Root Rustlers

In Appalachia, a new cash crop could save forests and communities -- if poachers don't get it first.

When Ginger Shelby tends her fields, she carries a rifle on her back. The plant she grows in secret can fetch hundreds of dollars a pound. She's been threatened and robbed by local thugs, and learned the hard way that there's no point in calling the sheriff.

Her crop is American ginseng, an herb prized in Chinese medicine that can retail for as much as $1,800 per pound. In recent years, a growing number of people in Appalachia and other eastern mountain regions have begun planting the herb on their woodlots, using a sustainable technique that can provide a healthy income to small landowners while protecting their forests from commercial logging.

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But poaching -- and, growers say, the refusal of law enforcement agencies to get involved -- is putting the ginseng revival at risk. Ginger Shelby lost an entire planting, which ultimately could have been worth $100,000, her first year. "I went to the sheriff," she says, "and they did nothing. They said to come back when I had a real crime to report." When she planted again, Shelby, who lives in eastern Ohio, put up signs warning would-be poachers of video cameras. "I'm Shawnee," she says. "I wasn't raised to be afraid of people."

Part of the problem is folk custom. In Appalachia, wild ginseng traditionally belonged to the finder, not the landowner, leaving the forest-grown variety a gray area. "If I hauled away your corn crop, it'd be clear-cut theft," says Syl Yunker, a Kentucky farmer and ginseng pioneer. "But with ginseng, we're not cultivating it, just protecting the plant." Besides, law enforcement officials say, plant poaching is nearly impossible to prosecute: "There's no way to trace ginseng," notes Bud Baumgardner, a deputy sheriff in Hardin County, Kentucky.

The Appalachian Ginseng Foundation (AGF) estimates that up to 10,000 growers now raise the herb in eastern highland forests from Quebec to Georgia. Using a technique developed by Yunker, growers plant ginseng seeds in a secluded corner of their property, and then let nature take its course for up to 10 years.

According to University of Kentucky researcher Terry Jones, an acre of forest planted with ginseng could yield a sustainable harvest of as much as 200 pounds -- $72,000 worth of roots annually, at the current wholesale price of around $360 a pound. "That certainly could improve people's lives," he says. But his own fields were cleaned out last year, five years after he'd planted an experimental crop. "They stole my whole research project," Jones laments. "I would have paid them the whole value just not to dig it up on me."

As a solution, the AGF proposes a marketing system similar to the one now used for tobacco. After inspection of their fields, growers would receive a permit to sell their crop. Ginseng brokers, who are already required to hold a state license, could legally buy only crops with permits. In a nice bit of irony, the medicinal roots could ultimately be stored in the warehouses used for tobacco: Both crops are dry and compact, and keep well without refrigeration.

After failing to get funding for a pilot program from the state of Kentucky, the AGF is now encouraging ginseng advocates to lobby Congress for a federal marketing system. In the meantime, growers must rely on guns, guard dogs -- and secrecy.

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