U of I Extension’s Unity Community Center expands food offerings

With warming climates including milder seasonal lows, growing ginger in temperate climates of the Midwest is becoming more feasible. (U of I Extension photo)

Supplying community members of north Normal with produce for nearly 10 years, the Unity Community Center production garden — a program of University of Illinois Extension — will soon offer a culturally relevant food to fresh produce recipients — ginger root.

Historically serving a culturally diverse community, Unity’s production garden has provided culturally relevant crops to Hispanic or Latinx, African, and African American audiences who are predominant populations resourcing the garden, and the center’s, food distributions. Tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, and okra have been grown in the Unity Garden to accommodate a variety of diets.

Ginger, commonly cultivated across tropical areas of Asia and Africa, is favored the world over for its bright, tangy, fruity and spicy flavors in many regional cuisines. In recent years, the demand for ginger root in the United States has increased focus on growing it more regionally. With warming climates including milder seasonal lows, growing ginger in temperate climates of the Midwest is becoming more feasible.

Resourcing simple farming technology known as season extension, the production garden at Unity now houses a high tunnel. This hooplike structure covered with dark cloth helps provide appropriate growing conditions for the tropical crop. Following May installation, the high tunnel was planted with ginger root plants in June for harvest in November.

The high tunnel is part of an ongoing, statewide research project. University of Illinois Extension staff, in collaboration with Dr. Shelby Henning at Western Illinois University, are testing fresh ginger root as a potential high-value crop to incorporate into crop rotation for Illinois vegetable growers who also grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and eggplant in high tunnels.

Many Illinois growers utilize a tomato-cucumber crop rotation when growing in a high tunnel. Similar to corn and soybean rotation, this can reduce disease problems. However, several devastating crop diseases have been shown to persist in the soil for more than one growing season. Creating greater diversification of crops grown — like incorporating ginger root to create a three-year crop rotation—could reduce disease problems in the high tunnel growing system. The additional crop also increases economic security for the grower.

Preliminary data suggests it is possible to grow a successful and profitable ginger crop in Illinois, with market feedback demonstrating high demand, however, more data is needed to confirm these results. Illinois Extension researchers continue to familiarize themselves with best practices of ginger cultivation in a midwestern climate and aim to publish a grower’s guide for high-tunnel cultivation of ginger following further research.

Nick Frillman, a Local Food Systems & Small Farms Educator with University of Illinois Extension and manager of the Unity Community Center’s Food Donation and Demonstration Garden, plans to hold several classes related to the cultivation of ginger and its use in fermented foods in autumn of this year.

For questions or if you will need an accommodation in order to participate, contact the Woodford County Extension Office at 309-467-3789. Early requests are strongly encouraged to allow sufficient time to meet your access needs. For more information about Extension and upcoming programming, visit us at go.illinois.edu/LMW.

Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.