In memorial: Robert “Bob” Beyfuss (March 15, 1950-January 12, 2023)
Influential American ginseng forest farming pioneer and educator
January 20, 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.
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, January 13, 2023
“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)
“I got into the ‘world of ginseng’ just ten years ago, but during my deep dive to learn as much as I could about it, I kept hearing Bob Beyfuss’s name come up in articles and conversations with others in the ginseng community. I finally got to meet him in person and hear him present in Asheville in 2015 at the International American Ginseng Expo and then several times over the following years at other conferences and meetings. His slides on ‘chipmunk control methods’ always elicited concurrent gasps and chuckles during his presentations, showing the diverse perspectives of his audiences from every facet of the forest farming community whose lives and careers he had an impact on. He and I had great conversations commiserating the love-hate relationship we had with our mother-ship universities as fellow Extension agents, and he always responded to my questions through calls and emails. I’ve used his YouTube videos as crutches at many workshops with others who were interested in learning about the industry and the plant that Bob so deeply cared about.”
-Jim Hamilton, County Extension Director, North Carolina State University
"Expert, educator, mentor, icon, friend, and simply unparalleled, Bob will be dearly missed by those who dedicate their lives to advancing the field of forest farming he so loved. I and all I know deeply relished the joy, wonder, and kindness he brought to people, plants, woodlands, and our community. Bob is in the pantheon and will be celebrated for years to come.”
-John Munsell, Professor of Forestry at Virginia Tech
“I first met Bob in 2012 when studying ginseng as a grad student. He had just 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
"As we sit here today after hearing of Bob's passing, we are reminiscing about the good times and stories we shared, the fellowship, advice, foresight, and the solutions, because we do believe he knew it all. Time spent with Bob is valued more than anything and we cherish those moments with him. He could teach and make you want to learn. We are honored to have known him. Thank you, Bob, for everything!"
-Ed and Carole Daniels, Shady Grove Botanicals, West Virginia
"I had the good fortune to know Bob for more than 15 years, as a colleague, a friend, and always a mentor. I was always humbled by Bob's willingness take my questions, vet my theories or assumptions, and provide thoughtful and constructive feedback. Time spent with Bob was always a learning experience, and his wealth of knowledge was always freely shared. I owe him a debt of gratitude, and he will be sincerely missed."
-Tanner Filyaw, United Plant Savers
“I first met Bob in the Fruit and Spice Park in sunny Miami in Spring 2020. The sight of a vivid ginseng tattoo on his arm surprised me and made me giggled – a great ice breaker. I was eager to learn all things about American ginseng, from history, cultivation to trade and Bob had been incredibly generous to share what he knew. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit ginseng farms with him a few times, including one in summer 2020 to upstate New York where he miraculously arranged a camping site for us to stay when Floridians were not welcome by the state. He was a teacher and a friend and will be missed greatly.”
-Hong Liu, Professor of Plant Conservation at Florida International University
“I met Bob over 35 years ago at a ginseng conference, not long after he’d written his Master’s Thesis on the plant. Bob and I became good friends and eventually fishing buddies. In time, I saw his interest in ginseng gradually become a fascination with its mystique and then the intellectual passion of his life. The plant’s atypical botany, the difficulty of its woodland horticulture, and the culture surrounding its trade continually held his interest. He became a pervasive and effective advocate for the plant and especially for the individuals working to grow it in the woods. 35 years ago, ginseng had financial worth but had the general status of snake oil. Today, the plant’s commercial worth is increasingly seen as legitimate, its long history and culture in America is being recognized, and it’s appreciated simply for its inherent value. This change has come about in no small part through Bob’s efforts and those of the multitude of folks he aided, enlightened, educated, and mentored. Bob made friends easily and kept many of them. His energetic, genuine friendship enriched many lives, certainly mine included.”
-W. Scott Persons, Tuckasegee Valley Ginseng
A sample of educational videos featuring Bob Beyfuss:
Ginseng culture (WV Public TV)
Appalachian ginseng (WV Public TV)
The lifecycle of ginseng (VA Tech)
Where does ginseng grow? (VA Tech)