Dealing in Green Gold: The Ginseng Trade in West Virginia
Despite the many threats to wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) growing on the steep forested slopes of West Virginia, the people who know how to find it are still able to. For generations, hundreds of “hunters” have dug the valuable roots for supplemental income. And for as long as there have been ginseng hunters, there have been ginseng dealers. Diggers have their favorite dealers, who either live nearby or whose reputation for a fair deal warrants a trip a little further down the road.
Dealers are the liaisons between the diggers and the marketplace, which is mostly in China and Korea. Most dealers have, at one time or other, been out digging ginseng themselves, and they know the plant and its valuable roots well. Their working knowledge also includes the regulations on international trade in ginseng, the going price of both dried and fresh roots, and how to carefully pack the product for shipping. They usually also deal in other seasonable and regional wild botanical herbs, including goldenseal, black cohosh, and bloodroot.
The West Virginia Department of Forestry maintains a list of registered ginseng dealers who are legally allowed to buy the root and trade it internationally, so they are not hard to find. But to identify the most respected dealers in West Virginia, there is no better source than Robin Black, ginseng coordinator at the Division of Forestry in Charleston. She pointed us toward Randy Halstead of Peytona and Tony Coffman of Birch River.
The Halstead family runs a scrap metal and recycling business located in Charleston. Since the ginseng and herb trade is seasonal (in West Virginia, the season is legally September 1 until November 30), dealing in scrap metal and other recyclables is a business many ginseng dealers rely on for steady income. Early wild herb dealers often traded in furs as well, and some still do. Randy’s son and grandson work with him and know their ginseng as well as their recyclables.
Randy got into ginseng trading as a third career, after working as a foreman for a coal company and starting a successful agricultural seed and feed business. But knowledge about ginseng goes much further back in his family. “It was part of my heritage,” he told us.
When his father, a coal miner, missed work due to layoffs or strikes, Randy and his four brothers would accompany him to the woods to dig ginseng for extra income. Back then, there were fewer restrictions on where and when one could dig. “We’d take a lunch and stay all day.” The roots were only worth $20 to $30 per pound compared to several hundred dollars per pound today, but to a large family trying to make ends meet, this was a boon.
Ginseng trading was much more informal and, Randy says, less than scrupulous when he was young. He remembers dealers simply telling them how much they had. “They wouldn’t weigh it. They’d just guess at it.” Randy vowed that, when he became a dealer, he would always give diggers a fair deal. “When I started buying ginseng, I thought I’d be the person that gives people what they got coming. People know when they’re being treated wrong.”
Tony Coffman, like Randy and his family, also deals in scrap iron and recyclables along with ginseng, other seasonal wild herbs, and furs. Though off the beaten path, his office and shop are hard to miss, marked by a gigantic sign sporting a mischievous looking anthropomorphic ginseng plant and a ten-foot-tall metal ginseng sculpture. Unlike the Halsteads’ business office, which is devoid of ginseng paraphernalia except for a few photos on a bulletin board, the Coffmans’ office displays various sizes and shapes of ginseng specimens preserved in large jars and a ginseng painting on a sheet of metal roofing.
Guy Coffman, Tony’s grandfather, was one of the most prominent ginseng dealers in central West Virginia. The trade skipped a generation, and, as Tony says, attracted him as a teenager when he realized how much more pocket money it would make him than his previous summer job. “Ginseng went from $32 to $50 a pound in one year, one season. And $50 to a fourteen-year-old kid is quite a bit of money, when you work mowing lawns for five bucks. So, that’s when I got interested in it.”
His grandfather learned the trading business from an older mentor named Matthew Justice. After a mishap at his first job in a tannery and a brief stint in a coal mine, Guy began traveling with Matthew trading cattle and other goods. As Tony explains, few people in the very rural area around Birch River had a vehicle back then to get goods to market. “There’s a natural migration over into the fur business and ginseng, because anything they had to sell, he would buy from them and take to the market.” Gradually, Guy built up that part of the business. Tony started working for his grandfather part-time when he was still in high school and full-time after he graduated. When Guy passed away in 1987, Tony took over the business.
Ginseng dealers like Randy and Tony need to know their business partners well, both on the supply side and the demand side. Despite our questions about individuals on both ends of this spectrum, we came away with few details about their exact identities. Ginseng traders usually keep that sort of information close to the vest; they need to protect their own sources and market. Diggers are secretive about their most productive wild ginseng “patches” and wish to deter poachers. Regional dealers like Randy and Tony build business relationships with higher-level buyers from large U.S. or Asian cities and like to keep their contacts private.
Though legal digging season ends on November 30 in West Virginia, diggers have until March 31 to sell roots to a registered dealer. During this relatively brief season, Randy and Tony and their families are extremely busy buying and shipping product. In earlier days, the trade was all in dried ginseng roots, but more recently, the market for fresh ginseng has picked up considerably. Tony explains that Korean and Korean American buyers prefer fresh, which they use in cooking or process into what is known as “red” ginseng for use in traditional medicine. Fresh ginseng roots are often transported wrapped in moss to keep it moist without promoting rot.
Dried ginseng is packed in cardboard barrels and air-freighted to Asia. Both Randy and Tony explained that they buy dried ginseng as a lot, or in bulk. Though older, larger roots and roots shaped certain ways (“man roots” that resemble a person and “pearl roots” that have a round bulb, for instance) are prized by Asian buyers, neither Randy or Tony single those out. “It’s like taking the gold out of the ring,” Randy explains. “If you take a ring to a pawn shop, they know where the gold is at.” Buyers buy by the lot, and the ginseng is separated, graded, and sold on their end. This way, the West Virginia digger gets a fair price from the dealer for his or her whole harvest, which usually includes roots of all sizes and shapes.
Randy and Tony both speculated on whether American ginseng might become seriously endangered in the future. “The [wild] ginseng plant will outlive the diggers, because the younger generation is not picking it up,” Randy affirmed. “They don’t have the need. The ginseng diggers are dying away.”
Tony takes a broad view of American ginseng conservation, including the role of large ginseng farms in Wisconsin and Ontario, which produce thousands of pounds of ginseng seeds every year, in perpetuating the species. “How can you ever wipe a plant off [the Earth] that has so much seed stock?” Both dealers acknowledge the huge problem of the illegal poaching of wild ginseng off season or on private property or state-owned land.
As for their personal future in the business of ginseng dealing, Randy’s son and grandson will likely carry on the herb business as well as the scrap metal and recycling business—if he retires. Tony currently has no children or apprentices interested in carrying the business into the next generation, although he employs a couple of assistants who work with him and know the trade. It is clear, though, from talking to Randy Halstead and Tony Coffman, that the knowledge of long-time dealers represents a tradition as deep as the roots growing in the West Virginia mountainsides.
Betty Belanus is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, focusing on a program about American ginseng for 2020 Folklife Festival.