China’s Gold Rush in the Hills of Appalachia
Buyers in Hong Kong and Beijing are paying top dollar for wild American ginseng, fueling a digging frenzy that could decimate the revered root for good.
Photographs by Jacob Biba
Ginseng became more lucrative than ever in the 1990s, thanks to economic reforms undertaken by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. As China privatized industries and opened its markets to foreign investment, personal wealth surged. Between 1991 and 2002, the country’s middle class jumped from less than half to almost three-fourths of the population, according to the Asian Development Bank. This boosted demand for all manner of commercial goods, including ginseng, a symbol of heritage and health. People wanted it however they could get it: whole, sliced, powdered, packed into pill capsules, infused in cosmetics, steeped in beverages.
Expensive wild roots, in particular, became emblems of newfound prosperity. The Asian kind wasn’t readily available because authorities had never prioritized replenishing it, focusing instead on farming ginseng of lower value in massive quantities. That made the wild American variety a premium product. Modern considerations mattered, too. U.S. ginseng was “considered clean and safe, and the soil is not contaminated from pollution,” says Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group, a Shanghai-based business consultancy. (Rein says he takes ginseng every day, “the more expensive the better.”) According to Eric Burkhart, a botanist at Pennsylvania State University, after remaining under $300 per pound for a decade, wild ginseng’s price cracked $400 in 1995. Over the next decade, that number doubled.
While ginseng consumption was on the rise in China, Appalachia’s economy was falling fast. West Virginia and Kentucky hemorrhaged jobs as traditional industries like coal mining declined, and western North Carolina bore the consequences of U.S. manufacturing moving offshore. According to the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, manufacturing was once the state’s largest economic sector, employing more than one-third of the labor force in 1975. By the end of the century, that percentage had been cut almost in half.
At the time, Travis Cornett was an electrician. He found steady jobs in construction around Boone, escaping the doldrums that afflicted other blue-collar workers. But the bottom fell out in 2007, when the housing market crashed. Cornett was also coming out of a bad divorce. (“I caught her cheating on me, and it ripped my heart out,” he says.) To get him through the rough patch, he turned to God — he’s a born-again Christian — and ginseng.
Cornett had hunted roots as a teenager, learning from his uncle and cousin, and remembered the tradition as having soothing, almost spiritual qualities. “There’s something about getting into the woods,” Cornett says. “It’s like you don’t have any problems anymore.” He’d also heard how lucrative the root now was, bringing in $1,000 per pound just before the financial crisis hit. So he started digging.
He foraged about 40 pounds during the 2007 harvest season. As the weeks passed, however, it got harder to find. Then he had a thought: What if he could grow his own? Not on industrial farms, but in the rugged setting where ginseng belongs. Cornett bought some seed online and started planting it in the forest around his house. It was his first foray into what’s known as “wild-simulated” ginseng, which according to websites peddling how-to guides, could bring huge paydays. WildGrown.com calls it “the best retirement business available today.”
Market classifications aren’t stringent, but they do break down along some general lines: Wild ginseng that’s 10 years old — considered a loose benchmark for a market-ready product — typically has a thick trunk and notched, skinny neck; its taste is sharp and bitter. In 2015, according to Boone dealers, it went for an average of $850 per dried pound. A root grown on a conventional farm, like Paul Hsu’s in Wisconsin, doesn’t usually make it to 10 years of growth, but is harvested after just three or four. It’s immediately recognizable as smoother, plumper, and straighter, with a sweeter taste, and typically sells for $50 a pound or less. Entrepreneurs like Cornett are trying to bridge the gap between the two by seeding ginseng directly into the forest floor. Some take an au naturel approach, while others till the soil or add chemical fertilizers. (Cornett says he uses gypsum.) Depending on its appearance, taste, and aroma, it can fetch roughly the same price as wild ginseng. “As they say,” Hayes explains, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Cornett has sowed more than 20 acres over the past nine years and convinced some friends, including Jeff Van Hoose, to join him. He hopes High Country Ginseng, which he officially named his business in 2014, ultimately will produce 500 pounds of dried roots per acre — a harvest that could make him millions. He’s waiting at least two more years to dig, however, letting the oldest roots mature to the decade mark while monitoring ginseng prices. He hopes to identify a sweet spot when he feels he’s ready get back the $100,000 already invested in the company — plus a hefty profit.
In the meantime, High Country Ginseng sells seed and serves as a dealer, purchasing wild roots from local diggers and selling them to larger buyers, including foreign ones. Three years ago, a man saying he worked for Hang Fat, one of China’s biggest ginseng wholesalers, showed up in Boone: “skinny jeans, little 20-year-old, earrings all in his ear,” Cornett recalls. Once a small family firm that traded in deer antlers and shark fins, Hang Fat has carved out a niche over the past two decades by importing American ginseng, sorting and grading it based on quality, then shipping it to mainland China. Between 2011 and 2013, according to an internal business prospectus, Hang Fat’s net profits rose an average of 70 percent annually.
After the Chinese businessman arrived on Cornett’s doorstep, he took pictures of the roots on offer, sent them to his boss, and quickly closed the deal on a purchase. Cornett hopes selling his homegrown crop will eventually be so easy — if he can get it safely to market.