Reality TV, Tradition, & Misconception: Ginsenging in West Virginia

News

Ginseng is a plant rooted in West Virginian tradition. People have been digging for ginseng and selling it to Asian countries for centuries.

Ginseng is known for its health benefits. People claim ginseng can give you a boost of energy, help you withstand cold temperatures and prevent cancer. But scientists and health professionals disagree on if any of these claims are true. Ginseng is commonly put in tea, soups, and medicine.

“My understanding is that ginseng is a little quick pick-me-up,” said Robin Black, Ginseng Coordinator at the West Virginia Division of Forestry, “Gives you a boost of energy. If you ever look at your energy drink real close you’ll see that there’s ginseng in there, and some of your multivitamins may have some ginseng in it, just to give you a metabolism boost.”

When the plant had just been picked (green ginseng), it’s wet and malleable. Diggers will usually dry the ginseng before selling to a dealer.

It’s an outdoor thing. It’s just as strong as the hunting tradition.

Tony Coffman, Owner of Coffman’s Metals

History

The name “ginseng” is comes from the Chinese term “jen-shen,” which means “in the image of a man.” Historians speculate that ginseng grew in popularity in Asia because ancient culture believes that the root or seed of a plant is a clue to what part of the body it benefits, and ginseng’s man-like shape means the plant is good for the whole body.

The root was so popular in Asia that many species of Asian ginseng are endangered or extinct, so they came to rely on imports from the United States and Canada.

Credit: Shayla Klein

Americans were shipping ginseng over to China since the 18th century. It all started when a Canadian Jesuit named Father Lafitau found a letter from a Jesuit missionary stationed in Beijing—Father Pierre Jartoux. Father Jartoux wrote about how popular the root was and that it flourished in the dark forests of the northeast. Father Jartoux has never been to Canada, but surmised in the letter that the growing conditions would be just right for ginseng to grow there as well. 

Father Lafitau decided to search for the plant after reading the letter and found it growing natively in the forest. He published a report of his discovery in 1716, which resulted in market collectors eradicating the species from the forest and prompted attempts to grow the species commercially in Canada and France. And thus, the ginseng trade between North America and China began.

Within the 18th and 19th century, digging ginseng and shipping it became quite popular. Even Daniel Boon supplemented his income by digging ginseng, and in 1824, an all-time record of 750,000 pounds of ginseng was shipped from the US to China. So much ginseng was dug and sold that plant populations began to diminish in the late 1800s.

Today, there are several strict laws on digging ginseng in an attempt to preserve the plant for future generations.

Appalachian Outlaws

Some people might know about ginseng from watching the History Channel show, Appalachian Outlaws. The show depicts ginseng diggers and dealers across the Appalachian region.

“It was not as real as they made it out to be,” said Black, “There were some things that are in there that are just not part of West Virginia culture. They made a lot of it up to make it something that people would want to watch. After that came out, we had a whole heck of a lot of people wanting to come to West Virginia to dig ginseng. After that went off the air, not nearly the amount of phone calls that we get every year wanting to know where they could go dig ginseng.”

Coffman’s Metals is a recycling center that takes metals, furs, and roots.

The show ran for two seasons in 2014. The National Geographic show Smoky Mountain Money premiered the same year. Also about ginseng digging, the show ran for six episodes. Although both shows were fictional and dramatized, some viewers believed it was all real.

“All of the coordinators just cringe when we hear about one of those,” said Black, “because it did not represent the ginseng community. Plus, we felt it was going to endanger the wild plant even more people thinking they were going to get rich off of two or three roots.”

It takes roughly 300 dry ginseng roots to make a pound, according to Black. The price dealers will pay for roots varies depending on quality and market, but a good average is around $500.

It takes a whole heck of a lot of roots, a whole heck of a lot of work, and you’re dealing with snakes, bears, poison ivy, poison oak.

Robin Black, Ginseng Coordinator, WV Division of Forestry

“There’s a lot of misconceptions–that we had a ginseng mafia. No. And shooting up cars, blowing up cars,” said Black, “When I saw the first few episodes, I’m just shaking my head…I just wish nobody would watch it because they think that it’s so real.”

Tony Coffman is an actor on the show and a registered West Virginia ginseng dealer. He owns Coffman’s Metals, a recycling center that deals in metals, fur, and roots.

“We had a talent agency come from original productions called. I wouldn’t take the call because I thought it was a salesman to call me from LA,” said Coffman, “They saw an advertisement where I set up a roadside stand buying ginseng and they came and met me there, and they gave me their card and said, ‘We’re interested in doing a show here in West Virginia and we think ginseng would be a good subject’

“They asked some of the things that happened in my life. Some of the more funny things or exciting things that have happened over the past 40 years or whatever I’ve been in business. Some of the things I’ve heard about and we put together a scene or two and we shot it. Set it off to the History Channel, they liked what they saw and the show did really well.”

Ginseng Prices

Coffman said that the only thing realistic about the show was their names and the ginseng prices.

“People didn’t realize that. They thought that thousands of dollars a pound was fake, but it wasn’t that year. They hit it really lucky,” said Coffman, “That was the one year that the price really got high but it was artificially high.”

A Hong Kong company called Hang Fat Ginseng controlled most of the American ginseng market, and the company owners were buying ginseng at a higher price in order to bolster their stock price in order to sell more stock.

Credit: Shayla Klein

“The price of his company soared as the price of ginseng went up, and he was using bank money and investor money to bolster that ginseng price, and he was already the only one in the market. He was bidding against himself to make the price go higher and higher,” said Coffman, “He wasn’t selling—no one could afford it. He didn’t have any customers willing to pay that price for it so it was sitting in the floor of his vault. But he was using investor money so it didn’t matter.”

It’s an illegal practice in the United States that goes against the Anti-Trust laws. The ginseng market collapsed, and the owners sold all of their stock.

“It killed the ginseng. That’s why ginseng took a couple of years. Everybody made money that year, but boy, we suffered for a couple years after,” said Coffman, “We suffered for two years—almost three. And then just when things were starting to get on our feet and now here we are in this trade war. If there’s not one thing it’s the other.”

The Aftermath of the Show

A ginseng root that was sold to Coffman’s Metals

Appalachian Outlaws is a center of controversy in the ginseng community. Some believed that the show ruined the stewardship of the plant, while others enjoyed the show.

“Some people thought I gave them a bad rap and made diggers look bad or something. It’s just a show you know what I mean? It’s supposed to be fun,” said Coffman.

The show had a number of fans from across the country. Coffman said some of the fans ended up visiting his shop as a tourist destination.

“People would ship me presents for no reason. I had guys coming from Nova Scotia. Lobster fishermen shipping me a couple dozen live lobsters,” said Coffman, “I mean, he came by to say hello and give me 100 bucks for a t-shirt or something, and I wouldn’t take it, so he sent me 500 bucks worth of lobsters. Just fun stuff like that.

I had one guy come from Louisiana. He had Lou Gehrig’s disease…I’m a junk dealer. I’m a ginseng dealer. But you have people that think that highly of you. I’m not somebody but he put on his best clothes and he had his nurse drive him down here. 

Tony Coffman, Owner of Coffman’s Metals, Actor on Appalachian Outlaws

“But then, there were a few people that were maybe going through a tough time, needed some money, and they really thought it was a way of getting rich, you know. Like it was the 49 gold rush or something, and I felt bad. They drove in from Illinois or Virginia or somewhere, or they would call me on the phone and I’d have to explain to them. I mean, some people didn’t even call they just showed up with maybe the last 50 or 100 bucks to come here, and ‘Please, can you show me where to find some ginseng?'” said Coffman, “I think I even gave a few of them a few bucks and said I’m sorry. You need to go back home. There’s a dark side to it, too.”

The Opioid Epidemic

Black said in recent years, one of the biggest threats to ginseng has been the opioid epidemic

“We’ve seen a lot dealing with the opioids. People are digging it just to get their fix. And I think that that’s rough because they’ll dig out of season and it ruins the crop for the people that come after that. There are no more ginseng in the area,” said Black.

The stewardship of the plant has become the major controversy amongst the ginseng community. Ginseng takes about five years to be mature enough to harvest, so when people dig out of season or they dig younger plants, it harms the rest of the community.

A plastic storage bin full of ginseng at Coffman’s Metals

“I would rather have somebody who’s out desperate to make a few bucks out in the woods, digging some roots or something like that than to get their money breaking into my home or my car or sticking me up in the street, but I understand Robin’s point,” said Coffman, “When I was growing up, we only dug the large roots and we planted the berries back. We didn’t have to worry about someone coming up behind us and digging the baby stuff and now you do. And the ginseng is just not out there like it was because of the stewardship of the plant.”

Coffman said that if you have a half dozen places to ginseng, you can rotate and only take the big stuff, and you have a place to dig for ginseng year after year.

“But if you go into it and dig and dig and take it all, in a couple years, you’ve dug it out. You have no place to ginseng anymore,” said Coffman, “You can take a hundred little babies and they won’t weigh anything. They won’t even register on the scale anyhow and you’ve killed an entire population out for nothing. And actually it’s illegal. You can’t even ship them anyhow. It’s gotta be five years old, seven years old to be legal for exports.”

Coffman said he gets a lot of people trying to sell baby ginseng to him.

“You can tell them don’t do this or shame them you know, I try, you know, point you to it. And I don’t even bother with them. I just scoot them off and I’ll even lay them on the scale. If they register 0.01 hundredths, a whole dollar, and there’s fifty of them,” said Coffman.

Ginseng Laws in WV

Ginseng season starts every year on September 1 and ends on November 30. Diggers have until March 31 of the following calendar year to sell to a registered West Virginia ginseng dealer or to get a weight-receipt from the Division of Forestry. Digging outside of ginseng season or keeping roots without a weight receipt is illegal.

When I was growing up, we only dug the large roots and we planted the berries back. We didn’t have to worry about someone coming up behind us and digging the baby stuff and now you do. And the ginseng is just not out there like it was because of the stewardship of the plant.

Tony Coffman, Owner of Coffman’s Metals

It’s also illegal to dig on state forest land, private land without prior written consent, or dig ginseng roots with less than three prongs. The prongs indicate the age of the root, and the root must be at least five years old to be harvested. The reason is that roots of that age can produce fertile berries that must be planted after picking. The berries must be red.

A new law also requires all diggers to provide a government-issued photo ID to sell their ginseng to a registered dealer. 

According to the Division of Forestry, 31 ginseng hunters were prosecuted for different illegal activities in 2018, such as digging out of season, buying and selling without a dealer’s permit, possession of ginseng younger than five years and digging without written permission.

More information on ginseng laws is available on the WV Forestry’s website.

Good Quality Ginseng

A large ginseng root preserved in a pickle jar from Coffman’s Metals

The majority of the American ginseng market goes to China for tea, so majority of people are selling dry ginseng.

“[Chinese people] are looking for something that’s kind of chunky like a turnip shape. Kind of short, dumpy, and fat, really good dark color. They don’t want a white root, they want dark. Amber color would be a great color,” said Coffman, “They want heightened rings around the skin. The more stripes and the tighter the stripes the better, and a long neck. The older, the better. Lightweight. The density of the roots. The lighter, the better and most that’s because they get more bang for their buck.”

People who cultivate ginseng might sell to the Korean market because they are looking for something more eye-catching.

“The Koreans prefer a grocery store style, green fresh ginseng, you know, just like carrots and apples and everything. They prefer a gaudy looking ginseng. They want something that stands out,” said Coffman.

My dad told me how he dried his ginseng when he was growing up. He would put it in the back window of his car when he was at work, lay it in the back area and leave the windows open. It gets sun on it and the moisture going out, but it took about seven to ten days to get enough moisture out of it so it was really dry and brittle.

Robin Black, Ginseng Coordinator, WV Division of Forestry

Coffman said he doesn’t think the man root shape is particularly popular today.

“I don’t know how true that is,” he said, “but that’s not the only shape. We call them elk horns and it’s anything with their arms out…I don’t specialize in [the Korean market] and I’ll tell you why, because it’s like artwork. It’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s hard for me to buy for that Korean buyer to know what it’s one thing might be worse but something to me and maybe not to him, you know?

Tradition

“89 years, my family has been in the ginseng business and fur business,” said Coffman, “The scrap metal business started in about 1962. Personally, this is my 39th year in the ginseng business and in the business full time.”

“When you’re a ginseng dealer and do it full time, there’s no time to dig. I work seven days a week through the season. But I used to. I mean, that’s how I got into this. The part that drew me into this business was the outdoor part of this business…It wasn’t the metal business that drew me in, although that is the part I really make my money at. It was the ginseng business and the fur business that originally got me interested in following my grandfather’s footsteps.”

I know our big harvest years that we had a lot of ginseng harvested down in the southern coal field was when coal mine strikes were going on. The coal miners would go dig the ginseng and use that supplemental money to pay bills to do Christmas, and some people still do that.

Robin Black, Ginseng Coordinator, WV Division of Forestry

Coffman said he calls his customers friends.

“Cause generally, that’s what it is. You catch up with people or your hear stories about the big ones, where they found them, how many was around them, how big they are, how big around, how big the berry pod is, how big the root was,” he said, “It’s an outdoor thing. It’s just as strong as the hunting tradition, you know, it’s just another way to spend any time in the outdoors. And it’s not only father and son. It’s the daughters, too. Not to the extent it’s father and son. And the husband and wife do it. And then the daughters they go out with their dads. It’s a family thing. Sometimes it’s just friends, but it’s not a lone wolf thing. Sometimes it is, but it’s more often, it’s friends that go together. They team up. It’s a friendly competition.

A ginseng root from Coffman’s Metals

“The trade war in general has business down in China, period on everything, all merchandise not just the ginseng sales are slow on everything, and the guys that I have sold to are telling me right now that they still have half of all the ginseng that I sold them last year still on the shelves trying to move it. So sales are slow. And we not only have that against us, the people in China, the population as a whole, the younger ones, they’re not using the ginseng the way the older generation has…but neither do the younger generation dig the ginseng like the older folks do. So we’re kind of dying breeds at the same time. As they stopped using ginseng, we’re dying off in not digging the ginseng the way we did. So I guess we’ll fade off in the sunset at about the same time probably.”

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