Deep in the mountains of Western North Carolina, there’s a plant that’s been prized for hundreds of years. Ginseng is a slow-growing perennial with valuable roots that can be exported to Asia where it’s sought after for its medicinal properties. Ginseng has provided Southern Appalachian families with a boost in income during lean times, and each fall men and women take to the forests to dig up what is sometimes known as “green gold.”
Jim Hamilton, Watauga County Extension Director, is part of a new effort to teach people how to cultivate ginseng, and is working with ASAP to explore local market potential for the plant. A recent study, funded by the North Carolina Specialty Crop Block Grant, researched ways to connect local ginseng growers with Korean and Chinese markets in Western North Carolina, local health food stores, and craft beverage companies in the region.
The goal is to teach potential ginseng growers, both hobbyists and commercial farmers, how to cultivate the plant and to connect them with local markets rather than selling exclusively to Asia.
Exported ginseng roots can fetch up to $1,300 a pound, but whether you dig for ginseng in the forest or cultivate it yourself, Hamilton says it’s not exactly a “get rich quick scheme.” He adds that “ginseng is a very particular, persnickety crop.”
Ginseng won’t grow in most areas of the United States and takes between 7 – 10 years to grow roots that can be exported. Although Western North Carolina has an ideal climate for growing ginseng, with its shady forests and cold winter nights that help germination, growers face other obstacles.
“It’s a long-term crop and there are disease risks, there are animal risks, and then there’s the theft risk,” Hamilton says. “That’s probably the biggest risk that a lot of these producers face. They call it poaching, but it’s outright theft.”
Over the past 10 years, there has been a rise in ginseng poachers digging up plants on private property and public land. A family may have been growing ginseng on their own forest for decades only to find a poacher has dug it all up in the middle of the night.
Hamilton’s workshops not only teach potential ginseng growers how to cultivate the plants, but also how to protect them so years of work don’t go to waste. He encourages growers to put up no trespassing signs and install video surveillance, and also to learn from each other.
“Ginseng has always been a very cryptic, unspoken sort of endeavor and we’ve sort of brought some producers out of the shadows and have them working together,” he says.
As part of the grant project, ginseng growers tour each other’s properties to learn new techniques. “That’s sort of unheard of for growing ginseng in North Carolina because it is such an understated and hush-hush sort of industry.”
These new efforts have the potential to curb ginseng poaching, Hamilton says, but there’s another challenge once the ginseng comes to maturity: finding local markets.
ASAP’s study found that there is demand for both fresh and dried ginseng root. More than half of the businesses that ASAP’s Local Food Research Center interviewed currently purchase, or have purchased, ginseng root. Businesses are especially interested in purchasing locally-grown ginseng root, and unlike the export market, local businesses are also interested in buying ginseng leaves.
There are some challenges: breweries reported concerns with the high cost of ginseng and regulatory barriers. The 7 – 10 year wait between planting the seeds and harvesting the roots can be problematic for growers.
Yet Hamilton sees potential. “It’s very possible to see ginseng in some of the health food and local herbalist shops. I could definitely see it in beers; I could definitely see it in local energy drinks or smoothies. We could see it used in teas and other beverages and little by little get it into the local food market.”
Read the study and learn about ASAP’s Local Food Research Center at asapconnections.org/local-food-research-center.