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Ginseng proved to be an excellent successor to tobacco for Tota Farms of Burford

Updated: Feb 8

When Cindy and Tim Tota joined the federal Transition Package for tobacco farmers in 2008, they discerned that the best alternatives their Burford-area farm was either chickens or ginseng


Established in 1950, Tim is the third generation on the home farm. He is seen here with Cindy.

They chose ginseng.  

Tota already grew some ginseng, starting with an experimental three-acre plot in 1990, while continuing to grow tobacco and other cash crops.   This reduced part of the pricey start up costs associated with growing panax quinquefolius --the variety grown in Canada. They used their buyout money to expand their ginseng production.


“Those were the most realistic choices back then (2008) – either chickens or ginseng,” said Cindy. “We settled upon ginseng as our farm was better aligned with the labour requirements; we even had the bulk kilns for drying. We already grew rye, which provides the necessary straw for the plants. We decided that ginseng provided better cash flow.”


Today, Tota Farms digs approximately 60 acres of ginseng annually, selling most of it to China, where it has been used for millennia as a medicine, tea and as a culinary herb.

Recently, the family began sending a small quantity of root to a laboratory to process into powder and capsules with the Tota Farms logo which they market online.


Tota Farms now occupies 450 acres, with an additional 2,000 acres of rented land which are primarily in cash crops – corn, soybeans and rye.  


The Tota’s son, Steven, works directly with his parents in the ginseng production, just as Tim’s father, Stan, did until his death in 2015.  


A three year old ginseng crop – Tota Farms grows rye to provide straw for the plants.

Also involved on the farm are Tim’s sister, Janice, who lives on the farm in ad adjoining house with their mother, Irene, now in her 90s. Tim’s brother, Ed with 40 years of dealing with the machinery by sourcing parts and equipment, supports the farm as “parts runner.”  Meanwhile, the Tota’s daughter, Alicia and son-in-law Brian, focus on the cash crops.

 

The family relies upon off-shore labour to help with this labour-intensive crop; Tota said they have 52 Mexican workers this year.


The Tota clan settled on the East Quarter Townline Road in 1950, when Tim’s father, Stan, purchased the farm in partnership with Stan’s parents, Leon and Sophia, who previously farmed near Cambridge. 

“I grew up as the third generation on this farm,” said Tota. “I love farming and I wanted to continue farming.”

The Totas had previous off-farm careers.  Tim drove truck for seven years; two years for someone else, before running his own trucking company with Cindy from 1988 to 1992. 


Cindy, a Mt. Pleasant native who was originally Tota’s Grade 9 lab partner and high school sweetheart, became a registered nurse, focusing on palliative care, as well as working five years at the CNIB prescribing visual assistance devices for people with low vision. She left that career to help on the farm, working alongside her mother-in-law, Irene.


With 30 years of experience, the Tota family navigates the issues that ginseng presents when it’s grown in fields instead of in its natural woodland habitat: ginseng needs well-drained soils, either sandy to sandy loam with a soil pH around 6.0 to 6.5 – it dislikes saturated soils.   

The crop requires heavy manual labour, from field preparation, setting up the rows and shading, and hand-weeding, at least until stands grow tall and thick enough to reduce weed pressure.


Ginseng is prone to Replant Disease, meaning that the crop cannot be planted twice on the same spot, forcing ginseng growers to travel miles to grow in new fields. The Totas themselves previously had crops as far as Waterford, but currently all of their fields are within 10 kilometers.  


“And we’ve yet to plant any on the home farm,” added Tota.


The seasonal cycle for a new ginseng bed starts in the summer, with specialized equipment for marking out the posts, bed formation, spreading the straw, erecting the posts and shade – ginseng only requires 18 to 26 percent sunlight.


Field seeding takes place from August to October, with the plants emerging the following spring.  Weeding and irrigation is done when necessary.


The berries are picked in the plants’ third year, to be treated and planted for future crops.  The crop itself is machine harvested in the fourth or fifth year, after the shading is removed and the plants and straw are scraped off.  The crop is machine harvested in October using what some people describe as a modified potato digger, but Tota said, “It digs deeper than potatoes to extract the roots.”


The harvested roots are stored in a climate-controlled cooler for two weeks to condition them before transferring them to a high-pressure wash line; Tota added that 20 people work in the wash line.


Then the minimally-graded roots are transferred to the bulk kilns, using modified bins and trays.  Government literature explains that they are dried with an “optimum drying temperature of 38 degrees Celsius from 16-20 days.”

Staff re-grade the roots after drying, boxing them in 75 pound boxes before storage. The shipped roots are sold FOB (Freight on Board) through buyers who visit the farm.


When asked what he likes about growing ginseng, Tota laughed, saying, “It’s been good over these years. I’ve been growing it for 30 years and it kept me in farming.  I drove truck for seven years, but I wanted to come back to the farm (full time).”


Entering ginseng production these days is prohibitive, said Tota. He estimated that it may cost up to $30,000-plus per acre upfront, unless one buys used equipment.

Both Tim and Cindy said that they take ginseng as capsules daily for its multiple health benefits. “It’s best taken that way, if you’re not used to the unusual taste of ginseng,” said Cindy.

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