Last updated 12:15PM ET
June 30, 2016
Local Features
Local Features
Kentucky's Wild Ginseng Threatened by Black Market
Roger in his woods.
(wkms) - Chinese culture popularized ginseng as a natural remedy thousands of years ago. It's a pale, gnarly root that grows wild in hilly, wooded areas. The market for wild ginseng has boomed in recent years, rising to around $725 a pound last year. Asian countries like China, Japan, and Korea, are the biggest consumers, and they prefer the wild root for its knobby surface. Kentucky is the nation's number one producer of wild ginseng, but the future of the plant is threatened. Angela Hatton reports , as the price goes up, so do the number of poachers illegally digging the root.

Roger lives in rural western Kentucky on a 225-acre farm, mostly woodland. He's a retired teacher who describes himself as a wildlife and nature freak. Walking onto his farm is like walking onto a nature preserve.
Roger first learned of ginseng when a neighbor asked if he could dig it up on his farm.

"And I said, I don't even know what you're talking about, and he said, I'll take you out and show you a plant."

The trip sparked an interest. Roger read up on the subject. He learned about the plant's value. He found more patches. But he didn't dig it. Roger felt a need to protect the wild ginseng. His land is prime for ginseng, and poachers are a problem for him, which is why I'm not telling you his last name, or exactly where his farm is.

Roger ducks low branches in a dense section of wood. Ferns and other low-growing plants cover the ground.

"Now see, there's a patch right there. . . ."

Roger points out a circle of small plants, each made up of just a few stems, or prongs, as they're called. Prongs help determine age and size of the root.

"It comes up, you see there's five leaves, so the first year it would have three, then it will have two, then it will come up with a second stem, then it will have three leaves. So this here is basically a one, two, three year old plant."

In the fall, Roger treks to his known ginseng patches. He picks the bright red seeds, and scatters them in another area of the forest.

"I just try to duplicate the area where I find it, and then I just try to start another bed. And that's probably why I've got so many beds."

Ginseng is slow growing; the seed takes eighteen months to germinate, and once it's sprouted, the plant may go dormant for years at a time before growing back.
Johnny Childress has been digging and dealing ginseng for nearly fifty years.
"Actually it's more of a hobby, really. You don't make a lot of money out of it when you start digging it."

Ginseng may go for between $400 and $1,000 a pound, but Childress says it takes hundreds of dried roots to make weight. Childress says a pound and a half is typically his whole take for a year.

"It's a relaxation sport I'd call it a sport where you can get out in the woods. You're by yourself, and you enjoy life and nature, and uh, just take your time about it, and get out from the rustle and bustle of everyday life, see."

Childress is a licensed dealer and he follows state law. Don't dig plants with fewer than three prongs. Don't dig before August 15. And leave some seeds behind. He says poachers don't respect the plants.

"There's been so much people that's went in and started digging it and not replanting the seed back, and it's going to continue on, that's the way the economy is right now. People needin' money and this is a quick way of gettin' money."

In 2008, Kentuckians legally harvested close to 12,000 pounds of wild ginseng. In 2009, they harvested more than 19,000 pounds. Anna Lucio is a marketing specialist with the state department of agriculture, and heads Kentucky's ginseng program. Lucio says wild ginseng is monitored under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, under Appendix 2.

"Ginseng is not considered endangered or threatened, cause otherwise it would be listed under Appendix 1. Appendix 2 are those species that they feel that the trade it could be detrimental to that species."

Kentucky is one of 19 states that the federal government allows to export ginseng. Lucio says poachers threaten that.

"If the US Federal Government decides that our harvest isn't sustainable, and that the root, the wild root, is being harmed, they could potentially shut that program down. And we don't want that."

Roger was out showing his brother-in-law his ginseng beds, when he caught someone poaching his plants.

"I could see signs. Matter of fact, we found a knife. And the knife still had fresh dirt on it."

Roger and his brother-in-law found an empty vehicle hidden in a nearby creek bed. They waited until the poachers returned.

"And they had fatigue pants on and you could see their pants were bulged, y'know, with roots. But one of them had a gun and I didn't."

Roger told the men to get off his property and took down their license plate number. But when he went to the county attorney to seek prosecution, he hit a wall.
"The county attorney didn't think he had a case to prosecute because I didn't actually see the ginseng itself. About the only thing I could get him on was trespassing."

Roger says it's getting even harder to catch poachers in the act. He says they use cell-phones to keep watch, and get out before land-owners see them. And if they aren't seen, they can't be stopped.

Ginseng dealer Johnny Childress says there's no way to enforce ginseng laws. Even if a poacher is caught, and law enforcement confiscates the ginseng, a court still has to prove that person knowingly violated the law, and that could be difficult. When asked what the solution is, Childress struggles to respond.

"It's a hard there may not be an answer to this. I'm-I've been thinking. This is one thing there might not be no answer to."

Anna Lucio says the state is trying to educate people through classes and forums, but she says it's slow-going.

Poachers aren't the only threat to ginseng. Experts say a growing population of wild turkeys is eating ginseng seeds before they germinate. Deer too, like the taste, and will devour the leaves and seeds. Childress predicts wild ginseng will become a protected species within his lifetime.

"I'm gonna see it, and there's gonna be a lot of us that see it."

Childress says the demand in the Asian market is higher than ever, as the harvest season approaches. Organizers of the World Ginseng Expo held from September to October in South Korea expect more than two million people will attend. Childress says the earthquake earlier this year in Japan hurt ginseng production, which means markets in China and Korea will look to American ginseng to fill the gap, whether it's dug legally or not.
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