What does a ginseng plant look like?

Sept. 18, 2012: Don Dobbs, owner of Buckhorn Ginseng, holds a wild ginseng root on in Richland Center, Wis. (AP)

MADISON, Wis. – They slink through the woods in camouflage and face paint, armed with tire irons, screwdrivers and hoes, seeking a plant that looks like a cross between a Virginia creeper and poison ivy.

They’re the new breed of ginseng diggers, a rough and tumble lot looking to parlay rising Asian demand for the increasingly rare plant’s roots into a fast buck.

Amid a sluggish economy, police say, more diggers are pushing into the backcountry from the upper Mississippi River to the Smoky Mountains in search of wild ginseng, eschewing harvest permits, ripping up even the smallest plants and ignoring property lines.

Their slash-and-burn tactics have left property owners enraged and biologists worried about the slow-growing plant’s long-term survival. In Ohio prosecutors charged one landowner with gunning down a man he believed was stealing ginseng.

“We’re not finding big, healthy populations. It was there, and a lot of it has been taken,” said Nora Murdock, an ecologist with the National Park Service who monitors plant populations in four parks across the southeastern U.S. “It’s like taking bricks out of a building. You might not feel the first brick … but sooner or later you’re going to pull out too many.”

Ginseng, a long-stemmed plant with five leaves and distinctive red berries, long has been coveted in many Asian cultures because the plant’s gnarly, multipronged root is believed to have medicinal properties that help improve everything from memory to erectile dysfunction. And the wild roots are believed to be more potent than cultivated roots.

The plant takes years to mature, and it has been harvested to the edge of extinction in China. Ginseng buyers have turned to North America, where the plant can be found from northeastern Canada through the eastern U.S.

Conscious of the harvesting pressure, the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora imposed restrictions on exports in 1975. Under those terms, states certify ginseng has been harvested legally and exporters must obtain a federal permit. Most states have restricted ginseng harvest to a few months in the fall and require diggers to obtain permits during that period. It’s illegal to harvest ginseng from any national park and most national forests in the southeast.

The price of wild ginseng roots has climbed in the last decade. Now domestic buyers pay $500 to $600 per pound compared with about $50 per pound of cultivated roots. Law enforcement officials say the prices have pushed people looking for quick money into the woods.

“It’s lucrative to spend a day in the woods and walk out with $500 of ginseng in a bag when you don’t have a job,” said Wisconsin conservation warden Ed McCann. “Every one of these plants is like looking at a $5 or $10 bill.”

Clad at times in camouflage, face masks and face paint to blend in, poachers trod through the underbrush with makeshift tools such as tire irons and screwdrivers looking for ginseng, police said. They don’t have any qualms about digging up immature roots; they want to get at the plants before other poachers or before the state’s harvest season begins. But that ensures the plants won’t reproduce and feeds a cycle of dwindling populations and rising prices.

And poachers know how to get around the conservation regulations. They’ll dig ginseng out of season to get a jump on competitors and take it to dealers when the season opens or purchase permits after the fact. In other cases dealers just look the other way, said John Welke, a Wisconsin conservation warden.

It’s difficult to get a clear picture of the extent of poaching in the U.S. — violation statistics are spread across layers of state and federal jurisdictions, but law enforcement officials and biologists across the eastern half of the country told The Associated Press they believe it’s on the rise.

In Wisconsin, the leading U.S. producer of commercially grown ginseng, wildlife officials say violations such as harvesting wild ginseng without a permit or harvesting out of season tripled from 12 in 2007 to 36 last year.

Ohio wildlife authorities have made 100 arrests between 2008 and last year for various ginseng violations ranging from digging without permission to digging or buying out of season.

A team of West Virginia University researchers counted 30 ginseng populations across New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia between 1998 and 2009. The team reported that of the 368 plants they discovered had been harvested, only five were taken legally.

“It’s very difficult to catch a poacher,” said U.S. Forest Service botanist Gary Kauffman. “You could put everything in a backpack and your hands are clean, nobody really knows what you’re doing.”

A grand jury in southeastern Ohio charged 78-year-old Joseph Kutter of New Paris with killing a man whom Kutter claimed had trespassed onto his property to poach ginseng. According to court documents, Kutter shot Bobby Jo Grubbs with an assault rifle in May and hid his body in a mulch pile. Kutter’s attorneys didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Sara Souther, a University of Wisconsin-Madison botanist who worked on the West Virginia University ginseng team, said multiple times she has encountered poachers trying to harvest the plant.

“These are intimidating people,” Souther said. “You can tell these men are not hiking. If you’re out there and witness an illegal act, you don’t know what people will do.”

Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

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Cost of Production of Ginseng in Ontario

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Preparation Costs
  3. Annual Cash Costs of Production
  4. Harvest Costs
  5. Post Harvest Costs
  6. Revenue
  7. Specialized Machinery
  8. Related Links

Introduction

The cost of producing field cultivated ginseng in Ontario varies widely. Overall costs will be affected by the cost of land purchase or rental, by the costs of machinery purchase or lease and by the amount of custom work that is contracted. Interest on borrowed money and machinery depreciation should also be considered. This document discusses the cash costs of producing 1 acre of ginseng for the first time. Overhead costs such as fuel, electricity, management labour, motor vehicles etc. are not included in this estimate. Land costs are also not included because they vary over time and depend on location. Over time the cost of production will decrease on a per-acre basis. When seeds no longer need to be purchased and shade is reused and equipment costs are amortized over time, costs are correspondingly reduced.

Much of the shade material can be re-used as many as three times, or more depending on the condition of the material in question. Machinery costs can be alleviated somewhat by contracted custom work.

The cost of seed has been estimated at $50.00/lb and the selling price of root at $25.00/lb dried. Both of these prices can vary considerably from year to year and can have a major impact on the returns to the grower. The impact of a range of root prices on eventual returns must be considered when planning to grow a ginseng crop.

Preparation Costs

Costs associated with site preparation will vary from grower to grower. Additional costs are associated with consultant fees, liming, site specific nutrient management and tile drainage. The costs outlined in Table 1 are general in nature and represent the base level of preparation. This document does not include the potential interest on borrowed money for the establishment costs or the annual operating costs and these should be factored into the cost of production for each of the years until the loans are paid off.

Table 1. Pre-Seeding and Seeding Costs per Acre

Total seeding and preseeding costs: $23,475

* Cost will vary depending on the material used (type of cloth, wood vs. steel posts etc.). Since shade cloth can be re-used reliably a total of three times, the cost included is for one third of the total cost ($18,000/ac). However, someone putting in their first garden will incur the total cost up-front.

Annual Cash Costs of Production

Annual production costs will vary depending on the weather. Wet seasons may require more fungicide inputs, while dry seasons may require less.

Deflowering costs are considered to be the same as the cost of picking seeds. Both of these operations are carried out with hand labour. Deflowering of third year plants has been shown to increase root size by 25 – 30%. This may or may not be profitable depending on the selling prices of seed and root (see the OMAFRA website at ontario.ca/crops for more information on ginseng production in Ontario). If deflowering is preferred it should be done before the flower stalk elongates.

At the present time there are few herbicides registered for use on ginseng in Ontario. Weeding is a labour intensive operation and depending on the weeds present in a garden, may cost as much as $1,000.00 per acre annually. Many weed problems can be alleviated during site preparation. Weeds enter ginseng gardens on the wind and in the straw used as mulch. Weed pressure in individual gardens varies depending on the proximity of weedy areas and on the weed seeds present in the straw.

Table 2. Annual Cash Costs of Production per Acre

* The Ontario Ginseng Grower’s Association is the representative association for ginseng under the Farm Products Marketing Act and has the authority to collect mandatory acreage fees. All producers growing more than ¼ ac of ginseng are required to register with OGGA.

Harvest Costs

Before harvest, ginseng beds are scraped clean of straw and plant debris.

Ginseng roots can be harvested entirely by hand digging and picking into baskets. This method is labour intensive but may be suitable for small gardens. Most commercial root is dug by modified potato diggers. The exposed roots are then picked up by hand and put in baskets. The diggers may run over the garden as many as three times to ensure all of the root is removed from the soil. Some growers use fully automated equipment. With this method the root is dug, passed over a conveyor belt and immediately placed in containers for refrigeration. Growers can buy or lease equipment for harvest or they may choose to have a custom operator harvest the root. Obviously there can be a wide range in the cost of these various operations.

Table 3 is a basic outline of costs incurred when root is dug by a custom contract.

Table 3. Harvest Costs per Acre

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Total Cash Costs Associated with Harvest $4,200
Shade removal $1,800
Custom digging* $2,400

* Custom digging can be replaced with digging labour ($1,000) and harvesting equipment

Post Harvest Costs

Table 4 lists post-harvest costs associated with ginseng production. This table does not include the costs of the washing and grading line. Drying and refrigeration costs are highly dependent on the current energy costs and can vary widely from one year to the next.

Table 4. Post-harvest Costs per Acre

Revenue

Revenue from both roots and seed can vary widely from year to year. As with many other crops, the price of ginseng is affected by supply and demand (see the OMAFRA website for information on the marketing and export of ginseng). The overall revenue from a garden is affected by root quality. Quality in ginseng involves not only shape but taste, texture and colour. Shape and taste are primarily properties imparted by the growing environment of the root. Texture and colour are affected by post-harvest treatment. Different markets in the Orient demand different shapes and sizes and value these parameters differently. Root quality can also be affected by root disease and nutritional and environmental stresses.

Most growers sell their root to designated buyers who deliver it directly to Asian markets. Some new growers market their root through experienced growers who offer it to buyers on their behalf.

In the revenue table below, the yield of seed has been set at 200 lbs/acre. This is seed harvested in the third year and stratified until the fourth year when it is sold. It has been assumed that no seed has been harvested in the second year. This is not because ginseng does not set seed on 2 year old plants – it is because it is a better production practice to remove flower heads(de-bud) from 2 year old plants. Seed prices in the past have ranged from $25/lb to $200/lb depending primarily on availability.

Root harvest has been set at 2,400 lbs/acre. This is a conservative average and 4,000 lbs/acre is possible under ideal conditions. Root disease can seriously affect yield and has been known to reduce yield to 100 lbs/acre. Table 5 provides estimated revenue per acre. Note that this results in a net loss per acre under average market prices before considering any costs of machinery or interest on borrowed money. As the cost of production per acre is decreased through efficiencies with a larger number of acres and less custom work over time, this loss can be reduced. Ginseng growers rarely make profits from their first few gardens. The potential profits after the first few years will depend on prices at the time of harvest, which cannot be forecast.

Table 5. Total Expenses and Anticipated Revenue

* The 15-year average price for ginseng according to Statistics Canada export values, after adjusted for inflation, was $26.65/lb from 2003 to 2017 with a low of $13.79/lb and high of $48.80/lb.

Specialized Machinery

Table 6 provides a list of specialized machinery and equipment that addresses the basic needs for ginseng production. The machinery with an ” * ” after the price can be replaced by custom work. Custom work replacing these items has been listed in the other sections of this document.

Table 6. Specialized Machinery Costs

Total cost of specialized machinery: $423,500

Dubois Ginseng has been growing ginseng since 1994. We grow wild simulated AMERICAN GINSENG in Gembrook Victoria Australia and are foundation members of the Australian Ginseng Growers Association (AGGA). We sell only Ginseng Root that is at least 6 years old and we also have 7 and 8 year old Ginseng Roots. Our farm is all forest and approximately 15 hectares that have suitable shade to grow the Ginseng plant. Currently we have low stocks and are replanting to build this back up. While restocking is in process we are supplementing our produce with high quality ginseng from Europe and Canada. All ginseng sold has been grown without chemicals and has been tested for purity and strength. We can offer you: Dried & Fresh Ginseng Root Ginseng Powder Ginseng Capsules Ginseng Ointment.
We have some imported Korean ginseng available for a short while and until stock run out are offering these at a discounted price. Products included Korean Ginseng Ground root Powder, Capsules and Red Ginseng (shown to be effective for male sexual dysfunction).

The Appalachian forests of southern West Virginia yield all manner of earthly delights: the blush of a rare orchid in the leaf litter, the earthy fragrance of a truffle. But as George Albright leads me up yet another rise and sweat collects on my brow, I fear we may be on a fool’s errand. We seek something in these woods that’s rarer and more valuable than any of the above: wild American ginseng root.

Because wild ginseng is so valuable—and because poachers have turned it into something of an endangered species—Albright has sworn me to secrecy about where we are, not that I have the vaguest notion anyway. The former mine engineer has walked these woods all his life, but I’m lost minutes after we crest the first ridge behind his house.

Across the valley at our backs, the sound of a coal-laden freight trainechoes in the morning air. The forest of poplar, beech and hickory is deep greenfrom weeks of heavy rains. Several plants in these woods resemble ginseng, so our task is not easy. Albright stops for a moment, leans over and pulls astringy green plant from the soft earth. He wipes the severed root against my wrist, and little scarlet drops spread across it. “That’s bloodroot,” he says. “When you find this growing, you know the soil’s ideal for ginseng.” As we walk on, Albright says that “sang,” as ginseng is known here, also likes the heavy shade we’re in.

Sang, or Panax quinquefolius, is the American version of Asian ginseng (P. ginseng), which the Chinese have usedto treat a wide variety of ills for several thousand years. In Chinese medicine, Asian ginseng is considered “hot” (a mild stimulant), while its American cousin is “cool” (a calming tonic). Both contain compounds known as ginsenosides, but in different proportions.

Over the past decade, the price of domesticated ginseng, which is easily cultivated, has plunged to about $15 apound while the price of the wild variety— West Virginia is one of the nation’sleading exporters—has soared, commanding up to $500 a dried pound. “A small bulbous root is what the Chinese look for, a shape that occurs onlyin the wild,” says Fred Hays, director of the West Virginia-based Center for Sustainable Resources, a nonprofit organization that helps farmers grow ginsengand other native plants. (A gnarly approximation of the human body, achieved only by wild varieties, gives ginseng more therapeutic properties, according to traditional Chinese medicine.) Some people also believe that wildroots contain higher concentrations of ginsenosides than farmed varieties.

As we walk through the woods, Albright points out more good ginseng habitat: deep-brown crumbly soil in which other indicator plants—spicebush, goldenseal and poplar—are growing. Then he kneels once more. “Here,” he whispers, pointing to a small, slender stem that branches into four smallerstems about six inches above the soil.

It’s a “four-prong,” a fine ginseng specimen. Like poison oak, it has clusters of leaves and is not quite a foothigh. The four prongs signal that this plant is at least four years old.

Albright takes the “sanging hoe” and scrapes the earth gently on either side of the delicate stem to keep the fragile root hairs intact. The six-inch root is oddly twisted and bent. It will soon embark on a journey of thousands of miles. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors may count its rings to make sure it is old enough before it ends up in a shop in Chungking, China, or San Francisco’s Chinatown. By then, it will command several hundred dollars.

Albright grins, not only because he’s found the root but also because heplanted its seed eight years ago. Wild sang does grow around here, but this particular plant represents his first efforts in the hottest sector of the markettoday: simulated wild ginseng. Albright says he must harvest this patch soon. Poachers stalk his forest, and, he confides, “somebody already knows that it’s here.” Some growers are going hightech, using handheld GPS receivers tomark ginseng patches, thus avoiding using the flags or paint marks on trees that might attract poachers’ interest.

Raw ginseng tastes like a bitter radish, and I can do without it. I’ve never felt the herb’s restorative powers, either, whether it was raw, pickled, dried or powdered. Others certainly have—or think they have. In 1713, Pierre Jartoux, a Jesuit missionary in China,wrote in a letter that after eating ginseng, “I found my Pulse much fuller and quicker, I had an Appetite, and found myself much more vigorous.” Four days later, so tired he could hardly stay in his saddle, he chewed somemore. After an hour, he reported feeling like a new man. In his letter, almost as an afterthought, he noted that ginseng might well grow in similar environments, such as Canada.

By chance, Jartoux’s letter came to the attention of a Jesuit brother visiting Quebec. An amateur medical botanist, Joseph Francois Lafitau soon after discovereda Canadian specimen that matched the plant in Jartoux’s drawing. A short time later, Canadian suppliers began shipping tons of it to China, resulting in overharvesting within a few decades. The Chinese began looking to the South for an alternate source.

They found it in southern Appalachia, where the Cherokee were already using ginseng medicinally. The Indians believed that it was sentient, able to make itself invisible to peopleunworthy of it. They so valued ginseng that they dug up only one in four plants and replenished each harvested root with a bead, a prayer and a new seed. When the Canadian supply faltered, the Cherokee stepped up production. By the 1750s, ports in Virginiaand South Carolina were doing a brisk trade in the Cherokee’s Appalachian ginseng. Shipped to China, it eclipsed Canadian varieties.

George Washington, conducting asurvey of his lands in the autumn of 1784, made note of the trend. “I met numbers of Persons & Pack horses going in with Ginsang; & for salt & other articles at the Markets below,” he wrote. The United States had no trade agreements with the Far East or evenconsulates there, so ginseng traders went through British middlemen.

Nonetheless, two American investorsfinanced a trading ship to sail around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, a huge gamble at the time for investor and sailor alike. The investors hired avessel out of Boston, renamed it Empress of China and outfitted it to the tune of $120,000, roughly ten times the cost of a cargo ship bound for Europe.

As the copper-bottomed ship lay anchored in New York Harbor, workers packed its hold with 242 casks of ginseng (nearly 30 tons), collected by the ship’s surgeon in the mountainous “back park of Virginia.” In addition, every officer brought along his own privatesupply of ginseng to sell in Canton (now Guangzhou).

Nearing the most dangerous part ofthe voyage in the rocky Sunda Strait ofIndonesia, between Java and Sumatra, the Empress had the good luck to meetup with two China-trading Frenchships, which showed the Yankee greenhornsthe way. On August 24, 1784, theAmerican ship’s captain noted in his log that he “had the honour of hoisting thefirst Continentol Flagg Ever Seen ormaid Euse of in those Seas.”

Cantonese customs officials were at first confused by the newcomers, who did not come bearing gifts. But the officials nevertheless welcomed the “Flowery Flag Devils” (the stars on their flagwere mistaken for flowers), most likely because the Empress contained so many casks of the fabled root. When the ship returned to the port of New York City that spring, she repaid her investors with a handsome 25 percent profit.

Even Daniel Boone got into the ginseng trade. In the winter of 1787 he senta bargeload of dried ginseng to marketin Philadelphia from his trading post inwhat is now central West Virginia. Onthe way, the vessel was swamped, and Boone’s ginseng ruined. Unfazed, hesent sangers back into the forest to collecta second bargeload.

In 1859, Minnesota’s Big Woods witnesseda ginseng rush. High prices forthe root helped many Minnesotans weather tough times brought on by aneconomic downturn two years earlier. In Mankato that year, a local paper reportedthat a ginseng dance was planned to make diggers “oblivious tomusquito bite or toil of delving for the bulbous root, whilst ‘tripping the lightfantastic toe’ to the music of the GinsengPolka.” Overharvesting soon putan end to Minnesota’s ginseng boomlet. About the same time, forward-thinking farmers in neighboring Wisconsin experimented with cultivating the root. Today, the state of Wisconsin ships half a million pounds of ginseng annually, making it the leading exporter ofcultivated ginseng in the United States.

Americans themselves developed astrong appetite for ginseng only in thepast decade. In 2001, Americans spentabout $170 million on ginseng supplementsand products. Its growth in popularity has come despite the lack of scientificproof that ginseng has medicinalpowers. Last year at Oregon State University, in a study of ginseng’s purported psychological benefits, 83 students participated in a 60-day, placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized clinical trial. The researchers found that the supplements improved the students’ energy no better than sugar pills.

Other studies, however, suggest that ginseng may have some health benefits.In 2001, the National Institutes ofHealth (NIH), citing a Vancouver study, said that “ginseng does appear to haveantioxidant properties.” Antioxidants are found in a variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables, and some lab studies suggest they may help prevent certain types of cancer. (Clinical studies have been inconclusive.) The NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine notes that ginseng “may help the body’s disease-fighting and glandular systems.”

Two years ago, clinical trials conductedin Toronto, Canada, suggestedthat American ginseng can lower bloodsugar in Type II diabetics. VladimirVuksan, the study’s lead investigator, says, “We found that what matters is not only the quantity of ginsenosides, but the ratio of different ginsenosidesthat determines the effect on blood glucose.” Vuksan, a medical doctor at theUniversity of Toronto’s St. Michael’sHospital, cautions that these results areonly preliminary.

James Gordon, a professor of psychiatryand family medicine at GeorgetownUniversity and one of ginseng’s most respected proponents, says ginseng has reduced fatigue and other side effects in his patients going through chemotherapy. “It offers them relief without the agitation caused by other drugs,” he says. He also believes that the root can reduce stress and boost the immune system.

“I tell cancer patients they should consult a qualified herbalist,” says Gordon. But he warns against over-the-counter ginseng supplements. One recent study by ConsumerLab.com, an independent organization that tests herbal and nutritional supplements, found that only 9 of 22 international ginseng supplements met its criteria forquality and purity; some even contained dangerous amounts of lead and other heavy metals. “The quality and reliability of ginseng supplements is a major problem,” says Gordon, who chairs the White House Commissionon Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. “We’re interested in making sure that what’s in the bottle is on the bottle.”

In the United States, ginseng is second only to gingko as the most popular herbal supplement. It has made its way into a number of products, from teas and chewing gum to tinctures, snackchips and “smart” drinks, which are nutrient-enriched drinks marketed tocounter stress. Health claims for ginseng also vary widely—and arouse suspicion from regulators and consumer advocators. Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, one of the largest producers of health care products in the world, claims that its Centrum Herbals Ginseng supplement “helps maintain stamina and energy levels and may enhance physical performance.” Marketers of Ginsana, the most popular ginseng supplement, boast that the product will “enhance physical endurance” and “improves oxygen utilization.” Other claims include increasing sexual potency, reducing problems associated with menopause and even improving memory.

“What is most striking about ginseng is the amount of misinformation in ads and on packages,” says nutritionist David Schardt at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “Panax ginseng, the most commonly available type, does not boost energy levels, mood, ormemory and doesn’t reduce stress.”

After reviewing studies over the past two decades, the CSPI asked the Food and Drug Administration three years ago to halt phony claims. During the past two years, the FDA has sent letters to about half a dozen manufacturers, ordering them to limit product health claims due to the lack of evidence to support them.

Ginseng’s effectiveness, or its lack thereof, will likely not be definitivelydetermined anytime soon, partly because the traditional underwriters of large-scale clinical studies—pharmaceutical companies—have little incentive to test an ancient nostrum that is already widely sold and largely unpatentable. Inthe meantime, ginseng’s most therapeutic effect may be in breathing economic life into poor, rural communities in the southern Appalachian mountains.

“Ginseng is an economic answer for West Virginia, where things like coal mining are on the way out,” says Fred Hays. “A small landowner can sell his lumber and wait a generation for it to grow back,” he says, or plant Christmas trees. “But in the same little square that you can grow one little Christmas treein eight years, you could grow $3,000 to $4,000 worth of ginseng.”

Which would make ginseng, cure-all or not, worth rooting for.

Arkansas ginseng crop also a tariff target

China has slapped a 15 percent tariff on American ginseng, causing some in the hills and hollers of Arkansas to predict a price drop.

Trevor Mills, owner of Mills Ginseng Roots and Herbs in Harrison, said he figures the price for dry root will go down $50 to $100 a pound from its high of about $450 last season.

“Because there is such a demand for wild American ginseng, I think it’s going to hurt the prices, but I don’t think it’s going to substantially hurt them,” Mills said. “A good year in Arkansas sees prices reach $600 a dry pound. An exceptional year is $1,000 a dry pound.”

The wild ginseng harvest season in Arkansas is from Sept. 1 to Dec. 1. The buying and selling season is from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31.

Ginseng has been claimed to cure everything from impotence to fatigue.

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, is native to deciduous forests of the United States from the Midwest to Maine, primarily in the Appalachian and Ozark regions, and in eastern Canada, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s harvested in 19 states.

Besides the Ozark Mountains, wild American ginseng grows in the Ouachita Mountains and in some spots along Crowley’s Ridge in east Arkansas.

But more wild ginseng is being harvested in Appalachia, while Wisconsin does a booming business in cultivated ginseng.

Arkansas accounted for less that 1 percent of the 42,241-pound harvest of wild American ginseng in 2016, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wild ginseng likes a dense canopy, rich soil and the north face of hills. The roots take five years to grow to maturity.

Mills said Arkansas ginseng is the “bottom of the bucket.” The rocky soil of the Ozarks produces roots that look more like pencils than the bulbous protuberances preferred by the Chinese, he said.

But still, they buy it.

In 2016, 376 pounds of wild American ginseng was harvested in Arkansas, and about 95 percent of it went to China, said Paul Shell, plant inspection and quarantine manager for the state Plant Board. Newton County harvested the most, with 77 pounds.

Shell said the Chinese prize wild American ginseng above all others.

“There’s really no other market,” he said. “China has wiped out all their ginseng and they like ours. They want the wild ginseng, not cultivated ginseng. They want twisted, gnarly roots that have struggled. They think that has more of the components that they are looking for.”

Shell said the amount of dried ginseng root harvested in Arkansas generally ranges between 350 and 1,500 pounds per year, depending on a variety of factors, including weather, the number of diggers and the market for ginseng.

“During dry years, ginseng will just go dormant and not be available during harvest season,” he said. “Also, during times of economic stress, there may be more people unemployed and out collecting roots.”

Based on Fish and Wildlife Service data, Arkansas’ wild ginseng harvest fluctuates wildly — from 238 pounds in 2012 to 1,407 pounds in 2013 to 1,668 pounds in 2014 to 747 pounds in 2015.

Meanwhile, Kentucky set the record over the past five years, harvesting 21,242 pounds of wild American ginseng in 2014. Kentucky accounted for about 20 percent of the U.S. harvest in 2016, the latest year for which numbers are available.

In Arkansas, harvesting ginseng is allowed only on private land with permission of the landowner.

Any wild ginseng plants that are harvested must be at least 5 years old, have three or more prongs (leaf stems) and have red berries that are replanted on site, Shell said.

“The regulations are in place so that the plant is not overharvested, and therefore sustainable,” he said.

On Monday, China implemented tariffs on $3 billion of U.S. goods, including a 25 percent tariff on pork and a 15 percent tariff on fruit, nuts and ginseng. The Chinese tariffs were in retaliation for tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, China proposed tariffs on another $50 billion of American goods, including a 25 percent tariff on soybeans, Arkansas’ largest agricultural export, valued at more than $1.5 billion a year.

While Arkansas’ ginseng market may be minuscule by comparison, it had its heyday.

David Davenport, a mechanic at Top of the Mountain Grocery in Deer in Newton County, said ginseng paid for his first apartment and his first vehicle back in the 1980s, when digging for the roots was permitted on U.S. Forest Service land.

“I used to dig it all the time,” Davenport said. “They banned us from digging it on government land. That’s where your biggest roots were. I’ve dug them eight or nine inches long, three-fourths to one inch around, five prong, six prongs.”

Tracy Farley, a spokesman for the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests, said digging for ginseng on U.S. Forest Service land in Arkansas was made illegal in the late 1990s. At first, a five-year moratorium was implemented, but it didn’t deter the digging, so the moratorium was never lifted, Farley said.

Arkansas Act 774 of 1985 established rules for the harvesting of ginseng.

Wild ginseng is also protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

“It is not endangered, but could be threatened if overharvested,” Shell said.

Robert Still, chief ranger at the Buffalo National River, said the harvesting of ginseng was banned there before it was on Forest Service land.

“National Park Service lands are in some ways the most heavily regulated lands in the United States because of our mission,” he said.

Still, he said he encounters someone digging for ginseng on Buffalo National River land three or four times a year. He said they are cited for removing plants from the park under the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 36, Section 2.1.

Shell said ginseng poaching is a serious problem. He said cable television shows like Appalachian Outlaws on the History Channel have made matters worse.

“The shows have glorified stealing and overharvesting of the plant from public and private lands with the false premise that the digger can get rich quick,” Shell said. “The prices for roots was greatly exaggerated on the show.”

But many people who have ginseng growing on their land have helped sustain the wild population, Shell said.

“They have a culture that is passed down through generations,” he said.

Shell said the population of wild ginseng in Arkansas appears to be “sustainable, or slightly lessening.”

He said some people have been planting ginseng seeds on their property and raising “wild simulated” ginseng.

“Basically, the seeds are planted in a location favorable to growing ginseng and left alone just like wild ginseng,” he said.

“The roots are harvested after at least five years and, depending on the quality, they should get the same price as wild ginseng.”

But the practice has caused some concern among wildlife service experts because the seeds may be genetically different from native ginseng, said Shell, noting that 99 percent of the ginseng certified in Arkansas is wild or simulated.

He said harvesting ginseng has been an Arkansas tradition for more than 100 years. But Davenport said he believes the tradition may be dying because of all the regulations.

He thinks his generation may be the last of the Arkansas ginseng diggers.

SundayMonday on 04/08/2018

Record ginseng root found in western Maryland

LAVALE, Md. — Mark MacDonald and his dad have dug a lot of ginseng in their time, but nothing could have prepared them for the find they made one Sunday afternoon earlier this month while exploring a remote patch of woods in western Allegany County, Maryland.

“I knew there was ginseng in there before I saw that plant. I’d been in there before and never seen that plant,” said Mark. “I never would have seen that pant if it hadn’t been for the berry pod. It was pretty well camouflaged.”

Mark estimated the stalk on the plant was the size of his little finger, so they knew immediately it was a root worth digging, but when they started to move the earth was when they discovered a once in a lifetime find.

“It just kept going. It took an hour and a half to actually get it out,” he said. “It took forever just to get to the body part of the root. We were just in complete amazement.”

The lower end of the root had entangled itself under some large rocks. MacDonald and his dad had to use every tool they brought, which admittedly wasn’t much, but rarely is one prepared to find a ginseng root the size of the football. The diameter of the dig was four to five feet and they had to be meticulous as they got toward the bottom of the root. Damage to the root could have rapidly reduced its value.

“We were very fortunate. We managed to get it out with almost no damage to the root,” he said. “We were real lucky there.”

The root was certified by the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the official weight was 1.1 pounds. It’s the biggest ginseng root ever found in the state of Maryland and to everybody’s knowledge it’s the biggest one ever found in the United States or the world. It’s estimated the root could have been 60 years old and some have speculated it could be up to 100 years old.

“We can’t find any record of wild ginseng any bigger,” said MacDonald. “So we’ve made application to the Guinness Book of World Records.”

To offer some perspective, McDonald said until the day he found the big one, their biggest root this season weighed one ounce.

MacDonald is not only a digger, but also a licensed ginseng dealer. The dealer license enables him to sell roots out of state, it’s the first season he’s had the license and it was a stroke of luck because the hefty root could fetch an exceptionally hefty price tag.

“I really can’t speculate on it,” said MacDonald. “It could be worth $10,000 it could be worth half a million. I don’t know, I really don’t know.”

MacDonald said he’s had some offers to buy the root already, but he’s taking his time and says he will part for it when the price and the deal are right. Most ginseng dug in the Appalachian region is used for medicinal purposes in the Far East. However, MacDonald said the price for now is fairly low because of the struggling economy in China.

For now, McDonald has the root well packaged in moss and in a secure storage spot to preserve its integrity until he determines what to do with it. It’s unlikely MacDonald’s famous root will wind up as a cure for what ails somebody. Because of the notoriety and the rarity of his find it will likely be a highly sought collectors item eventually preserved for many years to come.

Chris Lawrence

Chris Lawrence is the anchor of the MetroNews Morning News, heard weekday mornings from 6-9 a.m. on MetroNews stations across West Virginia. Chris is also the host of the award-winning West Virginia Outdoors, heard Saturday mornings at 7 a.m. across the network. Chris has won numerous awards for coverage of hunting and fishing.

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