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On the Ginseng Patrol in Appalachian Ohio

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Ginseng grower Tom Johnson goes on regular foot patrols through his property in Scioto County, Ohio in an effort to deter ginseng thefts. At first, Johnson posted signs against trespassing throughout his property, but when that didn’t work, he took to patrolling — and shooting at dead trees — throughout his property to try to deter thieves. Photo by Eileen Guo

On a warm day in the middle of an unseasonably dry October, I drive past cornfields, ranch homes, and hollers to meet 70-year-old farmer Tom Johnson.

Johnson and his wife, as well as two grown sons and their families, live on the same land that his great-great-great grandfather homesteaded, nearly two centuries before. But unlike his ancestors, Johnson is not overseeing rows of corn or grain: His “crops” are hardwoods — oak, walnut, and poplar — between which sprout native plants like goldenseal, black cohosh, and — his pet project — American ginseng.

Ginseng, a medicinal root historically grown and consumed in East Asia, grows naturally up and down the ridges of Appalachia and north into Canada. An early export of the American colonies, it occasioned the first trade contact that the new world had with the Far East and, according to some scholars, even helped finance the Revolutionary War.

Tom Johnson shows off a handful of his wild-simulated ginseng roots in Scioto County, Ohio. Ginseng was first discovered by Europeans in Canada in 1716, and has been traded in Appalachia since the 1750s. Photo by Eileen Guo

First discovered in Canada in 1716 (by the Europeans, anyway — Native Americans had long used it for its medicinal properties), the American ginseng trade started in earnest in the 1750s, after the Canadian trade collapsed. John Jacob Astor, better known for his real estate fortune around New York City, was one of America’s first traders, making $55,000 on his first shipment. Appalachian native son Daniel Boone was less lucky on his first try, losing his first shipment of 12 tons of roots in 1788 when his ship capsized in the Ohio River. He didn’t give up though, leading to the eventual accrual of a vast family fortune that, despite popular belief, came from ginseng rather than the fur trade.

Today, the root continues to be a valuable commodity, with demand — and high prices — driven, just as in the olden days, by markets in East Asia, where it is prized both as a medicine and, increasingly as a status symbol. Rich collectors will sometimes pay thousands of dollars for the more uniquely shaped, multi-pronged specimens — which happen to grow well in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains.

While Wisconsin is the United States’ largest producer of ginseng, responsible for 98 percent of the 590,000 pounds of the root exported in 2016, for those in the know, Appalachian ginseng is preferred. This is because, in Wisconsin, they are grown on monoculture farms, losing much of the unique, knotty shape of wild ginseng, as well as the ginsenosides, the pharmacological properties that make it so potent. In contrast, the Appalachian variety still grows in the wild or, increasingly, in wild-simulated conditions, where it is planted and cared for in environments that closely resemble its native ecosystem.

Ginseng is a sensitive, slow-growing plant that takes five to ten years to reach maturity, in the wild or under wild-simulated conditions. It grows best in moist, well-aerated soil on shady slopes with good drainage — the kind of terrain found throughout central Appalachia. But it’s a beloved food for native animals, from wild turkey, squirrels, and mice that dig up the seeds to deer that prefer its leaves.

But if the ginseng can survive to harvest, it pays off. A pound of dried wild-simulated ginseng can sell for several hundred dollars, or higher, depending on its size and shape. The most that Johnson has ever made was $425 per dried pound.  

Ginseng’s high price is great news, in theory, for wild ginseng growers as well as “hunters” (as foragers for the root are known). But Tom Johnson and countless others have discovered that its lucrative value also makes ginseng attractive to thieves.

On a recent patrol, Ohio Department of Natural Resources officer and lifelong ginseng enthusiast Jeff Barry points out a patch of woods where he has found ginseng in the past. Photo by Eileen Guo

Tom Johnson has been planting ginseng for some twenty-odd years. The first time that he was poached was when he was out of town attending a conference focused on forest farming. “I can still remember,” the septuagenarian says of the event, “this older guy stood up, and he said, ‘boy this would be a perfect time for your thieves to go in and steal.’”  

“So I come home,” he continues, “and sure enough, there was an area, probably 20 by 20, that looked like hogs had been in there. They dug everything.” He suspects that the thieves had been watching and waiting for the opportunity to strike when he was away.  

This is a tactic that is familiar to Ohio State Wildlife Officer, Jeff Barry, one of the foremost protectors of ginseng within the state’s Department of Natural Resources. He operates in Muskingham County some 150 miles north of Johnson’s tree farm, but he says that it’s common for theft to happen at times when the farmers are known to be away. One example of this, he says, is during county fairs, when “grandpa’s there, the farms [are] left open, and these guys [the thieves] hit.”

After  Johnson’s first incidence of poaching, he tried everything to deter theft, from putting up signs to setting up surveillance cameras, but nothing worked. The trespassers would simply tear down the signs and while the cameras were capturing photos of ginseng hunters, neither he nor local law enforcement could identify the thieves to prosecute them. Johnson believed that they were coming from out of town.

For the most part, law enforcement was not a huge help in prosecuting theft. In the beginning, he called the local wildlife officer. “Some of them would come out and say, yeah, you’ve been poached,” but without catching anyone with ginseng in hand, there was little that they could do.  

Ohio wildlife officer Jeff Barry enters data after a recent ginseng patrol in Muskingham County. Barry has become known among for his doggedness in pursuing ginseng thieves in Appalachian Ohio. Photo by Eileen Guo

Part of the issue was that most law enforcement agents, especially non-wildlife officers, didn’t really understand ginseng theft. Federal laws and regulations around ginseng harvesting have been more geared towards the plant’s conservation, since over-harvesting led to its near-extinction in the 1970s. As a result, in 1975, American ginseng was designated an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authority regulate the trade.

Today, 19 states currently allow for the harvesting of wild ginseng, but under very specific conditions: in season (typically around Sept. 1-Nov. 30), with a license, with strict limits, and only of mature plants with three leaves each (guaranteeing that they are at least five years old.)

But some of the requirements — such as a license to dig ginseng — only refers to digging on public land. And so, even the terminology to describe a crime — “poaching” — referring specifically to public land, leaves many confused about what exactly is happening on Johnson’s private property. What many, including the sheriffs and judges, don’t realize is that it’s still stealing: “Not my corn, not my cattle, they’re stealing my ginseng,” says Johnson.

The farmer is quick to add that he doesn’t have a problem with law enforcement, “Especially now, in Scioto County … we have a lot of bigger problems than poaching ginseng.”

Scioto County is at the heart of the country’s opioid crisis. Portsmouth, Ohio, which has earned the dubious moniker of “Pill Mill of America” and was the subject of the acclaimed book, Dreamland, on the spread of opioids across America, is just next door. In December alone, 33 people were indicted in Portsmouth for their involvement in a drug trafficking ring.

Beyond keeping law enforcement occupied, the opioid crisis has also affected ginseng theft. “If you have a drug habit, you can go out and steal my ginseng and get enough money for a hit,” he says.

So while he empathizes with the priorities of law enforcement, he did realize that he needed to take things into his own hands. And he thought to himself, “If I were a thief, what would defer me from being on somebody’s property trying to steal their ginseng? If someone is out there shooting, I’d probably think, I’ll go to the next guy’s farm.”

He started heading out into the woods on his twice-weekly foot patrols, accompanied by his 22-caliber, semi-automatic rifle. He’d walk, choose a spot, and then shoot, always aiming at one of the dead trees on his property — never with the intention of hurting anyone, but rather to make any potential thieves aware that he was out there, and that he was watching.

He’s had a few close calls. Once, he shot at one of his dead trees just to have a man emerge from right behind it. The man had been down on the ground digging, and he believed that Johnson purposefully tried to shoot him. That was not the case, Johnson says, but still, the man left. And without any ginseng. Other times, he caught the poachers in the act, but they would just drop the ginseng and go. And, on a few occasions, the thieves actually shot back, though never accurate enough to do any damage.

Johnson believes that his armed patrols have helped, though he’s still lost plenty of ginseng. Of the million or so seeds that he estimates to have planted in his twenty years growing, he says that “ten times as much as I’ve dug” has been stolen.

Johnson turned 71 in the fall, and at his age, he also wonders how long he’ll be able to continue cultivating the slow-growing plant. The root takes years before reaching maturity, and after so much of it has been stolen, he is no longer sure that he has the time or the energy to keep up.

What’ll happen after he’s gone? Though he first went ginseng hunting as a child with his grandfather, he purposefully hasn’t passed on his love of the root to his own grandchildren. So the ginseng theft represents not just a financial loss, but also a lost opportunity for new generations of Appalachians to learn about their heritage.  “I really … hesitate to have my granddaughters out in the woods,” he says, “with the poachers and the thieves that I’ve encountered, I don’t think it would be wise.”

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Groups Say Smart Reclamation Of Mine Lands Could Be “Appalachia’s New Deal”

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Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

From solar farms in Virginia to a green energy subdivision in Kentucky, a new report by a group of regional advocacy organizations highlights 20 ready-made projects across the Ohio Valley that could give abandoned mining operations that were never cleaned up a second life, and create new economic opportunity across the region.

In the report, released Tuesday, the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, which advocates for high-impact mine reclamation projects throughout Central Appalachia, says innovative mine reclamation “could be Appalachia’s New Deal.”

“This report marks an important step as Appalachia citizens continue to re-imagine and work toward a future of sustainable and healthy local economies, where young people can find meaningful work and stay to raise their own families,” Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development with Appalachian Voices, said in a statement.

Courtesy Ohio Valley Mushroom Farm
Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) at an Ohio wetland.

Virginia-based Appalachian Voices is one of the members of the coalition. Other organizations include Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia, Rural Action in Ohio, and Downstream Strategies in West Virginia.

Projects highlighted in the report run the gamut and include proposals to use acid mine drainage in Perry County, Ohio, to create paint and a proposal by a West Virginia wholesaler to build a livestock processing facility in Kanawha County.

The region has struggled to clean up thousands of abandoned coal sites since the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund was created in 1976. State and local governments have sometimes struggled with how to find new uses for old mine sites, and some high-profile projects have fizzled.

In the report, the authors argue, well-planned reclamation projects can spur economic development and offer best practices for how they should be proposed. Those include selecting appropriate locations near infrastructure and ensuring redevelopment projects are environmentally sustainable and financially viable over the long term.

Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

In recent years, Congress has boosted resources available for that effort. Beginning in 2017, more than $100 million was appropriated for the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program. Many of the projects highlighted in the report have applied for funding through the AML Pilot Program.

But another federal effort has not been passed by Congress despite bipartisan support. The “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More,” or RECLAIM Act would accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine lands by dispersing $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Land funds over a 5-year period with an eye toward economic development.

Combined, the report’s authors say, the 20 projects would require about $38 million of investment but would generate more than $83 million in economic output as well about 540 jobs to the region.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource

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Sports and Storytelling: ‘More a Unifier than a Divider’

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A rusted field goal post and practice equipment sits on the practice field outside Municipal Stadium in Portsmouth, Ohio. Photo: Jack Shuler

When we launched our religion vertical, we said, “because religion is community” in Appalachia.  When we talked about a sports vertical, we said, “because sports is religion” here. It is a topic that transcends the playing field —  and brings many of Appalachia’s stories into focus – from the political to the economic to the cultural. Former ESPN sports editor Keith Reed and Pittsburgh native promises a complicated look at the region through this prism.

— 100 Days in Appalachia

 

Many people are going to see that 100 Days is launching a sports vertical and question it, thinking we’re now bringing them scores and draft updates, but that’s not exactly the goal. What is your vision for our work in this field?

I’m fascinated by sports as a cultural connective tissue. The games themselves are competitive entertainment, but how we consume sports gives us a great opportunity to examine where and how we live. There are so many examples, but the sports economy is a great one. You can tell a community’s priorities based on how it spends its money. Well, in the U.S., we spend billions of dollars every year on sporting events and related items and infrastructure. Professional team owners are mostly plutocrat billionaires. Big time college athletes are indentured labor to millionair coaches while generating billions of dollars for institutions under the guise of amateurism. This says a lot about where American priorities are, even though I’d guess “sports” isn’t the first thing that comes to people’s minds when you say, “Appalachia.”

We’re designing this vertical with that kind of context in mind. Everyone has instantaneous access to scores, stats, trade rumors and fantasy updates in their pockets. What they don’t have  that we can provide, is a way to pull back the curtain to see where sports is a barometer on where communities stand with regard to race, wealth, public policy and cultural understandings and divides. That’s where we come in.

 

Much like religion or food, sports is such an integral part of communities not just in Appalachia, but around the world. What is it about your life experience that makes it such an important topic to you?

Almost every kid has a sport they grew up playing, or watching or at least a team their parents loved. I grew up in Pittsburgh loving the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. I played basketball. I still start or end most days with a boxing workout or exercising with a group organized by a friend who’s a former NFL player. I even coach a team in a women’s kickball league. My sons both grew up playing sports: football, track, wrestling, rugby.

So sports have been a major part of my personal life and I know how influential that can be. In your formative years, you might meet someone you never would have encountered but for the basketball court or football field. Whatever differences you have, you put away because you need your teammate to help make you better and help you win. Coaches can be enormous positive or negative influences. For elite athletes, sports can be life-changing or life-saving. I’ve seen sports across all those transformative aspects, and I believe most people, regardless of background, will be able to relate to those stories.

 

100 Days in Appalachia’s goal is to take back the narrative people on the outside looking in have created for our region and show the true diversity of this place. How will this vertical expand upon or support that mission?

Sports stories are almost perfect for creating a geographic and cultural sense-of-place. In two well-written paragraphs, I could contrast the atmospheres at a UVa basketball game and a Tennessee Titans game and you’d gain an appreciation for how different a college town in the hills of Virginia is from urbanized Nashville. The populations, infrastructure and community priorities and needs in those two places are very distinct, and that will show up in their sports fans.

One of my favorite stories I’ve ever edited was for ESPN the Magazine, for the very first “One Day-One Game” issue. We sent a bunch of writers and photographers to Houston to cover a Steelers-Texans game, and there was a piece about tailgating and how Steelers fans were exporting this white, working-class ethos and culture common to formerly immigrant communities with them. All those people moved in the 70s and 80s after the steel mills in Pittsburgh closed, and now there’s a diaspora of Pittsburghers living in other cities and following the team from stadium to stadium. A lot of what you see in some of the characters in that story, which I believe we did in 2011 or 2012, showed up at the polls and in the rhetoric around the presidential election in 2016. That tailgating story, about an old-school, blue-collar Pittsburgh guy who talked funny and drank a lot of beer, was a canary in the coal mine.

 

Rivalries in sports and the divides they create can be almost even more intense than the divisions created by our current political climate. How can storytelling and journalism in this area bring people together?

I think sports fandom, especially rivalries, are more a unifier than divider. Think about that kid who meets somebody from across town on the basketball court. As adults, they may move to different parts of the country, have different levels of education and income, but they keep up with each other over social media and they find common ground in their rooting allegiances. There’s no easier way to get people who’ve grown apart or who have very little else in common than sports trash talk.

I’m a Red Sox fan who lived in Boston and wrote about the team, who dated a Yankees fan.  I’m a Pittsburgh native who’s lived in every other AFC North city, plus Boston. I have friends from Baltimore, Boston, Cincy and Cleveland — all these cities that are supposed to be “rivals” because of sports. Yet, sports is the thing that brings us together. So I think our storytelling can be an entry point for lowering some of the polarized rhetoric from other parts of our lives and engaging one another as fans, and then as people.

 

What is the potential impact you hope to see?

I don’t have any agenda besides finding and telling good stories. I’ve never done a geocentric, hyper-regional sort of journalism project like this before, so I’m happy to explore what that looks like. I’d like to give opportunity to some talented, young and hungry writers with a passion for telling interesting stories and seeing where those stories lead. That could mean something investigative centered around college athletics or it could be something more fun and interesting. At this point, I just want the storytelling to be good and well-received.

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‘If We Can’t Mine Coal, What Are We Going To Do?’

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In this excerpt from the book After Coal, documentary filmmaker Tom Hansell describes how his media work in the coalfields of Central Appalachia led to a different understanding about what might come next for coal communities.

“EPA = Expanding Poverty in America.”  

See also: BEYOND COAL: Appalachia and Wales. Jim Branscome reviews Tom Hansell’s book “After Coal”

This statement is written in three-foot-high letters on a banner stretched over a bandstand in a public park in Pikeville, Kentucky. It is June 2012 and I am just starting production of the After Coal documentary. The crowd around me is dressed in the reflective stripes of mining uniforms or in T-shirts reading Friends of Coal and Walker Heavy Machinery. I am documenting a coal industry-sponsored pep rally before a public hearing on new water-quality regulations proposed for mountaintop-removal coal mines.  

The speaker onstage is speaking proudly of his family’s heritage in the coal industry. He concludes his passionate statement with a question: “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do in eastern Kentucky?” 

Good question. As a filmmaker who has spent my career living and working in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and documenting coal-mining issues, this is an important and difficult question to answer. My earlier documentaries Coal Bucket Outlaw (2002) and The Electricity Fairy (2010) were intended to start a civil conversation between workers in the coal industry and other community members about a shared vision for good jobs, clean air, clean water, and a safe working environment. However, the conversations almost always broke down as soon as someone pointed out the obvious: the coal industry had long been the only model of economic development in the central Appalachian region. More examples of what life after coal might look like were desperately needed to move the conversation forward.  

As I struggled with the haunting question “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do?” the image of Welsh mining villages rising from the ashes left by the coal industry captured my imagination. I thought that if I could just learn a few details about how Welsh communities made the transition, then I could identify specific solutions to help coal communities in Appalachia. However, I quickly learned that the secret to life after coal was not that simple. …  

The author (holding the boom mic). (Photo provided.)

On my own quest for solutions, in 1990, I began my career at Appalshop, a rural, multidisciplinary arts center located in Whitesburg, Kentucky—the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. From my young and naively privileged perspective, moving to eastern Kentucky was an act of opposition to the materialistic consumer-driven world. I had a goal of living self-sufficiently, fulfilling my needs with what I could make or grow, and buying as little as possible. And, as an aspiring environmental activist, the clear moral lines around the issues in the Kentucky coalfields, especially strip mining, were appealing. The battle call of union songs such as “Which Side Are You On” charged up my little post-punk heart.  

However, my experience at Appalshop quickly taught me that the struggles of coal communities were not as simple or straightforward as I had imagined. Working as part of this artistic collective, I produced radio and video documentaries and taught community media workshops. As a young artist and activist, I quickly absorbed Appalshop’s mantra of providing a platform for mountain people to speak in their own words about issues that affect their lives. I attended hundreds of community meetings: school board, the fiscal court, mine permit hearings, and union meetings. I also documented dozens of direct actions where citizens blocked roads to stop mining, took over government offices to protest the lack of enforcement, and set up picket lines to enforce union contracts.  

Retired Welsh miner and labor leader Terry Thomas (left) meets retired Kentucky miner Carl Shoupe (right). (Screenshot from the documentary, After Coal)

My experiences working on the front lines of the environmental justice movement in Appalachia gradually developed my understanding of the complexities of how culture, place, and politics had shaped the situations I was documenting. I witnessed firsthand the incredible power of community to support people as they faced threats against their homes and families. As a result, I expanded my ideas about self-sufficiency from an individualistic vision of each person taking care of their own needs to a larger vision of individuals living in symbiosis with their neighbors and the natural environment—community self-sufficiency. 

Participating in cultural exchanges at Appalshop also provided me with valuable lessons. Meeting artists from the mountains of western China and rural Indonesia opened my eyes to some of the universal challenges faced by regional cultures in an increasingly globalized economy. I hoped that an international exchange with another coal-mining region such as south Wales could identify resources and strategies that would help Appalachian coalfield communities create a future beyond coal.  

The process of creating the After Coal documentary took more than five years. During that time, I learned to stop looking for concrete solutions and start supporting an ongoing conversation about how to create healthy communities in former coal-mining regions. International efforts to address climate change make this challenge especially intense for coal-producing regions. As our economy shifts from fossil fuels, how can we ensure that places where fossil fuels were extracted do not continue to bear an unfair share of the costs of extraction?  

I believe there are as many solutions for life after coal as there are residents of mining communities. I hope these stories from south Wales and central Appalachia will inspire people to discover solutions that work in their home communities. 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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