Ginseng crop could provide farm therapy

Extension agent tries to persuade N.Y. farmers to grow root on fallow land

February 13, 2000|By Jeff Waggoner | Jeff Waggoner,New York Times News Service

CAIRO, N.Y. -- It can be worth as much as gold, and it grows.

It is American ginseng, a cousin of the aromatic root that has been used by Asians for thousands of years to treat problems including headaches, diabetes and declining male potency.

And one man here in the shadows of the Catskills 120 miles north of Manhattan, where the root grows wild on the forest floor, believes that it could be the remedy for the financial headaches of upstate farmers and other landowners.

Robert Beyfuss, a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent in Greene County, is on a crusade to make fallow fields and woodlands profitable by persuading people to grow the wild version of American ginseng. The dried root can fetch $1,000 a pound on the worldwide market.

In the last two years, Beyfuss has organized the 170-member Empire State Ginseng Growers Association. He is planning an International Ginseng Conference in Greene County next September to share information on growing the plant, whose recorded history in New York state dates to the early 1700s, when a Jesuit missionary noted its use by Indians.

Ginseng's missionary is a gray-haired 49-year-old who speaks in fluid cadences that he put to good use in the early 1980s, when he was host of a farm program on a Schenectady television station. Two guests told him about the Catskills' fame among lovers of ginseng.

Since then, he has taken ginseng to reduce stress during a divorce, to lose weight and to increase his brain power for graduate work. He has hunted the root, grown it, bottled it for friends as Dr. Bob's Ginseng Elixir, and written a master's thesis on it.

'Haunted by ginseng'

"I am haunted by ginseng," he said.

So, it seems, are many others. In the last decade, as interest has grown in alternative medicine, many Americans have started taking it in pills, drinking it in tea and eating the root raw for many of the same health reasons that Asians take it.

Most ginseng, known as field-cultivated ginseng, comes from China and Korea, where it is grown in raised beds under shade cloth and heavily dosed with pesticides and fertilizers.

In North America, the major producers of field-cultivated ginseng are in Wisconsin, Ontario and British Columbia.

But for aficionados, Asian or American, the most prized and potent ginseng grows wild. Those rare roots grow in the Catskills, where the herb is referred to as "shang." It is eagerly sought by shang hunters, who jealously guard their favorite secret hunting grounds.

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolium, ranges from Quebec to Georgia, and from the East Coast to Iowa. It thrives in the heavy shade of deciduous trees. But the most potent wild ginseng, Beyfuss says, grows in Vermont and New York, especially in the Catskills, which have the best conditions: crisp winter weather and the right soil.

'Man root'

Although 90 percent or more of the $1 billion world market is for the field-cultivated plant, the wild version is worth up to 30 times as much, with cultivated ginseng selling for $10 to $15 a pound and fresh wild ginseng averaging $300 a pound. It is not unknown for dried wild ginseng to retail for $1,300 a pound.

One small wild root, if it is old enough and resembles an anatomically correct man, including sex organs, can be sold for up to $500 in Hong Kong to those who use it as an aphrodisiac.

"The more ginseng resembles a human figure, the more valuable it is," Beyfuss said.

The wild root's sometimes eerie resemblance to a human perhaps explains why the Chinese word for ginseng means "man root." Field-cultivated ginseng looks more like a pale carrot than like a human.

The rising value of wild ginseng has led Beyfuss and others to explore ways to grow ginseng by simulating wild conditions; gently scratching the ground under the branches of a mature shade tree, and dropping the seeds.

"Ginseng loves sugar maples," said Scott Harris of Otsego County, who is president of the state's Ginseng Growers Association and, with his wife, Sylva, the proprietor of Sylvan Botanicals, near Cooperstown. The association's members include 30 growers of simulated wild ginseng, like the Harrises, as well as a dozen cultivators of field-grown ginseng. The rest grow it as a hobby.

A protected species

But before Beyfuss could recommend that others take up the farming of wild ginseng, he had to learn its secrets, with the unlikely aid of the wary shang hunters. The wild ginseng is a protected species, and so by state law may only be picked from Sept. 1 through Nov. 30. Beyfuss and other hunters are dropped off in the woods and picked up after harvesting is done, so their parked cars do not reveal the locations of their treasure troves.

Beyfuss says he is a shang hunter, but not a very successful one. So he devised a way to extract the information he needed from the best shang hunters without requiring them to reveal where they dug.

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