When you hear the word “ginseng” you might think about a wild plant that grows in the hills of Appalachia … and you would be right, that’s the good stuff. But there’s another way ginseng grows that’s a little less wild. Basically, we’re talking about ginseng farming in the forest, which can yield roots as valuable as the wild stuff. So is it a viable business for West Virginians? Well, there are some rules and regulations that might be hindering growth, but experts say there are ways to promote the industry.
Ginseng Regulation Reform: Enforcement Woes
Here in Appalachia, we have some major enforcement issues which it comes to ginseng. Not only is it a daunting challenge to police all the remote forest hillsides where seng grows, it’s also hard to ensure wild harvesters, growers, and dealers are abiding by the rules.
“Right now states are making regulations about plants needing to have three leaves, plants needing to have ripe fruits," said Ginseng researcher and Eberly Professor of Biology at West Virginia University, Jim McGraw. "Once you make unenforceable rules people know that, they're smart. You need to implement regulations that are going to be enforceable."
Ginseng Regulation Reform: Wild v. Forest-Grown
Another conundrum is that the same rules that exist for wild ginseng plants, are often applied to forest-grown plants. McGraw explains that these regulations were conceived with the best intentions - to try to ensure wild plants would be able to mature and reproduce. But even for wild populations, McGraw says, the current regulations sometimes miss the mark.
Take for example one of the main ginseng rules: plants must be at least five years old to harvest...
“We know from our long-term monitoring of wild populations,” McGraw said, “that over 90 percent of the plants at age 5-years have never produced a single seed. And so that 5-year age limit does nothing to assure us that that plant has replaced itself.”
So that means, five years may not be long enough to help preserve wild populations. But for farmed ginseng, experts say, an age limit may not be necessary at all.
That’s why farmer’s pushed back a decade ago when federal regulators tried to say ginseng should be ten years old instead of five to legally harvest and export.
Robin Black at the Division of Forestry remembers how forest-growers threw down. 10 years was too long to wait for a return on investment, farmers said. And what if, in that time, ginseng was deemed illegal to export altogether (which is exactly what happened in Canada)?
West Virginia Ginseng Growing Program
“We started the ginseng grower program in 2006 out the request from a group called the Ginseng Growers Association,” Black remembers. “Ginseng growers came to us wanting to be able to grow ginseng on their own property so that if and when, if it ever happens that the ginseng season would ever be closed in the state of West Virginia those people that are legally growing it and registered with the state would be able to export ginseng out of the country and out of the state.”
To date, there are about 70 registered growers. But they struggle because of market insecurities, regulations, poaching and enforcement woes. Jim McGraw says research today is shedding new light on how to effectively build up the ginseng industry - especially regarding this forest-grown farming method.
McGraw believes reworking regulations while thinking about forest-grown crops, could allow residents to take advantage of this valuable commodity, AND conserve wild populations.
A Native Seed Bank
And there are other steps we could take. McGraw says West Virginia could benefit enormously, for example, with a native ginseng seed bank.
“Right now, forest-plot-growers are mainly having to buy seed from Wisconsin and other cultivated sources, but we’d really rather have them using local sources.” McGraw said.
He pointed to stocking programs for fish as an example of effective programs that bolster natural resources. Current regulations prohibit collecting wild seed as a way to protect those populations, but McGraw thinks a better way to protect what exists might be to invest in it. McGraw says creating a permit program would be a simple way to make that possible.
“By whatever mechanism, whether it’s private enterprise or a government entity, we need local seed sources,” McGraw said. “I actually think there’s an opportunity for branding this whole thing, too. We could imagine a ‘West Virginia Ginseng’ that gets branded just like Vermont Maple Syrup gets branded and sold in a way that really economically benefits our residents of our state.”
ACTION IS NECESSARY
A seed bank, and permit program are just a couple of McGraw’s suggestions. But other ideas to bolster the industry exist. A group out of Pennsylvania, for example just launched a certification program that establishes growing standards for the plant from seed to harvest.
But, while good ideas and some movement is encouraging for industry stakeholders, the stakes remain high. McGraw and many experts agree that in West Virginia with habitat loss, deer browsing, and increases in illegal harvesting techniques, the commodity could just as easily be altogether lost... if we do nothing to change current trends.