Pennsylvania hopes to cash in with ginseng

Residents taught to plant wooded lands with seeds of the bitter herb

August 28, 2003|By Dawn Fallik | Dawn Fallik,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- When times are tight, former coal miner Russell "Bud" Bollinger takes a walk through the forest, digging up wild ginseng plants and selling them to make ends meet.

The untamed plant has been central Pennsylvania's secret aphrodisiac windfall for generations, bringing in as much as $500 for a pound of roots. But now, Pennsylvania State University, with the help of Bollinger and his buddy Dave Thompson, want "sanging" -- the art of finding and harvesting ginseng plants -- to become a big business.

By teaching residents to plant wooded lands with ginseng seed, conservation officials hope to invigorate the state's agriculture economy, save the forest timber, and -- oh, yeah -- make some former coal miners rich.

But those are sweet dreams for an ugly, bitter-tasting herb with diva growing demands -- not too hot, not too cold, not too much sun, and, please, keep the water away from the roots.

"It's gnarled and twisted, and maybe it looks like your uncle," said Greg Ruark, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agroforestry Center in Lincoln, Neb.

Ginseng is promoted as an antidote for memory loss and general blahness, and as an all-around stimulant. It is considered an essential element for health in many Asian countries -- the word "ginseng" comes from the Chinese word for "likeness of man" because the root resembles the shape of a human figure -- and a majority of the American ginseng products head overseas.

Licensing since 1988

Pennsylvania started licensing ginseng dealers in 1988 and harvests around 1,450 pounds of wild roots each year. In comparison, Kentucky, the nation's leading ginseng producer, makes 22,765 pounds annually. Last year, Pennsylvania brought in $600,000 from ginseng exports.

But state officials hope that profits and production will increase as more farmers and former coal miners, and anyone else with a forest canopy, take advantage of the ginseng demand.

"They can't grow American ginseng over in China. And there's a sort of yin-yang belief that you have to take the Asian ginseng with the American ginseng -- one cools the body, one heats it up," Ruark said. "So there's a high demand that's not being met."

Thompson, 50, and Bollinger, 52, hope to turn that demand into a nice retirement nest egg. In Thompson's 17-acre Cambria County plot, they've planted several acres of ginseng seeds. Now they are waiting for them to grow, even though both say they aren't "allowed" to taste the fruit of their labors.

"I've been cut off," said Bollinger, a down-to-earth charmer who has black lung disease from his years in the mines. "The wife said it made me too amorous."

The ginseng farm was Thompson's idea, borne out of his teen-age forest wanderings. But while the former miner-turned-mechanic knew how to pick the ripe plants -- those at least 5 years old -- planting acres of them was something else.

So they called local agriculture experts, who had no idea what they were talking about, but heard that someone at Penn State was working on ginseng.

That someone was Eric Burkhart, a Ph.D. student focusing on agroforestry. He is working to develop six sites throughout Pennsylvania to see what kind of ginseng grows best in the state. The state is one of only 19 in the country that export ginseng.

"Let's say someone has a woodlot, and the timber industry approaches them and offers them $1,000 for their timber. It's a quick and easy way to get money, but then that's it. The wood's gone," Burkhart said. "But if you tell them they may be able to get $40,000 for an acre of ginseng, grown in that forest, and that it's money that could come in year after year, that's something that would help them, and save the forestland."

3 kinds of ginseng

There are three kinds of ginseng: wild, wild-simulated and cultivated.

Wild grows without any tending. Wild-simulated is planted under forest cover without tilling the soil. The two roots look very much alike: ringed and twisted as the root works its way around rocks and competing roots below the surface.

Cultivated ginseng, which is often grown under a fake shade that simulates a forest canopy, looks very much like a carrot. It's straight and lighter, and sells for around $10 a pound, whereas the wild and wild-simulated ginseng sells anywhere from $350 to $500 a pound.

The older and more gnarled the root, the better price it brings across the ocean. Ginseng fans believe that a plant must be very strong to work around the underground barriers, and, by eating the root, they can receive some of its strength.

Pennsylvania has strict laws about harvesting and selling ginseng: The harvest season runs from Aug. 1 through Nov. 30, and, under federal law, harvested roots must be at least 5 years old, after they have reached maturity.

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