“Sanging” isn’t something a country singer does. Along with “senging,” it refers to the digging of ginseng.
Mitchell McCullough remembers doing that as a boy growing up in Columbiana County. He often went out with his father, Lawrence, at 6 a.m., “just when it’s getting light.” And before school started, of course.
Sometimes they incorporated digging with trapping. His father started a fur-buying business in 1958, but a lot of the fur hunters — who were also digging ginseng — asked why he didn’t buy the roots, too. Eventually, the fur trade became less important than the roots.
In 1977, the family business became Ohio River Ginseng & Herb in East Liverpool, which also deals in goldenseal and other herbs used as supplements. McCullough has operated the business since his father passed away.
He doesn’t hunt ginseng himself anymore, but instead buys it from harvesters all over Ohio. When he does, he must meticulously record their personal information, the dates the ginseng was harvested, and the county from which it came. And unless they are digging on their own land, harvesters must have written permission from the landowner.
McCullough puts the ginseng into “bows” and sells it wholesale, sometimes shipping it directly to Hong Kong, sometimes selling it to other shippers. If he’s going to buy ginseng from other states, he gets it from dealers “because there’s so much paperwork involved.”
Most dealers in the United States were able to get rid of their supplies by the end of last season. But then COVID-19 hit, shutting down a lot of celebrations of Chinese new year, when many people buy ginseng as gifts, McCullough said.
Despite COVID restrictions, it is still possible to ship ginseng to Hong Kong. But there is not the demand, since there is so much inventory left in Hong Kong and China, he said.
The roots are graded in Hong Kong, and there are 50 different grades. Rounder roots tend to be worth more ‘because they’re associated with a big, strong guy vs. a little skinny guy,” McCullough explained. After all, the Chinese name for ginseng loosely translates to “man root,” and the roots that look like people can bring $10,000 or more. Each.
Ohio and Pennsylvania are known for their “good quality roots. There’s a big difference the further south you go,” McCullough said. This year, even the rounder roots are only bringing between $500 and $600 a pound, as opposed to last year when the price was $600 to $800.
Some years, ginseng was going for $1,100 a pound, like it did the year before the recession in 2008, when it dropped to $300. “But it’s been a lot lower,” McCullough said philosophically. “It was $120 when I started.”
American ginseng has been a hot commodity since the 1700s. George Washington met “numbers of Persons & Pack horses going in with Ginsang” while doing his surveys in 1784. Daniel Boone allegedly made part of his fortune on ginseng, enlisting armies of diggers and sending it to Philadelphia by the barge load.
In Asia, ginseng is valued as a cure for an endless list of ailments. Here, it’s more of a “food with medicinal value, like chicken soup when you have a cold,” he said. It is sometimes used as an ingredient in teas, soup, even soda. There are ginseng chewing gums and ginseng energy drinks, available at your local gas station store.
But ginseng is an acquired taste. “It’s pretty bitter,” McCullough said. “I like the taste of it, but others don’t.”
Though they grow in obscure places, on “pretty steep hillsides, where it’s 90% shade,” ginseng is threatened by loss of habitat due to development, as well as some natural “predators.”
“Turkeys seem to like the berries, unfortunately,” McCullough said. “Deer eat the leaves and can sometimes destroy an entire patch.”
But much more dangerous are the poachers who harvest pre-season, or steal from their neighbors.
Ron Ollis, Law Enforcement Program Administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, has been the state ginseng coordinator since 2004. Just one of the operations that Ollis has overseen, a two-year undercover investigation dubbed “Operation Uprooted,” resulted in the arrest of 36 people in multiple counties in 2009. Another large operation resulted in arrests two weeks ago.
The Division of Wildlife oversees Ohio’s ginseng trade for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is the ultimate authority. American ginseng has been listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since it went into effect in 1975.
Ginseng is in Appendix II, among plants and animals that could become endangered if they are over-harvested, Ollis said. That’s why it’s important to prevent poaching, and to report suspicious activity to 800-POACHER.
Illegal harvesting could not only put ginseng on the endangered species list, but also impact Appalachian communities economically.
“It’s called ‘green gold’ in many communities,” Ollis said. “It’s a currency of Appalachia, a little extra cash for Christmas for families that go out and harvest together. If we or the Fish and Wildlife Service had to shut it down, that’s collapsing a part of the economy.”
The harvest season for ginseng is Sept. 1 through Dec. 31, but ginseng can be sold from Sept. 1 through March 31. The Division of Wildlife has to account for every pound sold — or not sold. Dealers can keep it and sell it the following year, but it has to be certified, Ollis said.
Most of Ohio’s highly-prized Appalachian ginseng is dried and sent to Hong Kong, he said. Drying reduces the roots to about a third of their original weight. But some buyers prefer it green for medicinal purposes, or to sell for replanting.
Ginseng can also be grown from seed, as it is on farms in Wisconsin and New York. However, the cultivated roots are not as valuable as those harvested in the wild.
While the number of ginseng dealers in Ohio stays pretty steady at just under 70, the number of harvesters varies from year to year, depending on market price. In a good year there are between 4,000 and 4,200. If the price is low, there could be only 2,000, Ollis said.
Ginseng is harvested in all 88 of Ohio’s counties, but is more prevalent in the southeastern part of the state, he said. Harvesters must follow a plethora of rules, like making sure the plant has at least three prongs, or leaves. If it has berries, they must be replanted immediately, in the same place the plant was dug.
Ginseng is a unique and very complex organism, Ollis said. It takes between five and seven years to mature, and when it does, it only produces about a dozen seeds at a time. Because it has such a low reproduction rate, landowners who manage ginseng may only harvest every couple of years.
“Even after sixteen years, I’m still learning,” said Ollis, who has tried his hand at harvesting. He also co-chairs a national committee aimed at regulating and conserving ginseng with the Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s been a great opportunity,” he said.
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