Framing a Domestic Market for American Ginseng: A Conversation

by Erika Galentin

…it may also be true that ginseng gains resilience [as a species] by attracting different elements of human society–not just people involved in medicine, but also in culture and commerce.” David A. Taylor, Ginseng, the Devine Root

Erika GinsengAmerican ginseng ( Panax quinquefolius ) berriesEvidenced by the United Plant Savers’ Ginseng Summit of 2014 and the North Carolina Natural Products Association’s International Ginseng Expo of 2015, there is tender evolution taking place in regards to the American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) industry. Questions relating to everything from conservation barriers, cultivation practices, federal and international regulations, economics, and genetics are steadily being discussed as even deeper questions begin to emerge. Interest in this iconic species is gently spreading, like water on fertile soil, affecting landowners, growers, regulators, law enforcement officials, ecologists, geneticists, pharmacognosists, ethnobotanists, non-profits, natural product industry leaders, and healthcare professionals in pursuit of “wildlife” conservation, market stability, economic initiatives, medical advancement, and even cultural preservation.

In these evolutionary times, two facts remain steadfast: 1) The American ginseng industry functions, as it has for centuries, on the fuel of export market trade. Like an aorta flowing from the American heartland, it is argued that this export-focused industry has paradoxically resulted in both the demise and preservation of the species. 2) Similar to the phytochemical and ecological nature of the species itself, the American ginseng industry is complex, layered, and multivariate. This latter truism is especially highlighted by the presence of federal and international trade regulations, conservation concerns, divergent cultivation and growing practices, law enforcement policies, and global-market economics.

Within these truths there appears, at first, to be little room for the discussion about the logistics of a domestic market (interstate trade within the United States). Indeed, the concept of a domestic market for the species is seemingly inconsequential due to the minimal role that it has always played in the ongoing American ginseng saga. In some cases it could even be considered improbable, if not impossible. The industry’s attention is directly deposited into the consumer demand for American ginseng in China and other Asian countries. And rightly so; there are American businesses (from individual growers, diggers, and dealers all the way up to corporate enterprises) that derive most, if not all, of their ginseng sales revenue from attending to the needs of contiguous centuries-old medical traditions and world views of the East. This is where American ginseng is most revered and valued, where consumers are willing to pay for what it is worth, where the pains and strains, yet minimal gains for the American ginseng digger or grower are most likely to fulfill a positive cost-benefit ratio.

However, within this complex environment an intriguing domestic market experiment is currently underway. Testing the soil of this potentially fertile ground, Mountain Rose Herbs of Eugene, Oregon is the first bulk herb supplier to bravely step forward to participate in the young initiatives of the PCO Forest Grown Verification Program. This voluntary program, administered by the non-profit Pennsylvania Certified Organic, has established a branded third-party verification for non-timber forest products, like American ginseng, that prescribes standards of production, harvest, and handling, which are designed to both ensure sustainability and uphold federal and international laws regarding its trade. In a recent interview with Mountain Rose Herbs regarding their participation in this rousing venture, Jennifer Gerrity, Executive Director of Operations and Erin McIntosh, Marketing Director stated,

“We avoided wild American ginseng before this Forest Grown Verification program began, because it was just too sensitive of a plant and not our typical market…. The program provides the transparency our customers expect, as well as an opportunity to work with these special plants without fear of harm to the wild populations. For us, the domestic market is growing and will continue to grow through this effort. It is happening naturally, and we are truly grateful to see it take shape.”
So, in other words, this pioneering experiment appears to be working, shedding light upon the future viability of a domestic market for American ginseng. It is also suggesting a means by which a domestic market would support forest-grown and wild-simulated growing practices–responsible and ethical sourcing combined with a permaculture-like praxis that could reduce pressure on wild populations and sustain the long-term survival of the species.

As this experiment evolves, there is a gentle conversation brewing amongst American ginseng industry gurus. When posed with the questions of why and how in regards to nurturing a domestic marketplace, various themes are beginning to emerge in regards to both barriers and viability of domestic trade for the species. These themes wax and wane in their prominence depending on which potential domestic consumer groups are being alluded to as well as what part of the plant is desired and for what purposes. The following is merely a report on a few of the more prominent theses arising from the domestic market conversation, one that is filled with a multitude of possible angles and rationalizations that await exploration.

Theme # 1: An undervalued species

One of the major themes that is emerging in the conversation regarding barriers to a domestic market for American ginseng lies in the overwhelming notion that Americans (non-differentiated) do not value the roots themselves, let alone their medicinal virtues, when compared to the connoisseurship found in the Asian market. In this export environment there is a significant spectrum of value, as a reflection of both a root’s appearance and taste, which is captured between cultivated versus wild roots with more than 40 different grades being recognized. This is a consumer culture that not only reveres American ginseng for its inherent medicinal properties, but also for its symbolic and artistic potencies. For example, an Asian consumer may purchase a single elaborately displayed ginseng root as a gift of respect, honor, or gratitude, or it may be placed in a home as a symbol of status. In summary, there is expressive cultural meaning placed upon the species, a meaning that is not paralleled by modern American consumer culture. There is a wide sea dividing the cultural nuances of West and East.

However, the term value in regards to American ginseng can also be tricky to define, as its meaning is dependent upon who is expressing it and how it is being interpreted. Although the average American consumer of natural products unarguably does not value American ginseng in the same ways or with the same fortitude as the Asian consumer, it does not mean that the species has gone unvalued or even undervalued throughout American history and into modern times. This is evidenced by a substantial ethnobotanical list of medicinal uses employed by various Native American tribes, curious yet informative testimonies in historical texts of Physiomedical and Eclectic botanic physicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the multi-generational culture and ethos of ‘sanging’ within various Appalachian American communities, and a robust scientific fascination with the species’ phytochemical, ecological, and biological tapestries.

The value of American ginseng within the modern subculture of traditional Western herbalism and those of other traditional healers within the United States is yet another piece of the conversation. For example, one might argue that due to conservation and sustainability issues surrounding American ginseng, traditional Western herbalists have refrained from its use by primarily employing analogue species that are more abundantly available (species with comparable medicinal actions). Although this may allude to a potential lack of value for American ginseng, there are many highly respected members of this community, including the likes of David Winston, Matthew Wood, Phyllis Light, and Stephen Buhner (to name only a few) who have been steadfast advocates for its use within clinical herbal practice for decades. The value of American ginseng within the culture of traditional Western herbalism can further be supported by a modern consumer demand. Using the example of Mountain Rose Herbs and their recent adventures with PCO Forest Grown Verified American ginseng products, Jennifer Gerrity and Erin McIntosh stated,

“Our customers know what American ginseng is, and its reputation precedes it. Everyone wants high quality root–it’s just become a matter of sustainable sourcing. We have already witnessed unprecedented excitement and support from customers when we began offering the PCO Forest Grown Verified ginseng roots and leaves last year. We think the popularity stems from these botanicals being available for the first time from a sustainable forest model.”

Mountain Rose Herbs’ customers represent what some might term a niche market, catering to the needs of plant people ranging from the home herbalist making medicine in the Western tradition to clinical practitioners, including herbalists, naturopathic doctors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists. Their market also includes herbal businesses within the cottage industry, small commercial manufacturers of natural products, and independent natural grocers/co-ops throughout the United States and Canada.
However, to the average, modern American consumer of natural products differentiation of the value of ‘ginseng’ does not exist like it does across the world, regardless of whether these differences represent Korean or Chinese versus the American species, the many grades between cultivated versus wild roots that are honored in the Asian market, its symbolic cultural representations, or its medicinal potential. Ginseng as a concept within the mind of the average American consumer is perhaps lumped into one over-the-counter energy enhancer genre with value being translated only as expensive or affordable or even cheap. Although there may be a shift taking place in regards to ginseng awareness within specific American consumer populations, many American ginseng industry professionals believe there is a lack of connection to the concept of value outside of final purchase price. In fact, price is understood to be another barrier to the development of a domestic market for American ginseng.

Erika Ginseng2American ginseng roots

Theme #2: American consumers are not willing to pay what it is worth

During a panel discussion at this past year’s 2015 International Ginseng Expo in Asheville, NC, when proposed barriers to the creation of a domestic market for American ginseng was queried, Eric Burkhart (a well-known and respected American ginseng industry leader from Pennsylvania State University) responded confidently with one simple answer: price. This sentiment has since been additionally supported by the opinions of other American ginseng industry confidants.

It is important to remember the concept of price within the context of the spectrum of cultivation, growing, wild-harvesting, and processing practices currently employed for the species. In the export market, wild or wild-simulated American ginseng roots sell at much higher prices than those cultivated by intensive agricultural practices for a variety of reasons. This latter source of American ginseng represents the majority of what is currently available within the domestic American ginseng market, being much more widely abundant than wild, forest-grown, or wild-simulated roots and much cheaper to procure. Although the quality of the products made from cultivated roots may be questionable, this is where the price point for higher-end wild-simulated American ginseng roots simply cannot compete with either cultivated root prices or the ironically imported bargain-basement Chinese and Korean ginseng products that have dominated the American market for decades (so cheap that you can get a mighty fine dose with a $1.59 energy drink from your local gas station).

This is where the concept of value meets the concept of price within the domestic market conversation. The American consumer or natural products manufacturer might say, “You want me to pay how much for ginseng?”, and the American ginseng grower or dealer might respond, “Lots more than you are used to paying and for less quantity”. There is no deal to be made in this scenario; why would ginseng growers and dealers sell their higher-valued roots into a lackluster and low-demand American market when they can fetch a much heftier price in the lusty and commanding export market? Why would an American natural products manufacturer or consumer pay more for less quantity of what they perceive as just another batch of indiscernible ginseng? These are excellent questions.

This brings us back to the example being made by Mountain Rose Herbs and their participation in the PCO Forest Grown Verification program. There is an understanding that batches will be smaller and prices will be higher for forest-grown and wild-simulated roots. Higher prices are honored because these types of roots are simply more valuable (within the context of the price that can be fetched in the export market). There is respect for the unique growing practices that produce less fleshy and often smaller lots of “wild-like” roots and the non-representative regulatory categories and legal paper trail they command; there is reverence for the tenacity, time, and resources required to grow these roots which yield higher levels of medicinal merits (notably ginsenoside content); there is gratitude for the reality that these wild-simulated roots are less likely to be contaminated with residues from the fungicides that are part and parcel to intensive agricultural cultivation. Mountain Rose Herbs stated,

“Before this project…our primary problem with this crop has always been fungicide residue. Most of the roots we see during sourcing get rejected because they fail chemical residue testing. Availability has always been an issue since there is so little clean material on the market. This project has helped shine a bright light on the domestic market, not only for customers and distributors, but also for the growers and dealers. The project proves that there is a sustainable way to bring high-quality American ginseng to the domestic medicinal plant trade…. It also helps growers that have dedicated decades of work to the long-term cultivation of these plants and offers them a reliable market and fair price. We want to pay a fair price to ensure availability of high-quality roots for medicine makers and encourage the growers to increase propagation of this and other sensitive forest crops.”

Theme #3: Supply and demand within different target consumer groups

Within this larger conversation the concepts of value, price, and demand are inextricably linked, and opinions regarding their balance within a domestic market firmly depend upon the relevant consumer group. An example of this has already been highlighted by statements made by Mountain Rose Herbs in regards to the successful sales of PCO Forest Grown Verified American ginseng products to their target consumer groups and the clean, sustainable supply thereof.

However, one might argue that the success of the natural products industry at-large, which caters to a much more robust population of over-the-counter consumers, is fueled by the need to manufacture new, exciting, revenue-driving formulas that can be produced in abundance. This is potentially not the marketplace of sustainability when it comes to the hard to come by forest-grown or wild-simulated roots of American ginseng. This additional reality was presented in an interview with American ginseng grower, pioneer, and activist Bob Beyfuss of New York, when he stated, “Woodland ginseng does not lend itself easily to corporate farming…it is risky, expensive, and fraught with regulatory issues.” Although perhaps one day this could become a competitive avenue for sustainably grown and harvested American ginseng, there is always the fear that such large scale consumption could lead to further pressure on already imperiled wild populations whereby the domestic and export markets become a two-headed “Appalachian Outlaw” dragon.

Additional insights regarding the nourishing potential of value-added products within a domestic market have been heralded by individuals such as Jeanine Davis, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist at North Carolina State University and co-author of the recently published 2nd edition of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal, and other Woodland Medicinals. In speaking of the PCO Forest Grown Verification program she states, “I think selling ginseng leaf for tea, ginseng berry juice, fresh roots for eating and cooking, seeds and planting stock, ginseng planting design, and garden installation services–can all help bring a new awareness and nurture a domestic market for American ginseng. There are so many value-added business opportunities, such as ginseng chocolates, ginseng tea, ginseng potted plants as get well gifts, ginseng planting sets with seeds and rootlets…. I think the time is ripe for this.”

What this last discussion has highlighted is that there is a continual need to identify promising domestic consumer groups in regards to the form, quality, and pricing of products that they would be willing to purchase in order to support growers of American ginseng within the PCO Forest Verification Program.

The conversation continues…

This is only the beginning; a promise to the future of American ginseng as a species is clearly expressed by the potential of a tender yet thriving domestic market. However, all of the various and sundry barriers and avenues for success that could present themselves as this conversation evolves could hardly be captured in this particular dialog. There is so much left to be said and rabbit holes to investigate. It would hardly be fair or accurate to assume that this conversation is at its end. This movement, this shift, will require time, effort, and ongoing education and outreach on a variety of fronts. However, the invitation to participate is now open, thanks to the hard work of the folks behind the PCO Forest Grown Verification program and the initiative demonstrated by herbal suppliers like Mountain Rose Herbs. Perhaps this is the future of American ginseng…right here at home.

The author would like to personally thank Eric Burkhart, Bob Beyfuss, Steven Foster, Jeanine Davis, Stephen Buhner, and Jennifer Gerrity and Erin McIntosh of Mountain Rose Herbs for their willingness to answer questions regarding a domestic market for American ginseng and their influential and insightful comments.

Erika Galentin is a Medical Herbalist and holds a degree in Herbal Medicine from the University of Wales, Cardiff, UK and Scottish School of Herbal Medicine, Glasgow, UK. With her dedication to medicinal plants native to Ohio and the Greater Appalachian region, Erika teaches, lectures, and writes on native medicinal plant conservation, herbalism, and clinical efficacy. She also participates as a member of the Stewardship Committee for Appalachia Ohio Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of land and water in Southeast Ohio.


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