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Ginseng dealers see less stable market during COVID-19 and dwindling harvesters

woods ginseng

(Devan Ridgway, WFIU/WTIU News)

Michael Bartlett hikes through a dark forested area searching for ginseng – a native root in Indiana and 18 other states. It’s believed to have medical benefits that make it valuable, especially in Southeast Asian markets.

Indiana is in the height of ginseng harvest season, according to DNR officials.

The season runs from September to December, while buying lasts until March. 

duncan ginseng
Bartlett shows a ginseng plant, and says it's important not to cut the plants when ou're harvesting the root. (WFIU/WTIU News)

But the last year-and-a-half, herb dealers like Bartlett, who works for Duncan’s Botanical Products, have faced challenges of an unpredictable economy for ginseng and other herbs, along with fewer harvesters. 

From southern Indiana, Bartlett went hunting for ginseng for the first time 30 years ago. 

“It was a way to make an income as a kid,” he said. “I grew up on a farm but you pretty much had to do something else on the weekends. I’ve bought a lot of stuff through the years just digging ginseng.”

Now, he works with Brent Duncan at Duncan’s Botanical Products to buy ginseng from harvesters, and he and Duncan cultivate their own small crop. 

After so many years, he’s has learned the tricks of the trade; explaining that plants have to be old enough to be legal to harvest, and you always want to treat them delicately so that they will grow back.

Bartlett joined Duncan’s business in 2005. They buy different types of herbs native to Indiana- but American ginseng is one of their more valuable purchases. 

Duncan said in recent years, fewer people come in to sell ginseng – and younger harvesters don’t have the same knowledge as older generations.

“It’s disappointing to see the decline of it, the loss of harvesters,” Duncan said. “The people I’ve seen over the years who are just too old to go do it anymore.”

He said it feels like losing part of his heritage. 

Duncan said the market got off to a bumpy start last year with COVID-19.

duncan ginseng
Duncan explains that there are different levels of quality to American ginseng, and much of Indiana's is wild, which is the most expensive. (WFIU/WTIU News.)

“COVID hit and it actually hurt all facets of the herbal industry, not just ginseng…a lot of people just didn’t want to get out in public and we’re still reeling from that a little bit,” he said. 

The DNR said the root started at $350 per pound and ended at $600 last year.

According to the Indiana DNR, which tracks ginseng sales in the state, the average price per pound for ginseng in the 2019-2020 season was $667. DNR officials said the drop was “due to the erratic nature of the beginning of the season.” They attributed this to COVID-19.

And the harvest last year for the state weighed in at just over 2,500 pounds, which is about 1,100 pounds less than two years ago.

Laura Minzes is the Indiana DNR ginseng coordinator. She said she’s not worried that the crop here is going extinct, and Indiana’s crop isn’t as big as some Appalachian states but is good quality and consistent.  

She added that the harvest and market were unsteady last year but the demand is still there, and most of the harvest here goes to China. 

“Because most of our ginseng is wild and that is a property that they look for,” she said.

Duncan said all the ginseng from Duncan’s Botanicals is sold to Southeast Asia.

Duncan said he doesn’t expect to buy as much ginseng from harvesters as they have in the past, but hopes things will look more normal next year. The current price for a pound of wild ginseng is $550. 

The DNR has harvesting rules in place to keep it from going extinct.

But Duncan and Bartlett say that won’t happen in Indiana. As fewer people express interest in foraging for it, the protections in place will prevent extinction.

“We have some elderly people that we learned when they came in this year, that this is their last year going [to harvest].”

Bartlett said the responsibility of teaching DNR rules to younger harvesters and the tricks for finding ginseng fall to dealers such as him and Duncan.

“Really no one knows anything about what the laws are on it, so when they come in we have to teach them ‘no you can’t dig on state property, you can’t dig on forestry property,’” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said a big part of the excitement in harvesting is not knowing what you’ll find underneath the ground.

Bartlett and Duncan said anyone interested in harvesting should find dark woods where they have written permission to forage.

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