is one of the early pioneers of the raspberry industry in Maryland. He planted the berries on one-fifth of an acre of his Mardela Springs farm about 12 miles east of Salisbury last year and picked 400 pints.
"It is very labor-intensive," he said, "but I sold every pint I picked."
Wells sold the berries to roadside stands for $2 a pint. His plan is to grow about 4,000 pints this year and sell them retail at farmers' markets for $3.50 a pint.
"It's a lot of work," he said, "but I think the money is going to be good."
Ginseng, one of the most popular medicinal plants in the world, also has potential as a cash crop in the state.
The largest market for ginseng is Asia, where wild American ginseng can bring nearly $500 a pound, according to another study done by the university for the Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology, a nonprofit corporation founded in 1999 that is dedicated to supporting viable farms and forests in the state.
Ginseng grows wild in the mountain forests of Western Maryland.
But researchers at the university are experimenting with ginseng varieties that can be grown in other parts of the state.
"Maryland landowners face pressures to sell their land for development," said Russell Brinsfield, executive director of the Center for Agro-Ecology. "One way we can help them keep their working lands intact is by helping develop new high-value crops and markets."
He said that more research is needed on ginseng, but he expressed hope that the crop would prove valuable enough to reduce the amount of forestland in the state falling to development each year. "The issue is whether or not we can develop a niche market for this land rather than sell it to developers," he said.
Marla S. McIntosh, a professor in the department of natural resource sciences and landscape architecture at the University of Maryland, said more work needs to be completed to determine whether ginseng can become a valuable cash crop in the state.
She said that ginseng roots are not ready for harvest until four years after they are planted.
Growers exported more than 4,500 pounds of the root last year, valued at about $1.6 million. Most of it went to Asia, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.