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HIGH COUNTRY — No matter who it is, any grower or harvester will say that ginseng is a finicky plant that grows in very particular conditions.Hidden in lush forest floors among other understory plants, the plant known for its herbal and medicinal qualities thrives in moist and temperate forests. In Western North Carolina, there is a small handful of ginseng experts who are taking the mountain tradition of going into the woods to harvest ginseng and trying to replicate the experience in their own backyards. That method is called wild-simulation growth.Blake Dillman wades through knee-deep brush as he tucks red ginseng berries into the ground as he sees them. On his property, he has different ages of ginseng sectioned off throughout the holler. During the fall, the ginseng stands out on the forest floor with ripe, red berries and leaves that are turning yellow before most other plants.Dillman is a purist: no pesticides, no fungicides, no chemicals. He doesn’t grow the plants closely together like a farm in order to prevent the spread of diseases common with ginseng that can spread in close proximity. Instead, his ginseng are interspersed by other plants, some of which he also sells, like goldenseal. Dillman grows his ginseng in the most natural way possible to create the best quality root, and to bring in the highest dollar through his company Four Prongs Herbs Ginseng and Herb.Unlike many wild-simulation growers, Dillman has become certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as certified sustainable, certifications which can be costly. These certifications allow Dillman to sell his root for a higher price, but Dillman said many ginseng growers are wary of having visitors to their property so they don’t pursue the certifications. These are both options somebody harvesting from the woods wouldn’t have access to and which can maximize profit of the root.Dillman’s property slopes down at a break-ankle angle to provide the ginseng with adequate drainage and the most realistic mountain environment.“With good wild simulation, you can’t really tell the difference. They’re identical,” Dillman said.Holding up a root, he stated that this year, when ginseng season opened up at the beginning of September, fresh ginseng started at $200 to $250 per pound, and dried ginseng started selling at $600 to $800 per pound.People have probably been practicing wild-simulation growth for longer than is popularly known, according to Dillman. In the Boone and the larger High Country area, Dillman said the group of growers he knows all began in the last decade or so.“Growing ginseng is a long time investment,” Dillman said.It’s not a good choice to get rich quickly. Ginseng plants don’t grow the berries he is planting until they are three or four years old at earliest, and he can’t legally sell the plant in North Carolina until it is at least 5 years old, although he usually waits even longer.Once the seed is in the ground, it takes not one but two years to pop up unless he purchases “stratified” seeds which have already gone through their first year. Big, commercial ginseng operations like ones located in Wisconsin and Canada sell these seeds in bulk. Although these farm-like businesses grow large quantities of ginseng, they are universally considered less valuable and sell for significantly lower prices because the ginseng grows quickly. Rather than looking wild, this commercial grown ginseng looks more like a carrot.For Dillman, like many working in the world of wild-simulated ginseng, his ginseng growing is a hobby that has taken on a life of its own. Although he only goes through his field of ginseng every month or so, running his own business and tending to the plants is a second job on top of his normal 40-hour a week schedule, as it is for many other wild-simulation growers.Dillman said he sells most of his own root, particularly to a company called Appalachian Sustainable Development in Virginia. For many other ginseng growers or harvesters, when the fall rolls around they go to a ginseng dealer like Josh Hayes.A native to Western North Carolina, Hayes said that dealing ginseng runs in his family. His father didn’t go out into the woods and harvest the root himself, but he became adept at evaluating the price of ginseng and selling it to buyers all over the eastern United States. Hayes said his father was a big proponent of people growing their own ginseng, even when it wasn't popular among dealers like himself."This was a fear based thing that came from ignorance, these small town dealers didn't trust themselves to be able to detect something that was a 'fake,'" Hayes said.During the 1980s, 1990s and even persisting today, Hayes said some dealers have been hesitant with homegrown ginseng. His father, however, believed it was important for the preservation of the plant and for the livelihood of those who relied on ginseng to encourage cultivation of the plant.Hayes does his work at his family-founded business Ridge Runner Trading Co. in Fleetwood, where along with ginseng he sells a variety of medicinal botanicals.“The value is all based on what you could call quality, it’s an aesthetic,” Hayes said.Some buyers place a value on how ginseng looks, Hayes said, and the most valued ginseng roots are gnarly and wrinkly with dark dirt wedged in the roots’ creases. The dark dirt represents nutrient rich soil, while the wrinkles are associated with the plant growing under stress. A long neck with many sections, like rings on a tree trunk, shows the age of the root by telling how many years the top of the plant fell off during the winter and regrew the following spring.Hayes said buyers in Asian markets don’t care much about the labels applied to ginseng — whether the root was grown in the wild or wild-simulated or farmed. Hayes said that his dad partook in the creation of the different terms to label how ginseng is grown.While the labels seem like technicalities, Hayes said there is some rhyme and reason to why ginseng roots that look like those grown in the wild are more valuable. According to Hayes, the slow-growing ginseng that grows in rich, black dirt and rocky ground grows under more stress and can have higher amounts of the active chemicals and compounds that give the root its medicinal qualities.Right now, Hayes said he is still waiting to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ report on how much ginseng was sold last year. According to Hayes, the ginseng season will continue through the fall until the plants die down for the winter and become impossible to find on the forest floor.
Marisa Mecke is a Report for America corps member for Mountain Times Publications covering the environment. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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