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

On the outskirts of Boone, North Carolina, a small college and ski town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Travis Cornett had turned his bucolic farm into a virtual fortress. He’d started by installing a handful of security cameras across his 12 acres of sloping pine woods. Then he’d nailed 15 bright red signs to tree trunks along the property line that warned, “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” He also kept a .22 Ruger rifle and a Kalashnikov on hand.

As far as Cornett was concerned, no one was going to touch his ginseng.

It was the fall of 2013, six years since Cornett had planted his first “sang,” as locals call it: some 40 pounds of seed in a patch of forest shade. Initially, Cornett wasn’t too worried about poachers, well known around Boone for stealing ginseng from land that isn’t theirs. His fledging crop, low growing with green, jagged-edged leaves, had looked like wild strawberry plants. Now, though, it was coming into its prime. The maturing stems were taking on a distinctive purple tinge, their leaves multiplying, their berries turning lipstick red. Cornett knew that the plants’ roots, which are more valuable with age, could soon fetch hundreds of dollars per pound. It was only a matter of time before the rest of his farm, where he’d planted more seed over the years, would grow ripe for profit — and for theft.

Yet his fortifications weren’t enough. One September afternoon, neighbors saw a scruffy man creeping around Cornett’s land. When Cornett got the news — the security cameras had failed to pick up the intruder — he grabbed a weed whacker and unleashed it on his oldest ginseng, slicing off the leafy tops. If poachers couldn’t spot the decapitated plants, he reasoned, they couldn’t steal the roots.

A week later, though, he got a call that the trespasser had returned. Just then, the man was walking up a country byway near Cornett’s property, wearing dirt-covered jeans and carrying a backpack. Cornett, who was a few minutes from home, jumped into his black GMC truck and sped through the rural hills until he spotted David Presnell. When confronted, Presnell pleaded with Cornett not to call the cops. Cornett pulled out his cell phone anyway, and Presnell took off running, unzipping his backpack as he went. Then he reached inside and started tossing tan, snaking ginseng roots by the handful into laurel thickets lining the road.

By the time police arrived several minutes later, nothing was left in Presnell’s bag save some dirt and a few stringy runners. At Cornett’s urging, however, the cops drove to Presnell’s mobile home, where they found several roots strung up to dry. Others were dehydrating on large screened trays. The incursion into Cornett’s property, police suspected, wasn’t a first offense.

In December 2014, Presnell became the first person in North Carolina to be convicted of felony ginseng larceny on private property. He joined other thieves across Appalachia — the mountainous strip of territory extending from southern New York through the Carolinas down into Mississippi — who’ve been arrested, fined, even imprisoned for various ginseng-related crimes, including poaching, illegal possession, and unlawful trade across state lines. Presnell received 30 months’ probation.

For Cornett, now a taciturn 39-year-old with brown hair and a goatee, the verdict was a warning shot to other poachers, including one who struck his backyard about a year after Presnell’s arrest. One morning, Cornett found footprints and empty holes where several big, valuable plants had been. He suspects that a former neighbor “stole’d every one of them,” he recalls in his Southern drawl.

Cornett went into business for the same reason poachers are keen to rob him. The global market for ginseng root, popularly used as an herbal supplement, is estimated at more than $2 billion. Long a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng products are also ubiquitous in Korea and increasingly popular in Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries with large ethnic Chinese populations. These days, most ginseng is mass-produced on large, pesticide-sprayed farms under the artificial shade of wood and fabric canopies. Wild ginseng, which tends to grow in temperate forests, is considered more potent and fetches a higher price. Plants like Cornett’s, cultivated in the woods, are closer to wild than to conventionally farmed ginseng.

Due to centuries of overharvesting, however, wild roots are rare commodities. In East Asia, native stocks are nearly extinct; in China and Russia, they are banned from being traded. The only other place where ginseng is indigenous is the eastern half of North America, where it grows amid ferns, trillium, bloodroot, and other low-lying vegetation. Concerned about overharvesting, Canada has prohibited the sale of wild roots. In the United States, it’s still legal — but scientists have observed stocks in Appalachia, where ginseng once flourished, dipping over the last decade.

Dwindling supply and robust demand have inflated wild American ginseng’s value. In 2014, according to public and academic data, the 81,500 pounds that were legally exported commanded an average wholesale price of $800 per dried pound. That was almost 15 times more than the going rate for farmed roots. Nearly all exports go to China, where a burgeoning middle class is willing to pay marked-up retail prices — sometimes even thousands of dollars per pound.

To feed this appetite, some Appalachians hunt during government-designated harvests and sell to local dealers, who then trade with wholesalers in Hong Kong, the epicenter of the ginseng market. Others, however, help themselves to roots with no regard for the law, hoping for easy cash in a region that’s home to six of the 10 U.S. counties with the lowest median household incomes.

An alphabet soup of agencies is responsible for the land where ginseng grows — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Forest Service, various state agencies, local police departments — and no one keeps comprehensive, national statistics on ginseng theft. Still, there’s strong evidence that criminal activity is expanding. In West Virginia, officials seized 190 pounds of illegally foraged roots worth about $180,000 in the weeks leading up to the 2014 harvest season. That’s compared with just 30 pounds in a typical year, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Everyone will tell you that ginseng — 90 percent is illegally dug somehow, one way or the other,” Cornett says on a stormy May afternoon as we drive along the picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway.

The fear among growers and dealers is that Appalachia’s ginseng, traded with Asia since the earliest days of the American republic and now among the last wild roots on Earth, may soon be gone for good. Cornett, who keeps his energy up by chewing on a gnarled ginseng root he stashes in his truck, says the situation is dire. “Out in the country, it’s gone,” he tells me. “It’s been raped. It’s just not there anymore.”

The first written account of ginseng is a Chinese manuscript called The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, penned about 1,800 years ago. It heralds a litany of the root’s supposed health benefits, from a quiet mind to sharp senses. If taken consistently, ginseng may “make the body light and prolong life.” This restorative reputation spurred widespread harvesting in China and later earned ginseng the basis of its scientific name, Panax, from the Greek word for “cure-all” — the same linguistic origin as that of panacea. Modern studies have found that chemical compounds in ginseng can reduce inflammation, relieve extreme fatigue in cancer patients, and help treat diabetes. Contrary to longstanding beliefs, however, there’s limited proof that it enhances sexual performance or athleticism.

For all its mythos, ginseng’s life cycle is lethargic. Seeds enter the soil in the early fall, when ginseng berries ripen, but take up to two years to sprout. It can then be a year or more before the infant plant grows another prong of leaves, and so on. Wild plants can live for up to 50 years, in rare cases longer. (There are apocryphal tales of 1,000-year-old ginseng.) Roots become long and aromatic as time passes, and believers say the older ginseng is, the more powerful its medicinal qualities. After being harvested and dried for one to two weeks, ginseng can last up to seven years under ideal conditions: in nonhumid air kept just above freezing, sealed off from rodents and pathogens like mold.

American ginseng entered the international economy in the early 18th century. A Jesuit cleric named Joseph-François Lafitau living in Quebec read an article about the plant written by a fellow priest dispatched to China. He became convinced ginseng was also in the New World, based on the description of the plant’s habitat, and searched the woods near his home. Lafitau found the root he was looking for. (Scientists believe ginseng is native to both East Asia and North America because some 70 million years ago, the two land masses were part of a single megacontinent known as Laurasia, according to David Taylor’s book Ginseng, the Divine Root.)

Lafitau detailed his findings in a report that set off a flurry of foraging and trading in Canada, and the quest for wild ginseng soon spread south into Appalachia. After the Revolutionary War, George Washington wrote in his journal that a survey party in West Virginia “met with many mules and pack horses laden with ginseng going east,” bound for ports such as New York; Philadelphia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia. In 1784, the first U.S. ship to sail directly to East Asia, Empress of China, carried nearly 30 tons of ginseng out of New York. Investors netted a fat 25 percent profit on the haul.

Some American icons also cashed in on ginseng. John Jacob Astor became the first U.S. multimillionaire because of real-estate interests and a fur business, which began exporting to China in the early 1800s. But he also used his contacts in Asia to trade ginseng, reportedly earning $55,000 on his first shipload. Daniel Boone, the eponymous frontiersman of the North Carolina mountain town, supplemented his own fur business by digging ginseng out of the Appalachian wilderness.

Between 1821 and 1899, an average of 190 tons of U.S. ginseng were exported every year, according to the journal Economic Botany. It wasn’t just harvested by wealthy entrepreneurs: Hunting ginseng became a routine way for Appalachian families, who lived far from ports and other commercial centers, to earn cash. According to Kristin Johannsen, author of Ginseng Dreams: The Secret World of America’s Most Valuable Plant, mountain forests at higher elevations than most settled lands were seen as commons — places where anyone could graze their livestock, cut trees, and gather ginseng.

Around Boone, old-timers say other customary hunting rules lingered into the 20th century. People could only harvest plants that were old enough to reproduce, and they needed to replant ginseng’s berries to ensure new growth. They could forage on private land unless it was fenced off or had signs telling people to keep out. “If I wanted to go up on [someone’s] property and hunt, they didn’t care,” says Clint Cornett, Travis’s 85-year-old uncle, who started gathering ginseng after he quit school as a teenager to cut timber.

Diggers sold roots to herb stores and traveling traders known as “sang men.” One popular buyer was Wilcox Drug in downtown Boone, then home to a cluster of trade and supply stores catering to locals. People came to the family-run business from the Blue Ridge slopes with burlap sacks full of ginseng, as well as ginger, sassafras, and other medicinal plants. Since the plant matures in the fall, ginseng roots were often sources of “Christmas money,” says Jeff Van Hoose, a friend and business partner of Travis Cornett. Wilcox Drug, in turn, sold roots to brokers in New York, whose clients were mostly buyers in Hong Kong.

Yet ginseng wasn’t profitable enough to encourage intensive poaching. When theft happened, no one tended to make a fuss. Wild ginseng grew on Clint Cornett’s land, and local boys knew when to pounce. “We’d go to church on Sunday, so they’d come out, help themselves,” he says. Yet he didn’t think to call the law.

The foraging culture began to change after the United States joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1974. Along with lions, mahogany, and alligators, wild ginseng falls under Appendix II of the treaty, which includes species on the verge of becoming endangered. For the first time, states that wanted to export wild roots were required to issue broad regulations on hunting. They designated specific digging and trading seasons; some mandated permits to forage on public lands. Dealers were instructed to register their businesses and certify that roots were harvested legally. The federal government had to clear inspected ginseng before export. (In the late 1990s, rules were tightened to stipulate how old harvested plants had to be; five years became the minimum.)

CITES had practical shortcomings, though. Dealers could do little more than take diggers at their word about ginseng’s provenance: In appearance, a root is a root is a root. Rangers, meanwhile, were hard-pressed to patrol vast forests. If anything, the new regulations expanded America’s ginseng market as people turned to farming roots, which wasn’t subject to as many bureaucratic hassles and was possible in different environments. Among them was Paul Hsu, a Taiwanese immigrant in Wausau, Wisconsin — far from Appalachia — who claimed that ginseng had alleviated his mother’s chronic pain from arthritis and diabetes. He started planting crops in 1978. Today, Wisconsin produces 95 percent of farmed American ginseng, and Hsu, with more than 1,000 acres, is one of the country’s biggest single growers.

As states registered dealers and compiled their names on public lists, overseas buyers began contacting them directly — much to the chagrin of New York export companies that had guarded their Asian contacts closely. Wilcox Drug was one beneficiary. In 1982, Tony Hayes, an herb-purchasing agent, joined the business and helped it build a network of international buyers. Within a year, Wilcox Drug tripled the amount of wild ginseng it sold, according to Hayes. Twelve years later, it was acquired fully by the Zuellig Group, a Swiss company that has global interests in pharmaceuticals and agribusiness.

Other Appalachians, including Travis Cornett, would jump into the ginseng game. First, though, China had to get rich.

Travis Cornett grows ginseng in Boone, North Carolina.

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. 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.

A "no trespassing" sign posted in Travis Cornett's ginseng crop in Boone, North Carolina.

David Presnell’s story starts much like that of the man he stole from. As a child in the 1970s, his truck-driver father taught him to find ginseng in the woods. “We used to hunt it all the time,” says Presnell, standing outside his trailer smoking a cigarette. He looks older than his 52 years, with unruly grayish-brown hair, a deeply lined face, and ice-blue eyes that stare out from under a faded baseball cap. “My dad used [ginseng] to buy clothes, food — that’s how we survived,” Presnell tells me.

Ginseng became a matter of survival again decades later. Presnell ran afoul of the law; he was convicted of murder in 1983 and was incarcerated for 24 years. When he got out on parole, he was hurting for money and coping with post-traumatic stress disorder from his prison term. At most, in hunting ginseng, “I felt I did a little bit of wrong,” Presnell says. “It’s just a wild plant,” he adds.

Research shows that Presnell isn’t the only one who thinks this way — and acts on it. Jim McGraw, a conservation biologist at West Virginia University, studied 30 wild populations of ginseng across seven states over 11 years, ending in 2010. He found that 65 percent were poached from land where hunting was forbidden, 20 percent were dug up outside of legal harvest seasons, and 82 percent were uprooted before they were 5 years old. McGraw calculates that just over 1 percent of the plants he tracked were gathered in accordance with the law.

The methamphetamine and heroin epidemics have increased poaching’s allure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, West Virginia and Kentucky had the country’s highest and fourth-highest rates of drug overdoses resulting in death. The same year, in Tennessee, more people died from opioid overdoses than in car accidents. Police say people who need money for drugs will steal anything they can convert quickly into cash, from chainsaws to copper wiring to ginseng. “It’s as good as money on the streets,” says Lucas Smith, a deputy sheriff in Boone. Recently, local officers found a load of roots when they arrested a meth cook. “They suspected that it was being used for trade,” Smith explains. In eastern Tennessee, a prescription-drug trafficker named Johnny Grooms, who ran a poached-roots-for-pills operation outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was convicted by a federal court in 2011 and sentenced to more than 24 years in prison.

Hayes, formerly of Wilcox Drug, now runs his own herb-dealing company, Ridge Runner Trading. He describes “jittery and nervous” addicts showing up at his warehouse with ginseng. “I’ve seen ’em come in twice a day. They’ll be there when you get in in the morning, because they dug it late the night before,” he says. Some come bearing young roots that aren’t worth very much. “They tear them out of the ground,” Hayes says. “If there’s a lot of damage, that means they were in a hurry.”

He claims not to buy roots from people he suspects use drugs — “Don’t cater to it, don’t want it, don’t want ’em around” — but other local dealers don’t draw a line. “I know one very well that caters to ’em,” Hayes says. “He’s pretty dependent on that crowd.”

None of this has been helped by poaching’s recent glamorization in pop culture. On an episode of Appalachian Outlaws, a reality show that ran on the History Channel from 2014 to 2015, the narrator intones, “In the Far East, ginseng is used for just about everything, from fighting off illness … to lifting libido.” Large ginseng roots dangle in the frame suggestively before the camera cuts to thick wads of cash. “But for Appalachians, it’s a chance to make a ton of money.” The slickly edited program featured poachers — anti-authority types with bushy beards, bandanas, and camouflage gear — pursued by gun-toting landowners.

The show, along with National Geographic’s Smoky Mountain Money, produced a flood of interest in wild roots. Ginseng experts were inundated with calls and emails from would-be diggers who said they “saw the TV show,” says Jim Hamilton, an agricultural extension agent in Boone. Janet Rock of the NPS remembers one man who called a ranger for help because he heard coyotes and wanted to be rescued. “He admitted at the time that he had been trying to poach ginseng after watching one of the shows,” she says.

Because of theft, the first rule of growing ginseng is: You do not talk about growing ginseng. Registered dealers can’t escape being on public lists, but for people with wild plants growing on their property, “the best thing is just not to tell anybody,” says Hayes’s son, Josh, who works in the family business. (Any ginseng they don’t sell in-season they stow in a temperature-controlled vault the size of a large closet, with “Pentagon” emblazoned on the door.) Another source declined to be named, fearing thieves would come for his roots if they knew his identity. “Don’t put that in there ’cause I’ll have to shoot somebody if you print that,” he tells me with a laugh.

It’s not necessarily an idle threat: In 2012, an Ohio man using an AK-47 killed a ginseng thief who came onto his land.

While it’s difficult to quantify exactly how much wild ginseng has been drained from Appalachia, some numbers illustrate a grim picture. Not for lack of demand, American exports shrank by more than half between 1992 and 2002, then by a third over the next decade. Gary Kauffman, a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service, isn’t seeing the plants grow back. Wild plots he’s monitoring in North Carolina have shown a 25 to 30 percent decline over the past decade.

In addition to overharvesting, deforestation and a thriving population of white-tailed deer, which feed on ginseng, are contributing to the loss. Future climate change will only accelerate the decline. Conservation biologist Sara Souther has simulated what a 1-degree Celsius increase over the next 70 years would mean for wild ginseng. She’s found that when warming is combined with harvesting’s effects, the plant’s extinction risk hits 65 percent. The temperature rise Souther examined, though, is well below projections of global increases over the next century. “What’s going to happen in the next 50 to 100 years,” says Burkhart of Penn State, “is that any truly wild [ginseng] is going to be wiped out. I think it’s inevitable.”

There is a fierce debate over what should be done to save ginseng. Some states have shortened their harvesting seasons or limited the number of digging permits they grant. To tackle poaching in the 800-square-mile Great Smoky Mountains National Park, plant-protection specialist Jim Corbin has devised a reddish dye to mark ginseng roots that is visible only under black light. His team has dyed more than 43,000 plants to date. Between 2010 and 2014, the NPS says Corbin’s system helped convict more than 40 poachers who tried to sell illegally foraged roots. It would be impossible, though, to tint every wild plant; they can be difficult to find, and there isn’t the political will to implement more comprehensive monitoring. “Plants don’t have big brown eyes or fur,” says Tom Chisdock, a special agent with the FWS.

Among growers, traders, and conservationists alike, there’s speculation that the United States might take the leap to prohibiting the export of wild ginseng entirely. Burkhart, though, says an all-out injunction probably would create a black market for roots. “All it’s going to do is double or triple the price,” he says. East Asia offers a cautionary tale: According to a 2011 U.N. report, as much as 1,300 pounds of ginseng are smuggled from Siberia to China every year, and “the finest specimens … sell for tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram.”

Burkhart says the U.S. government shouldn’t double down on regulations that aren’t enforceable. Instead, it should focus on popularizing crop-growing in the woods. “Increased forest cultivation to produce high-quality products is really the future,” he says. It can be a risky business, though, especially for cash-strapped Appalachians. They invest upfront and wait several years for a payoff, all while worrying that disease, pests, or thieves might leave them with nothing to show for their patient efforts.

Hayes thinks the government should distribute free seeds to law-abiding diggers to scatter during harvests, like the sang-hunters of yore used to do. “We had stewards for years,” Hayes waxes nostalgically. “Like this guy,” his son adds, pointing to a print hanging on the wall of their trading company’s warehouse, depicting an old-fashioned mountain man marveling at a ginseng plant in full bloom.

“Most ginseng hunters are honest, good people,” Cornett says, echoing the call to give seeds to harvesters. “Most of them.”

In China, extremely valuable American roots — typically 20 years or older — are high-end luxury items sold in swank boutiques, where they’re sometimes kept behind glass like valuable gemstones or pieces of art. Business elites give associates gnarled ginseng to impress or even bribe them. Rein, of the China Market Research Group, says he once attended a meeting with a real-estate developer at the home of a powerful government official’s daughter. She gave the developer what she claimed was $30,000 worth of ginseng tea.

Ginseng’s vaunted status, Rein notes, is why Chinese consumers aren’t fretting about overharvesting in Appalachia. “I don’t think the buyers care how they get it. They understand it’s a rough world — long as it’s getting to them,” he says.

Arguably, if there’s a force that threatens the Chinese side of the market, it’s greed. This year, Hang Fat nearly went belly up after its founders artificially inflated stock prices then used them as leverage for personal investments. After the company abruptly failed to make payments to ginseng suppliers, its shareholders started offloading stock, and Hang Fat’s shares dropped by more than 90 percent. Scores of farmers in North America haven’t been compensated for their cultivated roots, and the fallout has affected the wild market, as well: Hayes reports price decreases in the first half of 2016 as large as 20 percent.

In Cornett’s experience, the ginseng business has always rebounded. “It ain’t hard to sell it,” he says. “[Customers are] calling you, begging.” He’s aware, though, that the ties binding his home to China could fray in a matter of years.

He’s doing his part to put that off as long as possible, evangelizing about growing roots in the woods. But deterring poachers will “be a battle to the end,” he pronounces one spring morning over a breakfast of eggs, hash browns, and sugared ham at Cracker Barrel.

To stiffen security, he’s setting up more cameras around his property. He keeps tight-lipped about his bounty, telling workers who help tend his land that he’s just growing alfalfa. And he’s willing to use tools far more powerful than a weed whacker to scare off would-be thieves.  “I’ll come in shootin’,” Cornett says, a wry expression on his face.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of  FP magazine under the title, “The Thrill of the Hunt.”  

Suzy Khimm is a journalist based in Washington D.C. (@suzykhimm)