The War on Coal, pressures from natural gas development, crumbling infrastructure, whatever you want to blame it on - jobs are becoming more and more scarce these days in communities dependent on coal. As a result, some folks are reaching back to their roots, literally and figuratively, to make ends meet - just as they have for generations. And there’s some big money there. Especially harvesting ginseng. But can plants like ginseng play a significant role in our economy today? Enquiring minds would like to know…
“The top five counties [producing ginseng] last year were Mingo, Wyoming, Logan, Randolph, and Mcdowell,” said West Virginia Division of Forestry’s Ginseng Coordinator, Robin Black.
For over 25 years, her role has been to monitor the industry. She says last year over 7,000 pounds were harvested. At last year’s average price of $750/pound, $5.5 million came into the state.
“The miners use that ginseng to pay bills, give them a Christmas, and that kind of stuff,” Black said. “So in southern coalfields, that’s big extra money that they can get during a small time period.”
But can ginseng play a more significant role in our economy? To answer that question, we have to understand some of the driving economic factors - the most important being that the most valuable ginseng roots are those that grow in Appalachian forests.
There are BASICALLY, three types of root:
Wild seng is the good stuff. It’s the root that Asian markets will pay TOP dollar for (just as it has for the past 300 years).
“Wild plants tend to grow really slowly, their whole life history is very slow so it takes a long time for them to even get big enough to produce a single seed,” said ginseng researcher, ecologist at the Eberly School of Biology at WVU, Jim McGraw.
“In the opposite extreme,” McGraw explained, “with extreme cultivation like happens in Wisconsin and Ontario, plants grow very quickly to adult size two to three years you can have plants producing seeds and be quite large...
Cultivated root is sold for a fraction of the price of wild ginseng. You can really tell when seng has been cultivated. The root is all swollen, fat, smooth, and white compared to wild seng which is scrawny, tortured, and dark.
Some mountain-folk have found that planting ginseng seeds in a more natural or wild setting produces a root that will fetch a more competitive price.
“These forest grown plants where people are actually planting seeds in the woods,” McGraw said, “they tend to be a little more like wild, but it depends what they do to them…”
So depending on the growing techniques, this forest-grown ginseng crop could be a game-changer, according to industry experts, academics, and others involved with ginseng.
Larry Harding is one example of someone who has made a comfortable career forest-growing.
“There’s not a person on this earth that could say that that’s not wild ginseng,” Harding said holding up a root he grew, “But that’s not wild ginseng. We planted that ginseng here on the farm.”
Harding’s father started his ginseng farm fifty years ago, just outside of Friendsville, Maryland. That’s just over the West Virginia border. The laws are a little different in Maryland, but Harding says each year he harvests 500 - 2,000 pounds of dry ginseng from over 80 acres of steep, forested land. It’s enough to provide Harding’s main source of income. And the price he can get for his forest-grown root compared to wild root?
“The difference in price when you’re talking about root like this? Little to none,” Harding said standing over a pile of roots.
Harding markets his product as having “wild characteristics, taste, color, and texture.” He says it’s the quality of this forest-grown sang that fetches funds comparable to that of wild sang.