Policing Ginseng in an Age of Global Markets and Global Warming

By Ben Prostine

My partner and I hiked Hogsback Prairie on a fog-heavy morning on the first of September. Up on the backbone ridge of the Crawford County preserve, hiking among little bluestem, side-oats grama, and flowering goldenrod, it seemed like we were in the clouds. The fog hid the wooded ridges, the corn fields in the valley, the remnants of old dairy farms – and the game wardens spying on us from the road.

When we returned to our car, an unmarked truck pulled up and a game warden stepped out, dressed with a bullet proof vest and a pistol in his holster. He walked towards our car and asked us what plant material we had in the back. We use the hatchback as a solar dehydrator in the summer and common mint – Mentha piperita – was drying.  The questioning continued. My partner, with little patience for power-talk, responded with her own questions, asking why we were being interrogated along the road of a nature preserve.   

The answer: Panax quinquefolis, or wild American ginseng. September 1 is the beginning of the official ginseng harvest and our questionable plant material made us potential poachers (the root is the valued plant part, but there is a market for the leaves, too). The mint now identified, the suspicions were dropped (According to the DNR’s website, game wardens attend the same law enforcement academy as police officers. Botany, however, is not mentioned in the training). 

As I made small talk with the game warden on ginseng poaching in southwest Wisconsin, there was a noise across the road: another game warden, in full camo and what looked like a pistol on each hip, emerged out of the brush and joined us on the road. The cop-show drama unfolded in my mind: as one warden watched us through the fog from his truck, the other waited in the brush, signaling his partner when we returned to our car after hiking in a landscape where ginseng doesn’t even grow (ginseng is a plant of the forest, not the grasslands). A beautiful morning hike in one tiny remnant of the lost prairie world – under surveillance. 

Our hike offered a brief glimpse into a complex global trade that includes tariff wars, hi-tech surveillance, Chinese luxury items, and American opioids. The roots of this trade go back to the settler days of the driftless area and as far back as French colonization in North America. Over a century and a half before Midwest farmers exported whey, pork and soybeans to China, they exported ginseng. The “at risk” status of ginseng today, which justifies the regulation and policing of the plant, can be understood as a result of overharvest and unsustainable harvest practices. But it can also be understood as an inevitable result of colonial capitalism, where labor and natural resources in one part of the world are exploited for a market in another. Ginseng is not only a wild plant, but also a lucrative commodity. 

Ginseng and the History of Globalization

American ginseng has been a global commodity for three centuries. The plant grows in the shade of deciduous forests, typically on north and east facing hills, in soils with high calcium and organic matter. In the US, the name for ginseng is derived from the Chinese – ren shen – rather than any of the numerous indigenous names for the plant, suggesting not only ginseng’s eastward trajectory in the Euro-American mind, but another example of the erasure of indigenous origins. Of the millions of ginseng roots harvested in North America since the colonial period, the vast majority have been exported to China. 

The history of ginseng as a global commodity brings us back to French colonialism and the ocean-crossing communications of Jesuit missionaries. In 1712, the Jesuit priest Pierre Jartoux, writing from China, published a detailed account of the plant and its lauded value in Chinese medicine. Jartoux also believed the plant might be found in other parts of the world, such as the French colonies in what is now called Canada. In Quebec, Joseph-François Lafitau, another Jesuit missionary, read Jartoux’s account and, with the help of Mohawk women, found a related species of the plant outside of Montreal in 1716. Lafitau is credited with the “discovery” of ginseng in North America, once again ignoring indigenous contributions (ginseng was used medicinally by numerous native peoples, including the Cherokee and Objiwe).  

Lafitau’s detailed botanical description of the plant was soon put to economic use by French fur traders and trade began with China in 1717. The fur trade, the driving force of French colonialism in North America, was now supplemented by a wild root. Iroquois natives became the labor force of French traders, harvesting ginseng and furs to pay off debts for European produced goods (what we might call the exploitation of debt-labor). Near French outposts, such as Montreal, ginseng populations were soon exhausted and the quest for the herb expanded westward.  The attempt by the French to monopolize the trade would result in a pricing bubble, and subsequent bust, by the middle of the 18th century.  

Panax quinquefolius (American Ginseng) by Jacob Bigelow/Public Domain. 

In China, ginseng (Panax ginseng) had been scarce for centuries and the attempts of the Qing dynasty to regulate the harvest of the plant failed. The vast deciduous forests of North America – ranging from the Atlantic coast to the Upper Mississippi Valley, from the southern stretch of Appalachia to the Great Lakes – provided a new frontier for this valuable commodity. In the history of globalization, the transatlantic dimensions are often emphasized, that is, the dynamics of European colonialism, indigenous American land and commodities, and African slave labor. The eastern origins of this history are often overlooked. For most of the nineteenth century, nearly 200 tons of ginseng were shipped out of the US every year. Trade between the US and China begins with a wild herb. 

In 1784, the Empress of China, sailing under the American stars and stripes, traveled from New York to China carrying silver bullion, furs, and, most importantly, 30 tons of ginseng. American Fortunes were made off the ginseng trade by the frontiersman Daniel Boone, the fur-trade monopolist John Jacob Astor and the various brokers who shipped the plant from the rugged American interiors to the ports of Canton. For those who harvested the root, whether indebted Native Americans or cash strapped Euro-American settlers, ginseng was a means to supplement low wages, low prices for farm crops, lack of work, debt payments, and basic subsistence (the human exploitation of the plant a byproduct of a wider system of economic exploitation). For Euro-American settlers and their descendants, the value of ginseng was predominantly its exchange value as a commodity – not its medicinal or dietary uses (the reported value of the root in Chinese medicine was sometimes referred to in the xenophobic terms of “voodoo” and “magic.” Today, studies have revealed multiple health benefits of ginseng and the medical research into the plant is extensive.). 

Driftless Ginseng 

In the decade before the Civil War, the coulee region of southwest Wisconsin became the latest frontier of “sang country.” Ginseng quickly became one of the many commodities the area has exported since European colonization (others would include lead, timber, tobacco, cream, corn, soy). Thriving ginseng merchants were based out of Tomah and Mauston. Ginseng briefly circulated as currency in Vernon County (a young couple in Liberty paid a minister with a basket of roots after marrying them). In at least one case, ginseng was a “mortgage lifter”; near Baraboo, a widow and her children paid off a farm loan by gathering and selling the roots. 

“It is curious to see what excitement the Sang business has got up in this country,” Jabez Brown, ginseng digger in the driftless hills, recorded in 1858.  “In the extreme money pressure it is all the article that will fetch cash or goods. Some individuals have dug hundreds of lbs. and in Bad Ax [Vernon], Sauk and Richland Cos. thousands and thousands of lbs. have been dug. Men go out with wagons and teams and provisions and bedding and camp in the woods to dig Gin Sang.” 

The “extreme money pressure” Brown refers to would be the fallout of the global financial crisis of 1857; what was then a new phenomenon, but is now the familiar companion of capitalism. Grain prices dropped, thousands of banks closed, and tax delinquency and foreclosures were common. Ginseng, however, continued to make its way to China, a partial local remedy to a global economic depression.   

Policing Ginseng 

In the 21st century, wild ginseng continues to be a revered panacea of Chinese medicine – and a mild, homegrown American cure for the wrecked economies of the rural Midwest and Appalachia. Wholesale prices for wild American ginseng have exceeded $1,000/ lb. and older ginseng roots have become luxury commodities and status symbols in China, displayed in cases like jewelry and fetching retail prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Since the financial crisis of 2008, federal and state conservation agencies have launched investigations into illegal ginseng harvest and commerce. Operation Root Cause, launched by US Fish and Wildlife agents in 2012, issued $41,000 in fines and prosecuted 14 individuals for illegal activities related to ginseng. The investigation also revealed that ginseng, once again, operates as a form of currency, this time in Appalachia where the root is sometimes exchanged for firearms and opioids. In 2013, the Wisconsin DNR completed Project Red Berry, investigating ginseng sales, records, and licenses for suspicious anomalies that might suggest illegal activity. The probe resulted in the issuing of over 100 citations to 65 individuals. In a 2013 joint investigation by US Fish and Wildlife and Wisconsin and Minnesota DNR agencies, Wiebke Fur and Trading Company of La Crosse was issued $100,000 in fines for the illegal purchase of ginseng and a two-year restriction on ginseng buying and selling.

Ginseng surveillance expands into the private sphere as well. In Appalachia, private land owners and wild-simulated ginseng growers have turned to surveillance cameras, heavy duty fences, and motion detectors. In the Changbai Mountains in China, where wild-simulated Chinese ginseng is also grown, dogs and 24/7 security guards are utilized to protect the “green gold.”

From Global Markets to Global Warming 

US Fish and Wildlife agents and state conservation wardens have both emphasized the “substance abuse problems” and “extensive criminal” records of poachers. The attempts to protect and pre-serve ginseng – whether dyeing roots with a powder that can only be seen under ultraviolet light or surveilling prairie hikers all morning – revolve around the policing of individual poachers; the systemic issues, such as the deteriorating state of rural economies and the climate crisis, tend to receive less attention. While wild ginseng grows across a wide range of temperate climates, studies have suggested that ginseng’s survival will be threatened by global warming: an increase of a few degrees, along with prolonged droughts and extreme rain events, could push this plant from “at risk” to endangered and even extinct. The attempts by state and federal agents to regulate the harvest occur within a global economy regulated and designed for profits (ecological sustainability be damned).

The global market of ginseng began in the 18th century with Catholic naturalists, French colonial traders, Iroquois laborers, woodland ecosystems and Chinese consumers. Today, ginseng could be harvested by licensed diggers utilizing sustainable harvest practices, wild-simulated growers who have re-seeded ginseng in the woods, field-cultivated ginseng farmers and Mexican laborers in Marathon County, or the sensationalized poachers seeking income in precarious rural economies. The state intervenes in the ginseng market at a local level by pursuing poachers and at a geopolitical level with trade wars. And the root itself ends up in capsules, chewing gum, tinctures, teas, energy drinks, soups and special display cases for the wealthy. The power of the commodity endures. 

But high above the extensive surveillance systems, the carbon rises and gathers, and the forest fires of the West turn the Midwestern skies into a haze. And while the cameras roll on, the plunder of the future continues, whether by fracking and strip mine industries in Appalachia or agribusiness monopolies in the Middle West – the multi-billion dollar poachers of today.

Top photo of Hogsback Prairie by Dana Scheffen. Ben Prostine lives in Crawford County, Wisconsin where he works as a writer and herdsman. His poems have appeared in several publications, including Contours: A Literary Landscape. He is the host of the radio program Poems Aloud on WDRT Viroqua

Help us reach our goal of 100 patrons by becoming a member of The La Crosse Independent for just $5.75 a month here.