“You’re going to end up with bullet holes in the truck,” Davis recalled.
Things have improved as Davis has cultivated relationships. But in order to maintain that trust, the researchers pushing for forest farming need to tread carefully. “People that wild-harvest ginseng and other herbs, most of them aren’t land owners. They might live in a little house or a mobile home park,” she said. For them, wild ginseng will remain an important source of income—particularly during hard economic times.
The solution, Davis says, might be arrangements with landowners or with the forest service. For example, she knows a doctor who bought land outside Asheville with the stipulation that he had to let an old man continue to hunt sang on the property.
Burkhart echoed Davis’ caution, saying that if a small-scale ginseng farmer wants to keep their enterprise as a hobby rather than a codified, official farm, then he’s not going to force them.
“People here disdain government enough to begin with,” he said. He added, “A lot of ginsengers are outlaws by their own definition. That cultural divide is at the heart of ginseng.”
“From here all the way to where we started is covered in ginseng,” said Joe Boccardy, pointing to a forested hillside. It was late September on Boccardy’s rolling farm, with Snake Mountain jutting up in the middle distance and tawny trees dropping leaves to the ground. As Boccardy crossed electric fences and a rooster moaned in the distance, he explained how ginseng got ahold of him at least 20 years ago, when he was working as a roofer while attending college at Appalachian State University. At that job, he met a man named Doug, an old-school sang hunter, who took Boccardy into the woods to search for the plant.
“One day I remember, I felt like, I’m going to find ginseng. And there it was,” said Boccardy, who says the plant suppresses his hunger and clears his thoughts. Spotting a patch of sang in the wild, he explained, “is like finding Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in the forest.”
A few years later, Boccardy bought 30 pounds of ginseng seeds for $600 from an acquaintance while working in the saw palmetto industry in Florida. He planted these seeds on his farm and has been cultivating the plant ever since.
Boccardy dreams of someday selling bottles of moonshine with a ginseng root floating in each one, a novelty item for tourists. But in general, he’s selling green leaf. Now, Boccardy and his daughters pick leaves, cool them in a refrigerator, slow-dry them in a dehydrator until they crinkle, and then store them until they have enough to sell—usually for about $150 a pound.
Boccardy used to be an inspector for the Forest Grown Verified Program, which was started in 2014 by a nonprofit accredited organic certifying agency as a method to increase consumer confidence and pricing for forest-grown botanicals. The program, now administered by a different nonprofit called United Plant Savers, usually includes between 20 and 30 farmers every year. But Boccardy says he’s worried that the program, beset by leadership change and Covid-19, is only treading water.
“Forest Grown Verified—it needs to survive,” Boccardy said. “That, to me, is the only thing we have to protect this type of trade in endangered plants.”
To protect those plants, Iris Gao isn’t just researching whether leaves are more powerful than roots; she’s also dabbling in cloning. Over in the agriculture lab, Gao, who was wearing a homemade black face mask with a cloth ginseng root sewn onto it, explained that yet another ecological concern about ginseng is that if Appalachian farmers buy seeds from the big farms in Wisconsin and Ontario and throw them down in the forest instead of planting seeds from their native regions, their ginseng, suited for conditions in specific regions, might not flourish.