In Memoriam: Robert “Bob” Beyfuss (March 15, 1950-January 12, 2023)
Influential American ginseng forest farming pioneer and educator
January 17, 2023
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) has lost one of its greatest admirers and champions. Bob Beyfuss's ginseng journey began at Cornell University where he earned his master's degree studying ginseng. Although Bob never produced a single scientific paper, nor was ever lauded for a single scientific discovery, he was an immensely knowledgeable and thoughtful man and his contributions to ginseng stewardship and forest farming are legendary. Through writing, public speaking, YouTube videos, conferences, social media posts, and workshops, Bob's influence and impact on the ginseng industry are immeasurable and far reaching. Bob's own ginseng planting activities in his home state of New York, and his other cooperative extension activities outside the world of ginseng have been so extensive that he was declared a “State Treasure of New York” in 2021. A quick internet search of his name provides endless examples of his topical breadth and audience reach.
As an extension agent and ginseng specialist with Cornell University until his retirement in 2009, he was a tireless advocate for ginseng stewardship, and for forest farming as a conservation solution and economic opportunity. It is impossible to know how many people he influenced over his many decades of extension activities, but it was easily in the tens of thousands. With his trademark ginseng arm tattoo (an endless source of amusement for many), he was a quintessential New Yorker and a legendary character. Outspoken, outgoing, opiniated, thoughtful, inspirational, multifaceted, sage, party-animal, and listener; are but a few adjectives that describe Bob. He was also an avid outdoorsman and equally loved the time he spent Turkey hunting, fishing, foraging, and gardening in New York, as well as the time he spent fishing, playing softball and exploring Florida later in life where he spent his winters near his children and grandchildren.
I first met Bob in September 2000 when I was invited to attend a ginseng forest farming conference that he had organized in his beloved Greene County in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he served as Cornell cooperative extension agent for 31 years. As I arrived exhausted at the end of a long day, and after six-hours of driving, I was directed to a cabin through the dark and told to “check in with Bob.” When I finally found the cabin, to my surprise, I found Bob actively hosting a “night before the conference” party in his cabin with Bob being the center of the party and the main source of both laughter and deep conversation. I had expected to find some half-asleep, anxiety-ridden extension agent but instead I found a vivacious and beloved white-haired man with a classic Burt Reynolds moustache, surrounded by his many friends and colleagues. And so began my two-decade long plus friendship with Bob.
I have since attended many ginseng-related events and conferences either organized by Bob, or where Bob was an invited speaker, far too many to count. We also went on many adventures together visiting ginseng growers, buyers, and contacts in Ontario, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Tennessee and just about everywhere in between. He loved a good road trip (he refused to fly anywhere) and even more so if a new ginseng experience lay at the end of the road. Our last trip was this past August, when we met in Ohio and traveled to Wisconsin to visit with ginseng industry insiders and growers. Along the way, he insisted we stop at “my friend Pete's who owns a bar” outside Chicago for the night. Not sure what I was getting into, and with some students in tow, I was a little apprehensive but as it always turned out with Bob we were welcomed like long-time friends and treated to deep dish pizza and whatever we wanted to drink from the bar. “How do you know this guy, Bob?” I asked. “He is an old friend from Florida” (where Bob had a timeshare) he replied. And so it went with Bob, he had many circles of friends, from all walks of life. A road trip with Bob Beyfuss, inevitably became a journey of discovery into all these people that came to exist in Bob's orbit. Bob loved meeting and working with people from all walks of life and he, in turn, was loved by many.
Bob was a valued mentor and friend to many both inside and outside of academia. When ginseng questions came up, it was almost default to hear: “have you asked Bob what he thinks?” or simply “Ask Bob.” His counsel was regarded as essential when it came to ginseng, and his “jabs” at government regulation, especially later in life, while not always welcome were always well-intentioned and meant to help both the plant and people.
Even after his retirement, Bob continued to be a fixture on the “ginseng scene” and just this past November was an invited speaker at an educational event hosted by Middle Tennessee State University (https://mtsunews.com/ginseng-institute-expects-growth/). It is hard to imagine Bob no longer being with us at ginseng events. His presence was always a given. When he was not speaking, he was to be found in the audience…listening and learning. He was a lifelong student. He once told me that as an extension agent he had to be. He clients were always asking him questions, and he needed to try to give them the best advice he could. And so, he studied, and observed, and learned and shared his knowledge with others. When I visited him in Florida during his annual winter migrations south, he would set aside time during my visits to work on “his newspaper column” or “record his Mountain Gardner radio piece” for his audience “back home” that faithfully tuned in each week to read/hear what Doctor Bob had to share.
We say goodbye to an icon of the ginseng world knowing that his legacy will live on through his writings, the educational projects he was part of, and the memories we hold dear from time spent with a remarkable man. And if you find yourself in New York state, especially in the Catskills, there's a very good chance that any ginseng plant you encounter in the wild has something to do with Bob. His influence on ginseng will be felt both directly and indirectly for a long time to come. Good-bye, my friend.
–Eric Burkhart, Associate Teaching Professor and Appalachian Botany and Ethnobotany Program Director, Penn State University
Included below are some statements provided by a few of Bob's many ginseng-related friends and colleagues upon learning of his passing:
"My friend and colleague, Bob Beyfuss, was a tireless advocate for American ginseng, but even more so for those rural residents of Appalachia and New England who stood to benefit economically from positive interactions with this iconic American medicinal plant. His voice will be greatly missed from the larger ginseng community."
–James McGraw, Eberly Professor of Biology at West Virginia University (retired)
–Jim Hamilton, County Extension Director, North Carolina State University, North Carolina
–John Munsell, Professor of Forestry at Virginia Tech, Virginia
"I first met Bob in 2012 when studying ginseng as a grad student. He had recently retired from his post at Cornell but continued to be a huge presence in the ginseng community. He was a committed advocate for the plant, and the people and communities who depend on it. Whether in the conference room or on a pontoon boat with a fishing rod in hand, Bob was always willing to share his knowledge and insights. He was a mentor and a friend and will be missed greatly."
–Holly Chittum, Project Scientist, American Herbal Products Association
"Bob was a mentor and inspiration to me to get involved in forest farming. He will start another patch in heaven for us to join him."
–Ming Tao Jiang, Marathon Ginseng International Inc., Wisconsin
"Bob was one of my mentors when I started my ginseng extension program in North Carolina over 30 years ago. The most useful advice he gave me was that to earn the respect of Appalachian ginseng growers and harvesters you had to learn and appreciate the place ginseng held in the history and culture of the mountain people. That advice has served me well. Thank you, Bob. The many people you trained and educated are a big part of your legacy"
–Jeanine Davis, NC Alternative Crops and Organics Program, Department of Horticultural Science, North Carolina State University, North Carolina
–Ed & Carole Daniels, Shady Grove Botanicals, West Virginia
–Tanner Filyaw, United Plant Savers, Ohio
–Hong Liu, Professor of Plant Conservation at Florida International University, Florida
–W. Scott Persons, Tuckasegee Valley Ginseng, North Carolina
–Susan Leopold, Executive Director, United Plant Savers, Ohio
–John Kershaw, ginseng farmer, Ontario, Canada
–Jamie Gillespie, ginseng forest farmer and former employee, New York
–Edward Fletcher, Native Botanicals, Inc., North Carolina and AHPA Board of Trustees member
–Michael Boring, Boring Ginseng, Roots and Herbs, Tennessee
–Paul C. Hsu, Hsu's Ginseng Enterprises, Inc., Wisconsin
–Anna Plattner, Ginseng Grower and Educator, Wild Hudson Valley, New York
A profile of Bob Beyfuss is currently being finalized and added to the American ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots website produced by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: https://folklife.si.edu/american-ginseng
Here is a small sample of educational videos featuring Bob Beyfuss:
Ginseng culture (WV Public TV): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKfeblng3Z4
Appalachian ginseng (WV Public TV): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnADBdtX8-Y
The lifecycle of ginseng (VA Tech): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycyVeK4VaWc
Where does ginseng grow? (VA Tech): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkGnhqRAQRA
From all of us AHPA and on behalf of the herbal community:
Thank you, Bob.