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How the global pandemic has affected Ohio's prized, multi-million dollar ginseng industry

Posted at 11:13 AM, Oct 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-09 12:25:01-04

CLEVELAND — Known as Ohio’s "green gold," a rush happens now through Dec. 31 as hunters take to Ohio’s forests in search for ginseng—an herb with an aromatic root highly prized in Asia for its medicinal properties. Native to Ohio’s woodlands, this root is sought after by markets in China, but because of restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ohio’s ginseng industry, like others, has been grappling with the effects and restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Impacts felt from China to Ohio

Growing up digging ginseng with his late father and now as someone who works in the industry, Mitchell McCullough has seen the good and bad with Ohio’s ginseng crop, and this year is one of those years that has him wondering what the season holds.

“Everything was going fairly smooth. The market there [China] has been a little slower the last couple of years because of the trade war Trump has going on with China, so that didn’t help anything,” McCullough said.

When the coronavirus hit China, it came on the heels of the Chinese New Year— a time when Chinese typically give the highly-valued ginseng as gifts. But with the coronavirus shutting down practically everything over there, sales came to a sudden halt.

“It affected the market, bringing the price down because of backlogged inventory stuck at the port in Hong Kong with nowhere to go,” he added.

Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in early February, the 2019 ginseng harvest season was over. Fortunately for most dealers in Ohio and Appalachia, they were able to get rid of their ginseng supply by the end of the last season.

“What it affected was the ginseng that was sitting in the United States that wanted to be exported into Hong Kong. So that created a problem which has translated this year into the whole supply and demand market issue,” said Kirk Kiefer, Wildlife investigator for Ohio Department of Natural Resources, who said remote working from government agencies slowed down the process the state's dealers take to get their ginseng approved and exported.

McCullough, who took over his late father’s business, Ohio River Ginseng & Herb in East Liverpool, was one of the lucky ones who could export his product before pandemic and trade concerns brought everything to a halt.

“It was a good thing on my end, but not for the buyers overseas,” he said.

Ohio’s ginseng economy

As a high-value plant species that grows beneath the main canopy of a forest, ginseng has the potential to be an additional income opportunity for Ohio’s woodland owners. Ginseng was one of the first products to be exported out of the country to China, with Ohio’s exportation of the root dating back to the 1700s.

Prices paid for ginseng per pound vary based on a variety of factors—shape, the size, taste, color and age of the root— in addition to a global demand, which has decreased due to COVID-19.

The current year average for prices paid per pound is around $525. In years past, harvesters and dealers saw that number jump above $1,200 per pound for dry ginseng.

Dried ginseng
Dried Ohio ginseng.

The drop in price hits hard for people, particularly living in Ohio's Appalachia region.

"A lot of people depend on it [ginseng] to get school clothes for their children or grandchildren and depend on it for the Christmas money, so it's very unfortunate for them that the prices are not where they like to see them," McCullough said.

Green ginseng, also known as fresh ginseng, sells for a lower price and usually stays in the country, going to places like California or New York, serving the Korean market.

Based on ODNR’s report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who oversees the harvesting and exporting of ginseng, Ohioans have harvested the following amounts in the previous four years.

  • In 2019, 1,679.46 pounds were harvested, selling at an estimated $725 per pound.
  • In 2018, 2,175 pounds were harvested, selling at an estimated $700 per pound.
  • In 2017, 2,416 pounds were harvested, selling at an estimated $750 per pound.
  • In 2016, 2,236.29 pounds were harvested, selling at an estimated $650 per pound.

“Money lost due to the pandemic for this season will be in the hundreds of thousands. Ginseng can still be shipped to Hong Kong but limited interest due to overstock from last season since retail stores were closed for months during the pandemic,” McCullough said.

The estimated income for Ohio diggers is anywhere between $1.5 million to $2.2 million, depending on the year, according to Ron Ollis, Law Enforcement Program Administrator for ODNR, and who has overseen the state’s ginseng program since the early 2000s.

“Doesn’t sound like much until you factor in that only between 1,900 and 4,000 people harvest ginseng annually and enter it into commerce. The number of harvesters typically correlates with the value. We have not seen 4,000 harvesters since 2008,” Ollis said.

Poaching on the rise

Because of ginseng’s high value, it’s sought after by many, and sometimes the means in which a harvester takes to dig ginseng is illegal.

In some states, the poaching of ginseng is a felony offense. In Ohio, ginseng poaching is a third-degree misdemeanor, carrying jail time and a $1,000 fine, if convicted.

ODNR has seen a bump in almost all recreational activities—everything from boating to biking to fishing and now, illegal ginseng hunting.

“It seems that we had an uptick this year. A lot more people were wanting to sell the illegal ginseng prior to the season,” said Kiefer, who has noticed more calls about illegal hunting from vigilant landowners since the start of summer.

Between May 1, 2019, and April 30, 2020, 86 arrests were made for ginseng violations. A recent investigation that wrapped up in September resulted in several dozen people arrested on misdemeanor charges for illegal poaching and selling of ginseng—often times associated with drug activity and criminals looking for quick cash.

In the past, state investigators charged a man with felony grand theft after he was caught illegally buying and selling ginseng while on government welfare.

But the illegal poaching of ginseng goes beyond just the law. Picking ginseng too early could have detrimental effects on the future of Ohio’s “green gold” because it takes anywhere from 5 to 7 years for the plant to become a three-pronged plant, making it ready to be legally picked.

"When people are digging ginseng illegally, they're basically taking plants. The berries are not ripe until the end of August and they're not going to be viable to perpetuate the population," Kiefer said.

The Division of Wildlife oversees Ohio’s ginseng trade for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the ultimate say in whether it exists or not. Wildlife investigators with ODNR say it's not just about enforcing the law, but rather ensuring Ohioans who are digging responsibly are able to do it within a time-frame of a regulated season.

“So we did this [investigation] for the people that follow the rules and rely on this [ginseng},” said Kiefer, adding enforcement efforts of the state’s ginseng hunting rules are focused on ensuring the legal digger has a season.

While a pandemic comes sand goes, the future of ginseng could go one of two ways, and wildlife officials and dealers like McCullough hope it remains thriving in Ohio's woodlands for years to come as long as the picking of this native plant is done responsibly.

"My hope for ginseng is the continued stewardship of plant that is done by the vast majority of harvesters, not the few greedy ones who are in it for a quick buck. This plant needs to be respected as a long-standing part of American history and for all future generations," McCullough said.