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Surge In Ohio Ginseng Harvesting

Sam Hendren / WOSU
Rural Action's Tanner Filyaw holds a decades-old ginseng root.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is studying ways to protect Ginseng, a plant highly prized in Asia for claimed medicinal qualities. Recent media attention has caused a surge in ginseng harvesting.

Rick Campbell and Kelly Caldwell sit at their dining table in their rural Morgan County home looking out at the snow covered hills. Scattered beneath the snowy mantle is wild ginseng. Campbell has spent most of his adult life dealing in the exotic commodity. He says he first dug ginseng, which he calls ‘sang, when he was 18 years old. How did he know what he’d found?

“Just hillbillies! That’s what it amounted to. Well, we dug some and we knowed it was ‘sang,” Campbell says.

Campbell said he and a friend were hunting when they made the discovery.

“We was just coon hunting and found it one night and back then there wasn’t no limits on it. We’d dig it anytime and whatever and we just kept digging it and digging it and back then it was only $18 a pound if you got that out of it and it’s just changed a lot since then,” Campbell says.

Prices have skyrocketed since those days. Two years ago a pound of ginseng root sold for about a thousand dollars. Last year the price declined but interest in collecting the root is at an all-time high; spurred in part by reality TV shows like the History Channel’s Appalachian Outlaws.

“20 pounds of ‘sang can fetch a man almost $20,000. But in these parts, there are only so many places to move that much root.”

“The show profiles the growers, the diggers and the middlemen involved in the ancient herb…”

Two years ago in Ohio, 4,600 people reported they harvested ginseng. Last year the number jumped to nearly 9,000. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources regulates ginseng harvesting. It reports statistics to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ginseng is a protected plant and has strict guidelines for harvesting.

The lure of making a quick buck is enticing says Tanner Filyaw, a ginseng expert with the agency known as Rural Action.

“Economy’s hard right now. People are always looking for other ways to, you know, what we call an income patch over. Trying to put together pieces of income wherever you can find them,” Filyaw says.

But Filyaw says harvesting ginseng is not a get-rich-quick proposition.

“It’s a long term crop, it has a long harvest horizon – generally seven to ten years from seed. The older the plant gets the more valuable it tends to get, so people aren’t really in it for quick cash, there in it more for a long term strategy,” Filyaw says.

Filyaw says 90 percent of ginseng is exported to Asia.

“Ginseng’s been used in Asia medicinally for thousands of years. Generally it’s considered a cure-all, a panacea. You generally hear a lot about it being an aphrodisiac or a stimulant to boost your energy,” Filyaw says.

Ginseng overharvesting, Filyaw says, is a threat.

In Ohio, Ginseng can only be harvested on private property with the landowner’s permission. Digging on public land is prohibited.

Back in Morgan County Rick Campbell and Kelly Caldwell await the next harvest season. Ginseng can only legally be dug from September 1st through December 31st. Area diggers bring their roots to Campbell who’s one of about 50 Ohio ginseng dealers. During the harvest period the pair puts in long hours.

“Some days you get awful tired. Some days it just wears me out because we go pretty hard seven days a week. We’re open probably four months, without taking a day off,” Campbell says.

“There’s so many different people who come out here, you wouldn’t believe it. We’ve had lines here; it’s just unbelievable. It’s crazy, weird, I mean no one would believe it unless they saw it,” says Caldwell.

State laws regulating harvest have been in place since the 1970s. The Department of Natural Resources occasionally revisits regulations to make sure that they’re still effective. That review process is currently underway.