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.
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.
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.
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.”