Deep in the Maryland woods, under thick tree cover and hidden in plain sight amid the forest undergrowth, Larry Harding grows his prized crop. Harding’s strain is well-known for its special potency and, come harvest time, he parcels it out and offloads it to connoisseurs overseas for top dollar. Poachers are a constant threat, and Harding says he patrols with his 12-gauge. Back in 1993, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided his compound, overturning barrels and interrogating Harding about money laundering. Harding lawyered up, won a settlement, and went back to harvesting. Depending on the weather and the market, he makes between $250,000 and $1 million a year.
It’s not what you’re thinking. Harding grows ginseng.
At a time when the Chinese are getting rich exporting to Americans, Harding is a countertrender: an American getting rich exporting to the Chinese. In the world’s most populous country, ginseng (from the Chinese ren-shen, meaning “man root,” due to its multilimbed, manlike shape) is like coffee, Viagra, and Prozac all rolled into one, with a dollop of quasi-religious mysticism on top. People take it for everything from depression to arthritis to impotence, and they’re willing to pay a premium for it. A single thousand-year-old root was recently auctioned off in China for more than a quarter-million dollars, and in 2005, two Korean businessmen bought a set of six roots for $120,000, purportedly to heal their mother’s bad knees.
As China becomes more affluent, an emerging middle class is claiming a ginseng supply once divvied up among the elite. The increasing demand bumps the value; it’s now common to sell ginseng for up to $1,000 per pound. While China has about four times as many citizens as the United States, it has about half the arable land, and a large portion of that is farmed by hand, so meeting the demand needs all the help—i.e., imports—it can get. Right now, the United States exports a little more than $50 million a year in ginseng, but as word spreads and prices skyrocket, expect that to balloon.
The Harding farm is in Garrett County, about as far west into Maryland as you can go before it turns to West Virginia, a few miles past the 450-foot-long ark being rebuilt by the United Church of Christ and just north of Negro Mountain. It’s one of the largest ginseng farms of its kind in the United States, according to Harding, though corroboration on this point is hard to come by.
Harding, 50, has been growing ginseng for almost 40 years now, from seed originally gathered in the wild by Kenneth Harding, his father. Kenneth Harding was an enthusiastic hunter of wild ginseng, as are a lot of the old-timers throughout Appalachia. Called ‘sang’ or ‘seng’ in backwoods vernacular, it’s a root that Americans have been collecting ever since a Jesuit monk recognized a patch of it next to his house in the 1700s. (Native Americans had used it for centuries before that, for everything from apoplexy to headaches.) Daniel Boone and John Jacob Astor made fortunes off it, George Washington mentioned it in his diaries, and many historians contend that the ginseng trade funded the American Revolution. Today there is still a hardcore group of wild ginseng hunters, most of them old men who’ve been doing it for decades, as much for the thrill as the money.
Which isn’t insignificant—one veteran hunter, Roger Welch of Kitzmiller, Md., found a freakishly large 1-pound root last year worth thousands of dollars.
“One Chinese buyer called me up after he read a news story about the root and said, ‘Name your price,’” says Welch. “But I haven’t sold it yet. I may donate it to the Smithsonian.”
Welch, who is retired, walks the woods a couple days a week and brings in between 10 and 15 pounds a year. At the current $1,000 a pound, you do the math. It’s not bad for a part-time hobby. His best year ever, he got 17 pounds.
The Harding farm is a testament to agricultural adaptation. Seventy acres of rocky land is covered with thick timber, a series of sloping planes divided by creeks and washouts. Traditional row-by-row, combine-driven farming would be impossible here. Even if you clear-cut the forest and cleaned out all the rocks, the slopes would just wash away in the first hard rain. But ginseng can grow only in the shade, generally on or near a slope, and it thrives in the presence of certain trees and weeds. And since the root absorbs nutrients and toxins alike from the surrounding soil, overseas buyers strongly discourage the use of pesticides. In many ways, ginseng is a farmer’s dream come true: It grows on otherwise unusable land, fetches exorbitant prices, and requires little or no maintenance.
“What I do is, I prepare the beds by clearing away any fallen trees and rocks, and then in the spring I plant the seeds or rootlets,” says Harding. “Then I straw them over. Once they come up, all that’s left is basically to monitor them and spray them every two weeks with fungicide.”
Even such modest intervention, however, degrades ginseng from its truest, purest form. The most valuable grade is “wild” ginseng. Known by its gnarled, striated appearance, and often decades old, it’s considered the most potent and is most coveted by buyers. Thirty-year-old wild root brings in several thousand dollars a pound. Also keeping the price way up is the fact that ginseng is notoriously hard to find in its native habitat, even for seasoned hunters. Each wild root represents hours and hours of hiking up and down heavily forested, bear-infested mountains squinting into the underbrush. Not the easiest way to make a living, though it probably beats working in marketing.
The lowest grade is cultivated ginseng. This is grown in rows in a field, under special perforated tarps that reproduce the effect of hardwood canopy. Harvested after only three years, these roots are swollen from fertilizer, and their smooth, light skin belies their untraumatized upbringing; it’s sort of like the root equivalent of private-school students. Most ginseng buyers believe that a difficult life, as exemplified by a twisted, scarred root, makes ginseng more potent, and these cultivated roots fetch only a few hundred dollars a pound. On the other hand, they take only three years to grow, can be mass-produced, and, at $350 a pound, a thousand pounds an acre, is still more profitable than anything this side of marijuana or poppies.
In between the real stuff and the tarpaulined ginseng is “wild-simulated,” which is what Harding grows. This is ginseng grown under tree canopy and amid native undergrowth, in a cultivated-slash-uncultivated setting. These roots, harvested after five to 10 years, fetch about half the price of a wild root—around $500 per pound—though in many cases you can’t tell them apart. (Harding never mixes roots, though he says the practice is common among poachers.) Harding’s had his wild-simulated roots tested for potency and says they compare quite favorably to wild roots.
If there’s a catch, it comes on the back end. The downside to planting on steep timberland is that you have to harvest by hand. While Harding doesn’t have to put down huge outlays on equipment, he does have to hire six to eight men every year to help bring in the crop. And it’s hard work. Digging by hand, sometimes literally, often in ankle-deep mud, sifting through upturned earth for the valuable root, braced against a tree so as not to tumble downhill—this is agriculture as it was practiced pre-Industrial Revolution.
“[The harvest] is extremely labor-intensive,” says Harding. “I’m out there literally on my hands and knees from about August until it snows over.”
Once winter puts an end to the harvest, Harding dries his roots in a specially constructed high-circulation drying room, packs them into hundred-pound barrels, and ships them off to Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport, at which point his product is passed along to buyers all over the world. Some of it goes directly overseas to China or Korea, and some goes to American dealers who sell it off to their own contacts. At the latest market rates, each barrel goes for about $50,000.
“I’m doing very well,” says Harding.
I came across the Harding ginseng farm online when I was doing ginseng research for personal reasons. A few years ago I’d hit a long stretch of sickliness. In the space of less than a year, I had bronchitis, sinusitis, pharyngitis, mild pneumonia, several cavities (one of the first signs of immune deficiency), and several severe colds. My immune system seemed to be compromised, but I couldn’t figure out why.
I remembered my mother—who’s from Korea—taking ginseng for various ailments when I was growing up, so I decided it was worth a shot. I went to the YES! Organic Market, bought a bottle of ginseng capsules, and started taking two a day. That was three years ago, and aside from two bouts of the flu, I’ve been completely healthy ever since. In my mind, the before and after is too dramatic to be attributed to anything but ginseng.
But while I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles that ginseng does indeed work, there’s always a scientist lurking in the wings with a clinical refutation. The medical establishment is decidedly lukewarm about the effects of ginseng. While one trial indicates that ginseng helps fight cancer, another indicates it actually increases mortality. One experiment finds that ginseng increases stamina in long-distance runners, another finds it does nothing for elderly couch potatoes. A major university releases a report stating that a series of experiments found no evidence of ginseng’s reputed healing properties, but in the fine print it says that due to the high price of ginseng, the experiment actually used an entirely different, cheaper root. The anecdotal evidence is dramatic if inconclusive; hens that receive ginseng lay more eggs than their un-ginsenged counterparts, rats ejaculate like firehoses after taking ginseng, a 70-year-old woman’s breasts became “swollen and tender” after taking ginseng. She stopped, and her breasts returned to normal old-lady breasts. She started taking ginseng again, and they swelled up again. In one study of men with low sperm count, ginseng increased their little swimmers by 30 percent. Monkeys given ginseng pellets exhibited “increased vocalization…hyperactivity, as well as weight loss.” Irradiated rats that received ginseng lived three times as long.
Deirdre Orceyre, a naturopathic physician based in Falls Church, figures among the believers.
“Ginseng is a chi product,” she says. “It boosts energy, the immune system, and white blood cell count. It can also speed healing. It’s an adrenal adaptogen that boosts cortisol production. It’s a lot like caffeine, but it stimulates different neurotransmitters. Ginseng is very subtle.”
An adaptogen is a substance that boosts the body’s response to stress, enabling one to, for example, run farther or faster. Cortisol is a hormone released when you’re under stress to augment your immediate reactions, but sustained exposure—as in the chronically stressed-out—has been suspected of causing brain damage, cancer, and, worst of all, weight gain!
Chi, in traditional Asian medicine, is the energy that sustains life. Of course, one of the most common motivations for taking ginseng is to increase the type of energy that creates life. Over dinner one night I asked my girlfriend to think back to when we first started dating. I began taking ginseng about a month into our relationship. Does she remember any change in the firmness of my erections around then?
“I refuse to answer that question,” she says.
“So what you’re saying is that my erections were incredibly firm and robust right from Day 1?”
She stares at me blankly for a moment, shakes her head, and then goes back to her meal.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I say.
Larry Harding, for his part, has no doubt whatsoever that this effect is real.
“All my kids were born exactly nine months after the ginseng harvest,” he says. “That ain’t coincidence. The guy who works for me on the harvest, his last son was the same—nine months later. Believe me, it’ll make you into a real big man. A bigger man!”
I seem to remember some positive effects in that direction, but then again there are few things on earth more susceptible to the power of suggestion than an erection.
Harding is also a believer (though obviously not unbiased) in the more generalized benefits of ginseng. Some ginseng growers insist that taking the stuff would be like “eating money.” Harding, on the other hand, is a steady consumer of his own crop. When he finds an especially nice-looking root, he soaks it in a large jar of moonshine, shaking it vigorously every day for a month to make a potent tincture. He then adds a syringeful of the solution to his coffee each morning.
“It definitely gives me a little boost,” he says. “If I don’t have it once a day, I feel kinda slow.”
The Harding farm is located off Highway 74, through the town of Friendsville (population 550), and down an unmarked turnoff. An access road meanders between Harding’s very large, very loud dogs and his very large, very nice house before descending into the ginseng plots, where it forks and reforks into a series of bewildering switchbacks and craggy, axle-snapping ruts. This stops some, but not all, thievery. In recent years, as the Harding farm became more successful and ginseng prices shot up, poaching became more and more of a problem. Harding once caught an acquaintance in his mid-80s making off with an apronful of his prized seed, and regularly comes across holes in the ground where roots used to be. Harding has had to become more vigilant in recent years to protect his livelihood. And when he comes across thieves?
“Shoot ’em and bury ’em,” he says, most likely joking. “The law favors poachers anyway. Another grower around here came home one day to find people digging up his prize patch. He got out his shotgun and held them there while he called 911. What did the cops do when they got there? They handcuffed the grower, for holding the poachers there at gunpoint, some nonsense about kidnapping.”
Harding also has problems with deer eating his crop, though not as much as other farmers. Where most farmers simply kill any deer that come around, Harding befriends them. He shows me a photograph of him kneeling next to a baby fawn, his arm around its neck, and says that the local deer come into his house to play with his kids and even sleep on his sofa sometimes. He’s also fashioned a vaguely Pavlovian way to keep them from eating his cash crop. Once a deer becomes comfortable around him, Harding will present it with a handful of ginseng berries and a handful of carrots. As the deer eats the carrots, Harding pets it and speaks in soothing tones.
“Then I’ll slowly show it the ginseng,” he says, chuckling. “It smells it, and then right when it goes to eat it, POW! I smack it upside the head! Do this a couple times, and pretty soon it won’t come within
10 feet of a ginseng plant without getting all jittery.”
Each spring when deer hunting season rolls around, Harding outfits all his favorite deer with bells and fluorescent orange vests, in hopes of saving them from local hunters. None have survived yet.
Crop protection takes on added urgency if you consider that it takes years, decades even, for your efforts to pay off. Harding never harvests his crop before the five-year mark, and often waits eight or 10 years. Once you get going, you can stagger your plots so that in any given year you’re taking roots out of the ground, but those first five years of waiting scare away many a prospective ginseng baron. Also, ginseng sucks so many nutrients out of the ground that after a harvest, the soil is often left sterile, incapable of sustaining plant life. Harding learned this the hard way. After his first record-breaking harvest, he sunk a huge portion of his profits into immediately replanting his plots, only to find that nothing came up.
“That was rough,” he says. He’s since found that the soil replenishes itself after about 10 years, and he rotates accordingly.
The Cherokee had a ginseng-hunting tradition where they’d leave the first three plants they found, and only harvest the fourth one. While the motives behind this tradition have been lost (darn genocide!), one of its main effects was to maintain a healthy ginseng population. Unfortunately, American ginseng hunters have no such tradition. Nor did the Chinese, which is another reason they buy so much of ours—theirs is mostly gone due to voracious harvesting.
Years of rising prices and rampant overharvesting have decimated the wild ginseng population. Many states have cracked down on ginseng poaching, after years of essentially no enforcement at all, and others have raised the harvesting age from five to 10 years. Still, as long as there’s a root sitting in the ground that people will pay thousands of dollars for, people
are going to dig it up, legally or illegally, whether from their neighbor’s backyard or a national park.
Here I speak from experience. As someone who’s too antisocial to hold down a real job and whose pants are too tight to be a credible drug dealer, the idea of a thousand-dollar root somewhere out there proved irresistible. After returning from Harding’s farm, I was determined to make my fortune in ginseng. Since I don’t have a car, my ginseng-hunting options are limited. However, a little Googling led me to a U.S. Geological Service project documenting all the plant species in Rock Creek Park and wouldn’t you know it—ginseng was on the list.
Just to clarify what exactly I was getting into, I thought I’d call the Rock Creek Park ranger’s office and ask a few questions.
“Would it be illegal to dig up a plant and take it out of the park?” I asked the receptionist who answered the phone.
She made a sound like a spit-take. “I’d say it would probably be very illegal. Is it a common plant?”
“It’s more of a rare and endangered plant,” I said. “It’s also valuable.”
Silence. “Let me transfer you to our rare plants person.”
The rare plants person was not in, and I got his voice mail. I decided to take this as a sign that I should summon up some good ol’ American can-do spirit and just get out there and poach! I went into the woods on a footpath and before long I was in the forest. The sloping ground and thick tree cover looked promising. The first thing I remembered about ginseng hunting is that it’s almost always found on the cooler, east-facing slopes. I didn’t have a compass on me, though. What else? Ginseng grows around hickory trees, and near a plant called bloodroot. I don’t know what a hickory tree looks like, and God knows what a “bloodroot” looks like. Reddish, I’m guessing.
My enthusiasm for poaching was lessening by the minute, but I remembered one of the ginseng hunters saying that ginseng is always found in the nastiest, thorniest, thickest areas. With visions of top-shelf liquor dancing in my head, I plunged into a nearby thicket and began descending a tangled slope. I was seeing plenty of plants, but they all looked exactly the same. In the meantime I was getting whipped in the face repeatedly with branches while a swarm of mosquitoes injected every square inch of my exposed flesh with, I assume, West Nile virus. Also, the forest was darker than you’d think, and since I was wearing sunglasses (I’m one of those assholes who wears sunglasses all the time), I had to waddle forward in this kind of stooped-over posture to make out anything at all. Even then, I couldn’t see much. I could’ve been standing on Chandra Levy’s corpse for all I knew. Man, this poaching was harder than I thought. Wasn’t there a baby seal I could club or something?
After about an hour of this futility my back hurt, I was covered in sweat, and I decided to quit. I’ve always said that you can’t knock something until you’ve tried it, and I can now say that being a ginseng poacher sucks.
Harding’s entrepreneurial spirit, however, thrives. He is now trying to sell a juice made from the ginseng berry, a red fruit that appears on the plant in late summer and has traditionally been used for seed, if at all. The small body of research concerning the ginseng berry has found that it contains many of the active ingredients found in the root and that it may be an effective treatment for diabetes and weight loss. Harding says he has several loyal customers who swear by it.
“One woman who buys it says she doesn’t even need to take insulin no more,” Harding says. “And there’s my best customer—he started taking it and lost 60 pounds without any other lifestyle changes. When he got down to his target weight he stopped taking it and right away gained back the 60 pounds. Then he started taking it again and lost the weight again. Now he takes it religiously. If he travels, I have to overnight it to his hotel wherever he is.”
This client, who Harding says is some kind of big-time businessman, saw the billion-dollar potential of a mass-marketed ginseng berry weight-loss supplement and, through a doctor friend in Baltimore, set up a 60-subject double-blind scientific trial to verify his claims. But at the last minute, Harding balked at supplying the juice. “I don’t take any partners,” Harding says. “I’d rather make nothing than get ripped off.”