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A new reality TV show that features ginseng hunting premiered this week. Smoky Mountain Gold pits four teams against each other to see who can collect the most wild-ginseng. It comes in the wake of another reality show that aired in January this year, Appalachian Outlaws. Dried ginseng root sells for 400-900 dollars a pound, and these reality shows are generating a lot of new interest in the plant. That might be a good thing for the ginseng industry… or it might not be.
Larry Harding is a ginseng farmer in Maryland. He cultivates the plant across 300 forest land acres; he sells seed, root, and even ginseng wine. He’s been in the ginseng business for decades. He says he gets hit by poachers every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and losses. Just a few weeks ago while he was patrolling his fields in the middle of the night he spotted a few head lamps in his crop…
“I called the law,” Harding said. Catching a poacher red-handed, with a law enforcement officer, is one of the only ways to be able to successfully prosecute a poacher. That’s exactly what Harding did. He aided officers in the arrest and learned in the process that the men traveled some 400 miles from Kentucky to steal his ginseng.
It might sound like a scene from a reality show, but this is real life. Harding says everyone he knows in the industry is seeing more interest and more theft this year since ginseng has been in the TV spotlight.
“Since Appalachian Outlaws, I’ve talked to several different people who’ve been hit,” Harding said. “I’ve been hit three times this year.”
This year: West Virginia’s Division of Forestry reports a 300 percent increase in calls from people who want to know where to dig for ginseng and when; the Monongahela National Forest has issued twice the number of permits to dig; and the state’s Department of Natural Resources—which is in charge of enforcing the state’s ginseng regulations—reports increases in criminal activity.
The Slippery Slope to Extinction
“I know there’s no way we can continue down this path and still have something years down the road for my grandchildren,” said Lieutenant Woodrow Brogan, a law enforcement officer with the state DNR.
He’s been involved in a separate, year-long investigation that recently lead to a $180,000 ginseng bust and the arrest of 11 people in just one region of southern West Virginia. They were charged with illegally harvesting wild ginseng, or illegally buying and selling it.
Lt. Brogan has been with the DNR for 20 years. He also takes part in the nearly 300-year-old Appalachian tradition of harvesting wild ginseng.
“My father taught me that you don’t dig the smaller plants,” Brogan said. “You always leave some crops for next year. That was the tradition that we had; and most ginsengers I knew growing up, they had the same type of mentality, of conserving the resource. What we’re getting into now-a-days, is there’s folks going out and the only thing that they’re seeing is dollar bills.”
Boom or Bust?
The main markets for ginseng are in Asia. It’s an extremely popular medicinal herb there, and has been for over 2,000 years. Asian demand is increasing with booming populations and a growing middle class. That’s driving prices along with illegal harvesting in this country. Lt. Brogan thinks West Virginia has reached a crisis point where action is needed.
Current regulations vary from state to state, but in West Virginia: you can only pick wild ginseng for three months in the fall, only plants that are older than 5 years, only in certain locations with permits or permission from landowners, and you must have root certified with a dealer licensed by the state These laws are designed to protect and preserve wild populations. But problems persist.
Program director of plant science at Shavers Creek Environmental Center at Penn State University, Eric Burkhart, thinks if the industry doesn’t get a handle on illegal activity, wild harvesting in the U.S. could soon go the way of Canada where it’s completely prohibited. He worries that would have unintended consequences.
“The concern there,” Burkhart said, “is that it would likely only drive out the good people who are involved in this industry—that is, the people who do have been following the rules, the people who do care about the plant, the people who do every late summer and fall and look for the berries and seeds and replant them.”
But all the new enthusiasm for ginseng could have a silver lining. Researchers and enthusiasts are excited more people are growing the native plant. They say a healthy, properly regulated ginseng industry could bring all kind of benefits to Appalachia, from economic diversity, to ecosystem protection, to preservation of the region’s unique natural and cultural history.