By Andy Hankins
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a familiar plant to many people in the Appalachian region. For several generations “digging sang” has been an enjoyable and profitable activity for many mountain people. In 1995, wild dried roots of ginseng sold for as much as $470 per pound. That price has tripled in the last ten years. In 1995, quite a few pounds of cultivated dried ginseng roots sold for $20 per pound. That price has been reduced by half in the last ten years.
Why should there be such a difference in the prices paid for wild and cultivated ginseng? Nearly all of the ginseng, grown or gathered from the wild in the United States, is exported to oriental countries for sale. Ginseng growers and gatherers in the US. and Canada produced about four million pounds of ginseng for export to the Orient in 1994. Apparently the Chinese people prefer wild ginseng over cultivated because it more closely resembles the revered wild Oriental Ginseng (Panax ginseng). The Chinese believe that the slower-growing wild roots, which are harvested at an older age, absorb more curative power from the forest floor.
Anyone who knows ginseng can easily tell the difference between wild and cultivated roots. The wild roots are dark tan in color, gnarled in appearance and show many concentric growth rings. Wild roots are generally small in size and light in weight. The cultivated roots are cream colored, smooth and fat, and exhibit few concentric growth rings. Cultivated roots are often large and heavy. The Oriental buyers have quite an elaborate grading system for the dried roots they purchase.
Approximately 3,800 acres of ginseng are grown in intense cultivation under artificial shade in Wisconsin. Under intense cultivation the roots grow quickly to a harvestable size. Four year old roots are very commonly harvested. Yields as high as 2,500 pounds of dried root per acre have been reported. Establishment costs for one acre of ginseng beds, under wood lath shade or under polypropylene shade cloth, varies from $20,000 to $30,000 depending upon the current prices of materials needed.
The greatest problem associated with intensely cultivated ginseng is disease, including alternaria blight, damping off and phytophthora. Any disease outbreaks severely threaten ginseng under intense cultivation because the plants are so close together that the disease can spread quickly through the entire bed. This intense fungus disease pressure forces artificial shade growers to use a vigorous fungicide spray schedule to prevent losses.
A method called wild-simulated cultivation can be used to grow ginseng without fungicide sprays and expensive establishment costs. The prices paid for ginseng grown under wild-simulated cultivation are normally the same as prices paid for wild ginseng roots. While ginseng growing is very risky, wild-simulated ginseng cultivation can potentially provide supplemental income for persons who have patience, perseverance and discretion.
To grow wild-simulated ginseng, the first step is site selection. The most favorable temperature and soil moisture conditions generally are associated with north or east facing slopes with at least a 75 per cent shade canopy. The best shade is provided by deep rooted, deciduous trees such as poplars and oaks. Ginseng grows best in a moist, well drained soil.
Successful growth of ginseng most often occurs in sites where herbaceous woodland plants such as Jack-in the-pulpit, bloodroot, Solomon’s seal and ferns are growing. If no herbaceous plants are growing on the forest door, ginseng will probably not grow there. Excellent soil drainage is essential.
In the wild-simulated method, stratified ginseng seed is planted in the fall when the trees lose their leaves. In some locations, clearing of undergrowth will be necessary. If the site is sufficiently shaded, there should not be a great deal of competitive weed growth. This is an extensive (as opposed to intensive) planting method. If dense patches of weeds exist on the site, simply avoid them and plant in other areas. It is desirable to disturb the site as little as possible to reduce the spread of fungus diseases.
The only tools needed to plant wild-simulated ginseng are a rake and a garden hoe. It is a good idea to plant seeds in defined beds that are 5 feet wide and 50 feet long. The beds should be separated by three foot wide walkways. The beds should run up and down the slope rather than across the slope for better air drainage around the plants. Rake the leaves on the forest floor away from the bed right down to the topsoil. Using the hoe, make three narrow furrows 13 inches apart, all the way down the length of the bed.
Plant ginseng seeds, by hand, three inches apart in each furrow About one ounce or 500 seeds will be needed to plant three furrows at this spacing in a bed that is 5 feet wide and 50 feet long . Cover the seeds with 3/4 inch of soil. After planting, carefully step down each row to firm the soil around the seeds. To finish the planting, rake one inch of leaves back over the bed as a mulch. After a couple of rain storms, no one will be able to detect that any planting has occurred. The site will look completely natural.
The stratified seed will germinate the next spring. The plants will look like three small strawberry leaves on a stem about one inch tall. Some of the ginseng seeds will not germinate and some will be eaten by rodents. Over the next seven years, the plant population in each bed will be reduced every year by various natural forces. The final stand will be a thin, healthy population of wild ginseng plants.
In the wild-simulated method, after planting, no more work is required until the ginseng roots are dug six to ten years later. The ginseng plants are left to the vagaries of nature. Weeds on the forest door will compete with the plants for water and nutrients. Insects and rodents will attack certain plants. Fungus diseases infect ginseng plants from time to time. Severe weather may reduce plant growth. All of these stressful conditions result in a wild appearance of the roots that are eventually harvested. Digging the roots will be difficult work because they often become entwined with the roots of other woodland plants. The harvested roots should be air-dried in the shade.
The investment in a half acre of wild-simulated ginseng is $800.00 for 10 pounds of stratified seeds and 20 days of labor. A half acre will produce anywhere from 0 to 200 pounds of dried roots in six to ten years. The natural fertility of the particular planting site will determine both the quantity and the quality of the ginseng that can be grown there.
The greatest threat to the crop is theft. Ginseng should not be planted in areas where people go to dig wild ginseng. In some regions, ginseng hunters comb the mountains every fall looking for wild ginseng. These hunters will certainly be excited if they come across a dense population of plants. Somehow cultivated ginseng plants are often considered “fair game” by wild gatherers. Fines for stealing ginseng are negligible. The wild-simulated method of growing ginseng is best practiced on lands where access is controlled. It is highly recommended that anyone attempting to grow ginseng this way, keep quiet about the enterprise.
Ideal growing conditions for ginseng are more difficult to find in low-lying regions than they are in the mountains. The forest floor in most woodland areas is too hot and dry during the summer for ginseng to survive. Micro-environments may be found, however, that are good, if not perfect, places for ginseng to grow. Small pockets of cooler soil may be found very often on a north-facing hillside above a stream or river. Many Virginia landowners are successfully growing ginseng well out of the mountains.
For several decades, natives of the Southern Appalachianregion have harvested natural plant materials from the wild for sale to the many medicinal herb buyers in the region. Very often these buyers operate small grocery stores. There is at least one buyer in every town in southwest Virginia. Products most commonly traded are ginseng, black cohosh, bloodroot, golden seal, lady slipper, mayapple and slippery elm.
The local person, who buys the roots, bark, leaves or seeds from medicinal plants, often also buys furs and hides. These small buyers, in turn, sell the plant materials they purchase to regional brokers who either export the materials to the Orient or sell them directly to pharmaceutical companies in the United States.
As native wild populations of these medicinal plants disappear due to over harvesting, potential increases for profitable sale of cultivated woodland medicinal plants. Indeed, many small landowners throughout the region have already successfully grown and sold these plants. There is never any problem marketing the products they grow. Prices fluctuate, of course, but the market channels developed years ago for sale of wild harvested plant materials can reliably be used for sale of any cultivated medicinal herbs in current demand.
Ginseng’s coals-to-Newcastle promise that never quite took off
Ziggy Pyka is on his hands and knees slowly turning the moist earth with a kitchen fork. His excavating is methodical and measured until he exposes a streak of beige, and only then does he dig with vigour. Any sooner and he risks damaging the prize: a knobby root that grows in any direction parallel to the surface in the shade of its modest, leafy green host.
“It takes a week to dig them all out by myself,” says Mr Pyka.
It has taken six years to get to this moment. If ginseng is pulled from the earth any sooner, the medicinal properties revered in northeast Asia since ancient times will be diminished. The longer it’s left in the ground, the more potent it becomes.
A half-hectare crop can net up to half a million dollars in Australia, while a single, high-quality root can be worth thousands in China where wild ginseng has been hunted and harvested to near-extinction. In 2007, a 100-year-old root sold for $US250,000.
But ginseng can only be grown commercially if a farmer is prepared to recreate meticulously its ideal habitat – and then, to be extremely patient.
The slow-growing plant lies dormant for most of the year, hidden underground. Once sprouted, it is “sun-shy”, requiring dark cover from a canopy of fir or spruce. It also needs very cold winters and damp soil with a pH level between 5.5 and 7.
Come mid-September, a mature plant will shoot “prongs” of broad green leaves. Then, through spring and summer, tiny star-shaped flowers on the end of long stems will spawn a cluster of plump, bright red berries that nestle amid the greenery as the plantation takes on a Christmas hue, as if covered in a blanket of mistletoe.
In the autumn, the top of the plant will die off, leaving no sign of the precious herb that lies beneath.
For Mr Pyka, “dig week” is labour-intensive. Each root must be exposed carefully by hand, every inch of his plantation combed, to produce about 400 roots in a season. At the end of each dig day, Mr Pyka strides to the shed on his farm, 41° South, near Deloraine in Tasmania, where he washes, cuts and encases the ginseng in alcohol to extract the ginsenosides saponin, wherein the magic lies.
Without this natural steroid, ginseng is just a lump of carbon, with about as much medicinal value as concrete. Mr Pyka’s labours produce about 20 kilograms of ginseng a year for his own consumption and for the products in his “little shop” that include ginseng honey, spice and chocolate.
The best way to take ginseng for medicinal purposes is to eat it fresh. Mr Pyka, demonstrating, bites into a piece of the root – “it’s like chewing on bark,” he says. It has a distinctive flavour, both sweet and bitter, and gives off a woody, honeyed aroma like wet clay with a hint of freshly-cut timber.
Sometimes tagged “the king of herbs”, ginseng is believed to boost immunity and increase energy, while also being used as a sedative.
“It was like selling the shovels and pans to the gold miners.” — Paul Redding, ginseng speculator
Dr Richard Zeng, a fourth generation Chinese medicine practitioner who lectures at RMIT University, says ginseng’s key benefit is to increase the body’s “Qi” or “primary, vital energy”.
Normally, Chinese medicine treats illness with a cocktail of herbs, but ginseng has such a powerful effect, and is so expensive, it’s prescribed singularly.
It is used to strengthen the spleen and aid the respiratory system. It’s linked to improved lung health and given to people with asthma. It’s also used to increase body fluid and to treat dehydration. Ginseng is given to patients experiencing shock, believing it can stabilise the entire body.
“My parents have been using ginseng for me since I was young,” says Dr Zeng. “It is regarded as one of the best herbs to help for energy and concentration.
“My mother helped me prepare for my exams to get into university. She would cook ginseng for me; steam it in a teapot for half-an-hour. I’d eat the ginseng and drink the juice.”
Western medicos are increasingly embracing the herb, too. A 2012 study led by the US-based Mayo Clinic Cancer Centre found ginseng reduced cancer-related fatigue in patients.
But Ginseng is a crop that can break a farmer’s heart.
“Its not easy. It’s very, very difficult and I’ve lost a lot of crops,” says Mr Pyka. “I lost 10 acres from sun exposure once.”
Today, just a handful of commercial ginseng growers exist in Australia, the remnants of a movement that once seemingly had the potential to become a “coals-to-Newcastle” business success story.
But three decades after Australia’s godfather of ginseng, 73-year-old Fred Hosemans, established Australia’s first ginseng farm at Gembrook, in the shade of the Dandenong Ranges, just outside Melbourne, no locally grown ginseng has been exported to China, despite that country’s huge demand.
Mr Hosemans had defied botanists who told him the plant that was native to northeast Asia and North America could never prosper in Australia.
“My vision from the beginning was for Australia to export ginseng to China, but we failed.” — Fred Hoseman, ginseng pioneer
Indeed, by the early 1990s, after eight years of toil, Mr Hosemans was making inroads. He set up the Australian Ginseng Growers’ Association and generated interest from people looking for a “retirement crop”, lured by the prospect of so-called “green-gold”.
At its peak, the association boasted 400 members, fuelling Mr Hosemans’ vision that Australian growers could ultimately join the US, Canada and South Korea in exporting thousands of tonnes of ginseng to China and the region annually.
“I thought, if you can grow the stuff here in Australia could export it to Hong Kong and Singapore,” he says.
Mr Hosemans’ ginseng dream grew out of a 1984 article in an American magazine: ‘Growing organic ginseng – $75,000 per acre’.
The factory worker bought seeds, along with a three-hectare block of land near Gembrook. He planted the seed in six beds.
In 1989, having lost his job, Mr Hosemans moved his family onto the block, living in a converted shed and tending his nascent crop. But it wasn’t for another seven years that he finally saw the fruits of his labour – 300kgs of fresh root per harvest. Soon, he found himself touring the country – “anywhere you could grow the stuff” – promoting the herb as a potential Australia-wide industry.
He published books on growing ginseng and started the growers’ association, which he led as president for 10 years. He did business with a Singaporean co-operative and headed up delegations to international ginseng conferences in Canada and China.
“My vision from the beginning was for Australia to export ginseng to China, but we failed,” he says frankly.
Instead, the dream had evaporated almost as quickly as it had materialised: by 2000, Mr Hosemans had given ginseng away. Two hip replacements and a divorce made it difficult to continue, and he sold the Gembrook property.
The growers’ association soldiered on for a few more years before petering out, though it has not diminished Mr Hosemans’ belief in the herb’s potential in Australia.
“Growers are all a bit mysterious. Ginseng’s funny, people get ginseng fever, they don’t trust anyone.” — Paul Redding
“Ginseng could all take off again, if someone comes along with a lot of guts and stubbornness like I had,” he says. “Somebody will do it because it’s possible. I’ve proved it’s possible.”
Despite the association’s once buoyant numbers, The Citizen could locate just five growers who were willing to talk about their ginseng endeavours.
“Oh, there’ll be others,” assures Mr Hosemans. “Ginseng growing is very secretive because of the money involved.”
The last president of the growers’ association, Paul Redding, agrees. “Growers are all a bit mysterious,” he concedes. “Ginseng’s funny: people get ginseng fever, they don’t trust anyone.”
With his Korean wife, Mr Redding, a self-described ginseng speculator, imported and sold seeds but now simply imports a small quantity of dried root.
But back in the local industry’s prime “it was like selling the shovels and pans to the gold miners”.
As with all things ginseng, the seeds are difficult to handle: they cannot be stored for long periods and don’t survive drying or freezing. And scarcity has become an issue after South Korea banned the export of ginseng seeds in response to overzealous Chinese speculators.
Mr Redding isn’t sure how many people still grow ginseng commercially in Australia, but believes there have been more failures than there have been success stories.
“When Fred Hosemans started saying you could grow ginseng in the Dandenongs, it was all pretty exciting. A lot of people got into it. They thought it could just be planted; walk away and you’re rich! There’s your retirement fund; but it was never going to be like that.
“Fred copped a lot of flak but what people didn’t realise is that they’d make mistakes. We aren’t in North Asia or North America. Instead of learning from their failures as part of the crafting experience, people just gave up.”
► An edited version of this story appears in the January 2016 edition of Town and Country Farmer.
Getting Started Right for Successful Ginseng Production
by Bob Beyfuss
Commercial ginseng production has a long history and affiliation with Cornell University. I have a collection of Cornell publications dating from as early as 1904 on topics as specific as “Phytopthora Root Rot of Ginseng” and as general as “Diseases of Ginseng”. At one time, circa 1910, there were as many as 5,000 ginseng farms in upstate NY and Cornell conducted a great deal of research on what was a new crop for many NY farmers. Almost all the commercial ginseng grown in NY in those days utilized wooden lathe houses to grow this shade requiring herbaceous perennial.
One might wonder why natural forest shade was not utilized, since ginseng has always grown wild in some NY forests. Many people are unaware of the fact that there were virtually no forests at the turn of the last century in upstate NY. Almost the entire state was devoid of forest cover then, (less than 15% forested) whereas today, over 60% of NY state is forested.
An established patch of intensive woods cultivated ginseng.
Modern ginseng cultivation today ranges from extremely intensive, high input, high risk, field production utilizing polypropylene shade cloth, with production costs alone of at least $65,000 per acre to establish and grow a three year crop, to less than a $100 investment in seed that may be grown in a “wild simulated” manner in a woodlot.
Whenever a “wannabe” farmer visited me in my office with his or her idea on how they were going to become rich growing something or raising something, my first question to them always was “Who are you going to sell it to and how do you plan to market it?” This query was often met with blank stares since the assumption was that if one was really good at growing something, the world would beat down the door to purchase it. Sadly, for almost every agricultural commodity I know of, that is not the case.
Ginseng is the only crop that has a list of more than 300 registered buyers, on file, by the NYSDEC. Of course, most of these buyers are primarily interested in buying wild ginseng, but the fact is that ginseng is indeed easy to sell. Growing it successfully is a different story, however! If it were easy to grow or if it grew in any forest, it would not be as expensive as it is to buy. Wild simulated woodland ginseng growing requires a specific type of forest habitat and there are certainly challenges to doing it successfully. The first and by far most important step, is to assess the available forest resource to see if it is suitable for ginseng production. Many years ago I developed and I still continue to “tweak”, a tool called “”. This is available as a free PDF download at the Small Farms Website. It does require knowledge of the herbaceous plants in your forest, as well as the tree and shrub species, to use it accurately.
A six year old ginseng root from wild simulated patch.
If you think you have a suitable forest, the next step is to purchase stratified seed from a reputable dealer and try some test plots. One such reputable dealer is Scott Persons, author of “Green Gold” and his most recent book, co-authored with Dr. Jeanine Davis from NC State “Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and other Woodland Botanicals”. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in growing ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh, ramps, bloodroot, or any other woodland crop. Scott’s email is [email protected] Although it now October, ginseng is always planted in the fall and may be sown right until the ground freezes. If Scott has sold all his seed, you may contact me [email protected] and I may be able to suggest other reputable seed sellers. Expect to pay about $25 per ounce of seed, less if ordered in bulk, but be sure to buy only stratified seed. Stratified seed was harvested last summer and will germinate next spring. Ginseng seed cannot be held over for spring planting in 2016. It will perish even if refrigerated or frozen.
I suggest you begin with some test plots. Here is a protocol that I use myself after I determine that a particular site looks promising. Measure and mark 3-foot-wide by 3-foot-long test plots using survey flags. Survey flags are available from farm and home stores, forestry suppliers, or many County Soil and Water Conservation districts. Set up as many 3 foot square plots as you desire. I suggest at least 10 plots per acre or one each per 4,000 square feet. Two ounces of seed will be enough to create about 16 test plots.
Count out seeds into batches of 50 seeds. Package each individual 50 seed batch in small plastic baggies. Rake back the leaves from each plot and scratch the surface of the soil with a 3 tined tool or a grub axe or some similar tillage implement. Remove big rocks or roots that would prevent the seeds from making direct contact with the soil.
Scatter 50 seeds evenly over each 3 foot by 3 foot test plot and walk on them to ensure good soil contact. The best time to plant in upstate NY is September through mid-October but you can plant right up until the ground freezes. Rake leaves back over each plot. Leave survey flags in place over the winter! Number or code each test plot by writing a number or code letter on the survey flag. Record all data in a permanent notebook. If you don’t do this you will surely forget! Take pictures too!
Begin inspecting plots as soon as the snow melts the following spring and check for slugs. Imported (exotic) garden slugs are perhaps the main reason why ginseng seedings fail in year one. Position slug traps, one at each plot, to survey slug populations. An inexpensive slug trap is made using a few ounces of beer as bait. Cut off two or three inches of the top of a one liter soda pop bottle. Reverse the cut off top so that the cap opening is inside the bottle and staple it in place. This allows the slugs to easily crawl into the bottle and then they fall into the beer and cannot crawl out. Position the bottle at ground level within the test plot.
The author and one of his ginseng plants.
If you trap more than one or two slugs per plot in the early spring (late March to April), prior to seed germination in May, you will need to provide slug control by using poison baits. Beer traps are not effective as control agents but work well for survey purposes. Organic growers have several pesticide options available such as “Escargro” or “Sluggo” products. Conventional growers have even more options including poison baits made from metaldehyde (i.e. Deadline slug pellets). Read and follow all label directions when using any sort of pesticide, organic or conventional.
Count the number of emerged seedlings in May, (the number you count times 2 will be your approximate germination percentage) and continue to count them every week or so until fall (this number times 2 will be your seedling survivability percentage). Record all data in the permanent notebook. A record keeping sheet should have columns with the following headings. Test plot number, date planted, today’s date, # of emerged seedlings, # of slugs trapped, soil conditions (i.e. dry, moist soggy etc), other observations. This information will be extremely important for any serious grower to provide complete documentation of the endeavor as well as to allow future information for pest management thresholds, etc.
By Fall, you can determine which of the plots performed best and expand the plots in that immediate area to 10 foot wide by 10 feet long. These may be seeded next fall at one ounce per plot. Abandon areas that have poor germination and or survivability. Within a few years you will have located the very best locations for serious expansion. Thin successful test plots after three years of growth to a density of one plant per square foot, transplanting surplus roots in September.
Of course, the bottom line when growing any crop is, the bottom line! Currently, good quality 8 to 10 year old wild simulated ginseng is being sold for upwards of $800 per dry pound, or $200 per fresh weight pound. A good wild simulated yield could be as much as 300 pounds fresh weight per acre. In the right location, this can be a very profitable crop that requires very little maintenance once established.
Bob Beyfuss, [email protected]du, retired in 2009 from Cornell University Cooperative Extension, after 31 years as an Agriculture agent in Greene County. He is the author of “The Practical Guide to Growing Ginseng” (a 65 page grower’s guide), “Ginseng Production in Woodlots” and “The Economics of Woodland Ginseng Production”. Currently, Bob is Vice President of American Ginseng Pharm, a large scale woodland ginseng/herb/mushroom growing business in Greene and Delaware Counties, NY.
Top 12 FAQs About Growing Ginseng For Profit
Growing ginseng is one of the best ways to turn your backyard or acreage into extra income growing these high-value plants, which can produce roots worth several hundred dollars per pound. If you’re new to growing ginseng, you’ve got questions. Here are answers to the most common questions asked by folks who are interested in growing ginseng for profit.
1. Why grow ginseng?
Most new growers are attracted by the potential profits, as the prices for mature ginseng roots has been climbing steadily in the last few years. As I write this, prices for quality roots are going for between $300 to $600 per pound. Also, ginseng is an ideal crop if you’ve got a patch of hardwood trees, such as maple or oak, that you don’t plan to harvest for a few years.
2. Do I have the right climate to grow ginseng?
Ginseng can do well in most climates. You need to grow in an area that has a four-season climate and is exposed to some sub-freezing weather. Cold will help break your ginseng’s dormancy, and will lead to it sprouting in the spring. Ginseng also prefers a shady spot under a canopy of hardwood trees.
3. What kind of soil do I need to grow ginseng?
Healthy soil is important for any plant, and it’s certainly important for ginseng. A sandy loam is the best soil for growing ginseng, with plenty of organic matter and good drainage. Test the pH – it should be 6.0 to 6.5 for a healthy ginseng crop. This pH range allows the growing plants to use the nutrients in the soil effectively, and discourages bacterial diseases.
4. Which growing method should I use?
The artificial shade method can be a good one, but it costs several thousand dollars an acre for the shade cloth and poles to get started. If you have a few acres of hardwood trees, then the wild-simulated method can work great for you. Chances are the woods-cultivated method will be the one you’ll use. You simply use the natural shade of a forest canopy of hardwood trees, such as maple, oak and sycamore.
5. How is ginseng propagated?
Ginseng is grown from seed. At three years of age, the ginseng plant produces a abundant crop of berries each fall, which can be harvested, cleaned and planted or sold. Because the seed is free, many growers prefer to use their own seed for new plantings, rather than buying rootlets from other growers.
6. How can I tell when my harvested roots are dry?
Properly dried roots should make a crisp “snap!” sound when broken. You can dry your roots naturally by placing them in a covered area, spread out on a screened rack. If there isn’t proper air circulation, use a fan and keep it running for two to four weeks. At that time your roots should be dried. Break a few and see if you get that “snap” sound. Ginseng buyers insist on well-dried roots when they inspect a grower’s harvest, as they are paying by the pound.
7. How should I control pest and disease problems?
First of all, having a healthy, well-drained soil should stop a lot of potential pest and disease problems. If some problems do arise, only use natural pesticides to stop them. Try yellow sticky traps for most pest problems. Be sure to do regular weeding, but be careful not to harm your roots. Check for proper air circulation, and thin underbrush regularly, as that will keep the air moving and help keep disease under control.
8. How can I sell ginseng roots?
There are three main ways to sell ginseng roots. First is to sell directly to wholesale buyers. This gets you paid right away, and you can sell right out of your backyard nursery. Second is to sell to out-of-state buyers. Take good care in shipping your ginseng. Pack it like you’re packing fine china! Finally, you can sell to ginseng brokers, who buy ginseng in bulk and then resell it to other people.
9. How much does it cost to start a ginseng business?
You can start your own ginseng business with not much money. Using the wild-simulated or woods-cultivated method, you should be able to start a quarter-acre ginseng garden for less than $1,000. Using the wild-simulated method, the experts recommend a seeding rate of twenty pounds per acre. Using the woods cultivated method, a seeding rate of sixty pounds per acre is recommended. Over a six year growing cycle, that quarter-acre could produce as much as $50,000 worth of roots, seeds and rootlets.
10. Using the woods-cultivated method, how do I start my growing beds?
First clear away any underbrush in the area. You want underbrush to be at least 10 feet away from the growing beds. Next use a walk-behind tiller to work the soil over several times until you can loosen it to at least a depth of six inches. If you’re planting seeds, plant them one-half to one inch deep and three inches apart. Be sure to keep the rows about eight inches apart. For rootlets, plant them at an angle that is about 45 degrees from vertical. You want the bud to be an inch below the soil surface.
11. When will my mature roots be ready to sell?
In most cases, your mature roots will be ready to sell after five or six years. If you want to harvest mature roots sooner, plant rootlets, as that can give you a crop of mature roots in only three years.
12. Can I sell anything from my ginseng garden in the meantime?
Yes you can. Seeds and rootlets can be ready for sale as soon as three years after you started your ginseng garden. They can make you good money too. For example, seeds are currently selling for around $150 a pound and rootlets for $2 each.
Think about these 12 questions and their answers. Hopefully these answered the questions you might have. Now that you’ve gotten some answers, you’re ready to start growing ginseng for profit. Good luck! To discover more about growing ginseng, read Growing Ginseng For Profit.
In Vermont, the legal season for collecting wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) runs from September 1 through October 31, making now a good time to follow up on a 2008 Local Banquet article by biologist Rick Enser. In “A Gathering Storm” Enser looks at the future of this native medicinal plant. At that time, data from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department (VFWD) estimated that there were 20 to 100 populations (groups) of wild ginseng spread across the state. MaryBeth Deller, a botanist with the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF), noted a marked decline in plant numbers that had prompted a suspension of permits for collection on GMNF lands, where only 16 populations (groups) of ginseng were known to exist. Vermont wasn’t (and isn’t) alone – trade in the plant is regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and each state has its own rules of compliance.
Numbers have not improved, or declined, much since 2008. Today, Deller says there are likely “. . .a dozen to two dozen , all very small, some with just one plant.” Aaron Marcus, a botanist with both the GMNF and VFWD says he knows of around 120 populations in the state, although he adds that it’s likely up to 200 groups actually exist. That may seem like an upward trend, but Marcus emphasizes that most of these are very small groups or single plants. Ginseng has a state rarity rating of 3, meaning it is considered uncommon or “at moderate risk of extinction/extirpation” by VFWD — it remains on a watch list but is not yet considered “endangered”.
It wouldn’t take much illegal or improper collection to push wild ginseng to the brink. It’s a long-lived species that doesn’t produce viable seed until each plant is five to ten years old, and it has a very limited and specific ecological niche. Vermont’s rules around harvest became more strict in 2014, after a coalition of collectors and dealers concerned about the long term sustainability of the plant worked with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture (VAAFM) on revisions. Collection has been prohibited on all state and federal land. Permits are available for collecting elsewhere, but collectors must follow specific rules and pay a fee.
The amount of wild ginseng collected in Vermont may be trending downwards. There are 146 active permits now, down from almost 400 in 2015. Some of this drop comes after a brief surge in 2014, when the television show Appalachian Outlaws sparked an interest. Coincidentally, the stricter rules and permit fees also went into effect at that time. Another theory is that the decline comes from a change in generations, as an older generation moves on and newly enthusiastic diggers discover that it’s harder to find, dig, and properly dry ginseng than one might think. “If you get any of these wrong, even if you have a big bag, no one is going to pay you for it. . . ” notes Tim Schmalz, a plant pathologist who recently retired from VAAFM where he managed the ginseng certification program.
Those who do acquire and handle ginseng correctly can find a good monetary reward. The exact amount fluctuates, though, another possible factor in collection rates. In 2008 the price for wild American ginseng was on the rise — up to $1,500 per pound was possible for good quality dried wild root. Checking in ten years later, the price has fallen. Wild ginseng is still a lucrative crop. Today it can fetch $350 per pound for fresh roots (30 – 40 plants) and $850 per pound for dried roots (110 – 120 plants) according to John Jacobs, a ginseng dealer based in West Lebanon, NH.
If you have the right ecological conditions, you can grow “wild-simulated” ginseng on your own land and if it meets quality guidelines it can still garner wild ginseng prices. Wild-simulated, according to VAAFM, means seeds are sown under forest conditions and there is no horticultural manipulation of any kind.
Cultivated ginseng, grown in prepared beds, grows bigger much faster than either wild or wild-simulated types and is the bulk of the North American-produced ginseng market. However, it brings in only a tenth of the price of its wild and wild-simulated counterparts. Most ginseng for the export market comes from large growers of the cultivated variety in Wisconsin and Canada. If an individual wanted to grow ginseng for personal use, or to supply a very local market for ginseng products, cultivating ginseng by closely mimicking the natural conditions for the plant may be one option, but it is not a perfect solution to overharvesting of wild ginseng.
The question of what plants can make a leap from wild collection to cultivation, or wild- simulated cultivation, stretches beyond ginseng. Other examples are various mushrooms and medicinal plants like goldenseal and black cohosh. Watch this space for an upcoming article that will explore the possibilities for, and challenges with, incorporating a range of woodland species into our agricultural and agroforestry systems.
Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and other Woodland Medicinals by Jeanine Davie and W. Scott Persons, published by New Society Publishers, 2014 (revised and updated from earlier editions)
American Herbal Products Association Good Stewardship information
U.S. Fish and Wildlife General Information on Ginseng
Ginseng Certification Program, Vermont Agency of Agriculture
1. Rare Plants in Vermont: The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department maintains a public listing of rare and uncommon plants in the state. Ginseng is a species of concern on the VFWD list. However, it is not yet labeled endangered. Tim Schmalz, who managed ginseng permitting and sales at VAAFM until recently, believes that the current program is protecting the species. There’s an understanding of its fragility and as he puts it “. . .most of the people harvesting are sustainably-minded: ‘don’t pick everything because you’re going to need some seed-corn’”. The population is so small, however, that it is hard to know its status for certain.
2. Rules for Ginseng Collectors: About five years ago VAAFM was approached by a group of collectors and dealers who wanted to see the rules tightened to ensure the long-term sustainability of the plants. With the group’s input, and that of VFWD botanists, the rules were revised in 2014. The harvest season now runs from September 1 – October 31. The season previously started in August but shifted later to give a chance for the seeds to mature. Plants must be ten years of age or older to be certified for sale, increased from the federally set level of five years. The VAAFM also began charging a fee for the permits; the fee was recently raised from $60 to $75, and the permit remains active for three years. Collection of any plants with green seeds (i.e. not mature) or fewer than three 5-prong leaves is prohibited.Any mature seeds found on the plants must be replanted at the site where the plant is found. For more details:
Ginseng Certification Program, Vermont Agency of Agriculture
3. Cultivated Ginseng: Introducing cultivated ginseng as an alternative does not necessarily solve wild ginseng’s problems. Price is one factor. Cary Giguere, currently in charge of the Vermont ginseng certification program, estimates that cultivated ginseng brings in less than 10% of the price of the wild or wild-simulated variety. It is easy to tell which is cultivated, according to John Jacobs, a ginseng dealer who will only take wild or wild-simulated roots. In the cultivated ginseng market, Vermont is competing with large growers in Wisconsin and Canada, and the added wrinkle of the U.S. trade dispute with ginseng’s major importer, China, introduces new pricing uncertainty. Beyond financial disincentives, botanists are concerned that the introduction of ginseng genetics from people buying seed from other regions may undermine the long-term viability and resilience of the wild population. Introduction of seed or rootlets with fungal or viral diseases could also quickly wipe out the native population. These issues will be explored in more depth in a future article.
Growing ginseng using the wild-simulated method will produce ginseng roots that are almost indistinguishable from wild ginseng roots. The Chinese believe that the slower growing wild ginseng root absorb more curative powers from the forest floor, hence, wild ginseng is more prized and more valuable. Of the three approaches to growing ginseng, the wild-simulated method is not only the simplest method, but the least expensive and the least time consuming. There is very little intervention involved and virtually, the only investment would be in purchasing ginseng seeds and in labor, especially when it’s time to dig for the roots. There is no need to use fungicides or other chemicals. There is no need to construct and maintain costly structures. Steep hillsides that would otherwise be unused can now serve a purpose. However, the wild-simulated method does take the longest time from planting to harvest. It is a slow process that requires patience. The goal is to grow ginseng roots that are similar to ginseng found in the wild in planting sites that allow each plant to grow, thrive and survive. PLANTING SITE SELECTION:
Selecting the proper planting site is crucial. The ideal location is an area where natural wild ginseng grows or has grown. A north or east facing slope is preferred. Look for a woodland site where shade is provided by mature mixed decidous hardwoods such as poplar, sugar maples and oak trees and the soil is rich, moist, nutrient and high in organic matter with some degree of slope for proper drainage. Soil that is swampy or heavy with clay will not do well. Trees with mature root systems will compete less for soil moisture near the surface. If the shade canopy is sufficient, there shouldn’t be a lot of weed growth. Look for companion plants on your forest floor like baneberry, black cohosh, blue cohosh, bloodroot, foam flower, goldenseal, jack-in-the-pulpit, jewel weed, mayapple, Solomon’s seal, trillium, yellow lady’s slipper, wild ginger, and different types of ferns (maidenhair, rattlesnake, Christmas).
Prior to planting, a soil test is recommended. Look into a soil conservation service or your state’s agricultural extension for a soil analysis. One level to pay close attention to is the calcium (Ca) level. Calcium is important in fighting disease. Soil with high calcium (over 2,000 pounds per acre), low pH and adequate phosphorus (P) levels (at least 95 pounder per acre) have been associated with healthy and vigorous wild ginseng growth. If the calcium level is low, gypsum (calcium sulfate) should be added. Gypsum is a natural chemical that is safe to use and it will increase calcium in the soil without affecting the soil chemistry or pH. There isn’t a scientific forumula but a safe estimate would be to add 100 lbs. of gypsum per 1,000 square feet if the calcium levels are below 1,000 pounds per acre. Add gypsum after fall seeding and before mulching. Take another soil test in late winter and if the calcium levels are under 2,000 pounds per acre, add about 50 lbs. of gypsum per 1,000 square feet of planted area just before the plants begin their growth in the spring. Gypsum can also be added during the growing season if the plants are not growing vigorously or there is evidence of disease.
There are numerous ways to prepare your site when planting wild-simulated ginseng. Virtually, the only tools needed are a rake and a garden hoe. There might be very little site preparation necessary if your plan is to just plant a couple of pounds of seed in various promising sites. Or if you have limited space or a great deal of promising land with plans to use most of it, then spending the time to prepare your site for planting is important. To avoid the summer heat, start site preparation in early spring or mild winter. After you’ve selected a promising site, rake the leaf litter to the side. Remove dead limbs, rocks and aggressively growing shrubs that might compete with your ginseng. Use your judgement when dealing with large, heavy rocks and large trees. The expense and effort in removing them might not be necessary. Don’t do more work than you have to. If there is a spot in your planting area where you know ginseng won’t grow, such as a sunny spot where shrubs are abundant, just leave it alone. Saw off low hanging branches to increase air circulation. Clearing the forest floor of companion plants might not be necessary because having other plants present not only help to inhibit the spread of disease but they also provide competition like it would in the wild. Again, use your judgement because in the competition for water and nutrients, you want to ensure that your ginseng wins but the ginseng root will grow to look more wild if competition is present. Growing ginseng using the wild-simulated approach basically requries minimal disturbance to the forest floor and leaving the ginseng to grow naturally.
On steep slopes, after seeding and mulching, place dead limbs along with well-branched young saplings across the face of the slope to keep the mulch and leaf litter from washing away after heavy rainfall.
The ideal time to plant ginseng is in the fall when the trees lose their leaves. If you can, make plans to plant your ginseng seeds 1-3 days prior to expected rain. The rain will water the seeds and will repack the leaf litter which will hold moisture. Measure and stake out planting areas and also include wide walkways. The planting beds should run up and down the slope for better drainage. Rake the leaf litter to the bare ground. Some growers rake over the soil to add texture so that the seeds can make good contact with the soil. There are many different ways you can choose to plant your seeds. If you choose to hand cast the seed, weigh out small quantities of seed and hand cast them over small areas. For example, 2 oz. over a 200 square feet will result in about 4-5 seeds per square foot. This will help control spacing and avoid dense planting. If you choose to plant the seeds by hand, plant 4-5 seeds per square feet. The ideal plant density is 1-2 plants per square foot. Anything more and you risk spread of disease to the ginseng plants and roots. You can add gypsum if needed after sowing the seeds. Some growers carefully step down on each row to firm the soil around the seeds after planting. Remember, plant the seeds no more than 1″ into the ground, ideally 1/2″ – 3/4″ is best. Then rake the leaves back over the bed to serve as mulch. No more than 3″ of leaf litter is necessary. Too much and your ginseng sproutling will have a hard time working its way through the thick mulch of leaves. After a couple of rain storms, the site will look completely natural and no one will be able to notice that any ginseng planting had occurred. After planting is complete, there is no more work to do until it’s time to dig the ginseng roots in about 6-10 years, or even later. You may certainly visit your planting sites but be careful not to disturb your ginseng plants, let nature take its course.
In reality, roughly 50% of the seeds will not germinate. There are many reasons. The seeds could have been eaten by birds, insects, rodents or slugs. Perhaps the seeds didn’t have sufficient contact with the soil. Wind or rain could have blown or washed some of the mulch, leaving the seeds exposed to dry out or get eaten. Whatever the reason, any plant that does grow will grow naturally for the next 7 years or so facing various natural forces. Severe weather, competition for nutrients and water with other plants growing on the forest floor, attacks by insects and rodents and risks of disease all contribute to stressful growing conditions that the ginseng plants will have to endure to result in roots that are indistinguishable from wild ginseng roots.
INVESTMENT: Aside from the initial investment of acquiring ginseng seeds to plant, most of the costs associated with growing ginseng using the wild-simulated approach will be in labor when planting and especially when digging. Of course, if you are able to do this yourself or with the help of trusted family and friends, then your costs would be greatly reduced. A 1/2 acre can produce anywhere from 0 to 200 lbs. of dried roots in a period of 6-10 years. Below is an example of a projected basic budget for 1/2 acre of wild-simulated ginseng.
Growing ginseng through the wild-simulated method can be unpredictable but a decent income can be earned if you have patience and especially discretion. A lot is learned through trial and error and experience. The planting site’s fertility and the forces of Mother Nature strongly affect the quality and quantity of the harvested ginseng root. table is from “Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and other Woodland Medicinals” by Jeanine Davis and W. Scott Persons