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Poachers strike Michigan's ginseng crop

Source:  Copyright 2003, Detroit News
Date:  June 15, 2003
Byline:  Joel Kurth / The Detroit News
Original URL: Status DEAD

JACKSON -- Camouflaged, motion-sensitive cameras are positioned in Michigan fields. Their owners keep crops hidden, even from neighbors.

The reason for the vigilance: Poachers of ginseng, the wonder root prized as a supposed aphrodisiac, stimulant and cure-all.

A problem in the South for years, theft of the protected plant that fetches $350 a pound has spread to Michigan, stoking fears among the state's 400 growers and in state parks and forests.

"You don't want to give yourself the problem of letting people know you have ginseng," said Michael Hunter, a Jackson dealer who claims his family has hunted and farmed the root since 1812. "The best security is to keep your mouth shut."

Ginseng has been coveted through history, but perhaps never so much as now. In only a decade, herbal supplements such as ginseng, echinacea and St. John's wort have become a $4.2 billion annual industry. The type of ginseng that grows wild in the United States -- called American ginseng -- is the most desirable in all the world.

It's so valuable that an apparent ring of Chicago-based Korean immigrants is plundering woods near Lake Michigan dunes to find it. State conservation officers arrested 38 of the immigrants last summer on misdemeanor plant theft charges, including one man who came from South Korea on a 10-day visa.

Michigan is one of six states that bans picking wild ginseng, allowing only licensed growers to harvest field or woods-grown varieties that bring about $200 a pound. Prices are so high because ginseng is so coveted and rare.

Nearly extinct a decade ago, the wild plant appears to be rebounding slightly in Michigan, luring pluckers from Indiana and Illinois, which have been picked heavily.

"We're just scratching the surface," said Andy Bauer, a state Department of Natural Resources conservation officer. "Poaching has got to be an issue in state parks and private grounds all over the state"

Nationwide, about 2 million pounds overall is grown each year, and 95 percent of it is exported to Asia.

Prized root

Gnarled roots have rarely looked so lovely.

A glossy photo seized during one of last summer's arrests showed a piece of ginseng lying on black velvet. Also taken as evidence during that arrest were price sheets decorated with pictures of ginseng that were posed to look like dancing men.

"It was like a photo a guy would carry of his sweetheart or a big bass," Bauer said.

"This was a real prize. It was a trophy," agreed his boss, Sgt. Ronald Kimmerly.

Wild ginseng blooms in August and September, when a red berry forms on the distinctive green leaves. Harvested roots are usually 5 years old; some are up to 50 years old.

In the woods near Warren Dunes, south of Benton Harbor, conservation officers on patrol last summer discovered tiny dowel rods adorned with flags stuck in the dirt. At first blush, the scene could have passed for an orienteering class to teach compass and map skills.

Closer examination showed ginseng poachers were mapping the land for a clean sweep, Bauer said.

In coming weeks, officers spotted families fanning out into the woods with hoes or gardening tools. Others worked alone. Arrests proliferated once officers discovered the problem.

"Every time my officers drove through there, they were making arrests," Kimmerly said. "What's happening when we weren't there?"

Fines for picking wild ginseng in Michigan begin at $1,000 and can reach $10,000 for the subsequent offenses. Most of those ticketed pay the base fine, though some skip court dates.

Kimmerly is unsure if the 38 people nabbed last summer were part of a gang, though they were all Korean immigrants from the suburbs of Chicago.

"People are coming up from Indiana and Chicago because they know the lower half of Michigan has good wild ginseng," said Paul Hsu of Wausau, Wis., the largest U.S. ginseng grower and exporter.

Shadow business

By Hunter's reckoning, ginseng harvesting is "probably one of the last independent strongholds in the world."

The Jackson dealer traces his history through the root. His parents hunted it three days before he was born. They learned techniques from his grandfather, who learned it from his father and so on.

A rangy man who prides himself on living off the wilderness, Hunter no longer farms ginseng. He sells his Glacial Gold seeds to customers worldwide via a Web site he runs from a Jackson cabin heated with a wood stove.

"They call this the shadow business," he said. "Everyone's working every side they can, but no one's using the front door."

State legislators attempted to clear away some of the mystery in 1994 with the passage of the Michigan Ginseng Act, which banned the harvesting of wild ginseng and required state licenses for sellers of the farm-raised root.

Farmers don't need to get a license until they sell ginseng, though, and Lansing records list only six licensed growers in the entire state. Hunter said he sells seeds to 10 times that many farmers, and estimated about 400 people statewide grow the plant.

Secrecy prevails

Officially, Michigan growers sold 20,000 pounds of cultivated ginseng in 2001 for $1 million.

"Everyone is still very protective about ginseng," said John Hill of the state Department of Agriculture. "Everyone is secretive. No one wants people to harvest their crops."

Theft has been a problem for decades because ginseng grows in wild, hidden places, said Robert Gabel at the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It's an even bigger issue in poorer places such as Kentucky, he said, speculating that law enforcement is just becoming more aware of the problem.

Hsu, the nation's largest dealer, agreed: "Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have even told you I grow ginseng. Nobody tells anyone anything."

Ginseng sting

Back at Warren Dunes in southwest Michigan, conservation officers plan a ginseng sting.

Sgt. Kimmerly is promising patrols by as many as eight officers and undercover operations to foil poachers. The Department of Natural Resources also is alerting officers at other state parks.

Enforcement could be a problem, though. The state's 213 conservation officers police 4 million acres of state forest, the largest amount in the nation.

"There's no doubt: Poaching is coming north," Kimmerly said. "We have to be ready."

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