The soul of ginger: good health

Bill Cox harvests baby ginger at his Casselmonte Farm in Powhatan, Va. The ginger is grown in a special soil mix in large bags. It’s a fussy plant, but farmers find it brings its own rewards.
Norm Shafer | The Washington Post
Bill Cox harvests baby ginger at his Casselmonte Farm in Powhatan, Va. The ginger is grown in a special soil mix in large bags. It’s a fussy plant, but farmers find it brings its own rewards.
Posted Oct. 24, 2011, at 4:24 p.m.
Bill Cox holds a clump of baby ginger, freshly harvested and rinsed, at his Casselmonte Farm in Powhatan, Va.
Norm Shafer | The Washington Post
Bill Cox holds a clump of baby ginger, freshly harvested and rinsed, at his Casselmonte Farm in Powhatan, Va.

If you walk past the tidy rows of raspberries inside the hoop house at Casselmonte Farm, you’ll dead-end at a waist-high forest of green stalks, whose explosion of leaves conceals not a single fruit or vegetable. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear that Bill and India Cox were growing Florida swamp grass on their property in Powhatan County, Va., about 30 miles west of Richmond.

As it turns out, the couple is raising a crop with virtually the same recognition factor as swamp grass: baby ginger. These young rhizomes, buried in the soil just under that jungle of foliage, will not mature long enough to develop the familiar beige skin of their older siblings. Nor will they develop any of those stringy fibers that can make grating mature ginger feel as if you’re trying to shred a burlap bag. Immature ginger is off-white, rather soft and pliant, with rosy, undeveloped leaves called bud scales. Baby ginger tickles your palate instead of assaulting it.

You sort of feel as though you want to pinch baby ginger’s cheeks.

The infant analogy is apt. The growing season for immature ginger, roughly from March to October, is almost as long as the gestation period for a human newborn, and baby ginger might be just as difficult to raise. The plants require not only a long growing period (which, on a farm, can monopolize valuable real estate) but also ample amounts of water and just the right soil temperature.

“They’re not an easy crop,” says Heinz Thomet, owner of Next Step Produce, an organic farm in Charles County, Md., which was an early adopter of “fresh” ginger (as it’s often called) about five years ago.

Bill, 64, and India Cox, 59, a pair of former office professionals, are just discovering the unique challenges of growing a tropical plant in the Mid-Atlantic as they move forward with their second careers as small-scale farmers. The couple planted baby ginger for the first time this season to supplement their more common crops, including tomatoes, greens and carrots, and they’ve had to confront the limitations of central Virginia as a hub for ginger production.

The weather, of course, is the primary obstacle. Ginger is fussy; it prefers a warm environment, but not too warm. The plant generally requires soil between 50 and 90 degrees, which essentially means that the Mid-Atlantic can be a miserable place to grow the crop. The late winter and early spring months are too cold, and the summers too hot.

To deal with the climactic vagaries, the Coxes had to sprout their ginger seed (merely pieces of mature rhizomes) in a tented and heated area in their basement until temperatures in the hoop house were warm enough for replanting. In late April, the couple transferred the ginger to the hoop house, where it fared well until the heat of July turned some of the plants’ leaves brown. The farmers tried to comfort their stressed crops by keeping the space well ventilated and the plants well watered.

Like all beginners, the Coxes learned other tricks too late. They could have bought a screen that would have limited the sun’s ability to heat the hoop house like a toaster oven; they could have rotated the plants around the hoop house, giving each one equal time near the structure’s ventilated walls; they could have clumped the plants closer together, so that their own foliage would provide shade for the soil. Yes, they could have done any or all of those, but they didn’t have to. Instead, the weather finally cooled a little in August.

You might wonder how the Coxes could move their ginger around once the seeds are planted. Simple: Rather than placing the rhizomes directly into the ground, the couple submerged their ginger in durable fabric grow-bags filled with a nutrient-rich potting soil mixed with mineral-heavy, super-fine rock dust from a nearby quarry. The bags allow the farmers to have, literally, a movable crop.

Despite the farmers’ best efforts, however, nature still tends to win out in the region, which explains, in part, why the Coxes harvest their ginger when it’s immature. The fall temperatures, by and large, won’t allow them to extend the season the extra two or three months that ginger needs to mature fully. Plus, as Bill Cox notes, baby ginger is “a product that you can’t find. Period.” That gives Casselmonte Farm some cachet when it takes its produce to markets.

If Susan Anderson has anything to say about it, the Coxes soon will have a lot more competition. This year Anderson started East Branch Ginger, a company in Pittsboro, N.C., that imports organic ginger seed from Puna Organics in Hawaii, where the plant thrives. Anderson is sort of the Joanna Appleseed of baby ginger. Her company might be built for profit, selling nearly 4,000 pounds of the Big Kahuna ginger seed to about 150 growers in its first season, but her agenda is largely to proselytize. Anderson is not just a saleswoman for ginger. She also grows the stuff; she holds a degree in horticulture from Virginia Tech.

“Countrywide, this is something that’s very new,” Anderson says. “It’s like people discovering basil for the first time. . . . I think the potential is huge. It’s a matter of getting farmers on board with it, because it is a different crop.”

Anderson’s sales pitch is direct and somewhat fear-based: While ginger rhizomes bought at local stores or through wholesalers can be tainted, she says, East Branch’s products are free of diseases such as fusarium and bacterial wilt, ginger’s most common afflictions. Once one of those diseases sets in, “it’s very difficult to get rid of it,” Anderson says. The fusarium fungus, in particular, can contaminate a field for years.

Such a warning, you’d think, would scare the bejesus out of the average baby ginger farmer in the Mid-Atlantic, who’s still a rookie in this budding business. But apparently not. Next Step Produce and Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Va., buy ginger seed in bulk: Next Step from a restaurant wholesaler and Tree and Leaf from an international market.

The problem with the organic, disease-free seed from Hawaii is, plain and simple, the price, says Thomet of Next Step. East Branch Ginger’s rates range from $5.50 to $9.50 a pound, depending on the quantity purchased. Thomet can pay a fraction of those prices for his wholesale seed, which gives him a better return on investment for such a high-maintenance crop. The going rate for baby ginger can vary widely at farmers markets nationwide ($7 to $25 a pound, says East Branch’s Anderson) but even the lowest price is still higher than the price of mature ginger at, say, a Whole Foods in Washington where it sells for $5.99 a pound.

The gamble on ginger seeds essentially falls on the farmers, who assume the risk of contaminating their soil or losing most of their crop. (The consumer assumes no risk at all: Even diseased ginger is safe to eat.) So far, Thomet says, he has had only one misfire: Several years ago he bought Chinese rhizomes, which “just rotted,” he says.

If a rhizome is disease-free, it can produce baby ginger of rare beauty, all pink and slender and ivory, in contrast to the majority of fall produce, a khaki parade of lettuces and squashes. The aroma of baby ginger is intoxicating as well, even three feet above the rhizomes. Just plant your face in the middle of ginger leaves and breathe deeply. It’s a contact high of perfume and pungency.

Greg Haley, the chef de cuisine at Amuse restaurant at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, has been gobbling up ginger: rhizome, stalk, leaves and all. Haley has incorporated the immature rhizomes into a half-dozen dishes, the latest being grilled chicken thighs with fried lengths of baby ginger and a carrot juice reduction infused with the flavor of ginger leaves.

“It’s a lot more subtle” than mature ginger, Haley says. “I like that most of the things I’ve used it in so far, I don’t even peel it. . . . There’s no need to; the skin is so white and thin, it just melts into whatever you’re doing.”

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