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Iowa's ginseng diggers are 'hush-hush' about their hobby

Wild root, valued for supplements and medicine, can fetch hundreds of dollars a pound

Marv Kraus of rural Elkader finishes paperwork with a ginseng harvester last Monday. Ginseng can be harvested only in September and October on private land with permission of the landowner by licensed harvesters. The harvester of this batch, who declined to be identified, gathered four bags over a week on private property where he has been harvesting for more than three decades. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Marv Kraus of rural Elkader finishes paperwork with a ginseng harvester last Monday. Ginseng can be harvested only in September and October on private land with permission of the landowner by licensed harvesters. The harvester of this batch, who declined to be identified, gathered four bags over a week on private property where he has been harvesting for more than three decades. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Like morel mushroom hunters — or maybe even more so — ginseng diggers are quiet about their hobby.

If you’ve got a secret spot where you find the red-berried plant with roots worth more than $700 per pound dried, you don’t want someone else getting there first.

There’s also a sense among many ginseng diggers that the pleasurable pastime handed down through generations is at risk from people who don’t mind breaking the law to make a quick buck.

“In Iowa it’s not quite as crazy as ‘Appalachian Outlaws,’ but people are very protective of their woods,” said Marv Kraus, 58, of rural Elkader.

Kraus, one of three licensed ginseng dealers in Iowa, is talking about the History Channel TV show that featured the extreme — and often illegal — pursuits of a group of ginseng hunters in the Appalachian forests. The pseudo-reality show ran for only two seasons, but some law-abiding ginseng hunters fear it encouraged poaching.

In June, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported a Chicago couple pleaded guilty to illegally harvesting ginseng in July 2018 at Geode State Park. Ki Pil Park and Jaemyung Yoo were charged after officers doing a traffic stop for speeding found 67 fresh ginseng plants in their vehicle.

Digging ginseng is legal in Iowa only from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. It’s illegal to harvest the plant from public land, including state parks, or from private land if you don’t have permission.

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In a strikingly similar incident, the Iowa DNR announced Aug. 20 it is investigating after two other Chicago-area residents were found with 125 ginseng plants and a shovel at Geode.

Tak Hyun Kim, 60, and Seung Thee Min, 63, were charged with disturbing soil in a state park, which is prohibited, Iowa DNR Conservation Officer Dan Henderson said. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is assisting with an ongoing ginseng probe, he said.

248 harvest permits in Iowa in 2018

Each fall hundreds of Iowans legally harvest wild American ginseng, walking shady slopes, or “hill hopping,” in search of the plant that can be hard to find until late September when the leaves turn yellow.

Iowa is one of 19 states that allow limited ginseng harvest. Each year, the state has to report harvest statistics to the Fish & Wildlife Service, which decides whether to continue to allow export from the state.

The Iowa DNR sold 248 harvesting permits in 2018, 31 permits for growing ginseng and three dealer permits, bringing in just under $10,000 for the state agency. Harvesting permits cost $37 for residents.

Of five Linn and Johnson County residents who had purchased ginseng harvest permits by mid-August, The Gazette was able to find three and reach out by phone or by door knocking.

One man hung up on the reporter, another did not return a message left at his house and a third left a kind, but clear, voicemail saying he wasn’t interested in being interviewed.

“Ginseng to me is a silent thing,” he said. “It’s hush-hush to me, you know, because there are so many violators and trespassers.”

Ginseng roots Valued as medicine

Ginseng roots — yellowish gnarls that sometimes look like a human form with “legs” and “arms” — are valued for medicinal purposes ranging from lowering cholesterol to improving male virility. The root long has been important to Chinese and Native American cultures and more recently has been touted as a prime ingredient in dietary supplements and energy drinks.

Some research supports these claims.

A 2012 study at the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center found high doses of pure American ginseng reduced cancer-related fatigue in patients more effectively than a placebo. Other researchers have found some evidence ginseng root may suppress tumor cell growth and inhibit metastasis among cancer patients.

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Many of the roots found in Iowa are sold to Midwest companies, but the eventual buyers are almost always Chinese, Kraus said.

“I sell to some Chinese customers out in California,” he said. “My wife and I traveled in January to San Francisco, to Chinatown. We met some of the contacts.”

Jim Zezulka, 68, of Dorchester, has been hunting ginseng since the 1980s and now has state and federal licenses to buy and export the roots. He has a route he runs once a week during the season to purchase ginseng from customers, mostly in Eastern Iowa.

“Some ginseng roots are 30 to 40 years old,” he said, adding you can tell a root’s age by the stem rings. “They could be the smallest roots in the bag, but the customers overseas want an old stem.”

Taking steps to avoid poaching

Zezulka sells the Iowa ginseng he purchases to Wiebke Fur & Trading Company, with sites in Eitzen, Minn., and La Crosse, Wis. The company also buys fur, deerskins and morel mushrooms, its website reports.

Wiebke was fined $100,000 in 2013 after being convicted of buying and selling illegally harvested wild ginseng, the Associated Press reported. The company also agreed to a two-year ban on ginseng transactions.

Iowa dealers have become more concerned about where diggers are getting their ginseng.

“A lot of people out there are illegally digging,” Zezulka said.

He’s aware some people wear camouflage and get dropped off at public land or private land where they don’t have permission to avoid detection.

Kraus makes sure ginseng diggers who sell to him have valid permits and requires them to sign a waiver saying they followed Iowa’s harvest laws. He also encourages people interested in hunting ginseng to go talk with private landowners instead of assuming they won’t allow access.

“There are a lot of good people who will let you do ginseng hunting with permission,” he said. “If we all respect private property, there’d be a lot less trouble.”

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Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

Facts about ginseng harvesting in Iowa

• Who: To harvest ginseng in Iowa, you must have a permit with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Permits may be purchased online or with a licensed dealer for $37.

• What: Wild American ginseng is valued for medicinal purposes and can sell for hundreds of dollars a pound fresh. Only mature ginseng plants may be harvested. Plants must have three or more prongs and a stalk with red berries. Seeds within the berries must be replanted nearby.

• Where: Wild ginseng is found on shady slopes in deciduous forests from the Appalachian Mountains all the way to Canada. Legal harvesting in Iowa is allowed on private land, with permission. It’s illegal to dig up ginseng roots on public land, including state parks.

• When: Ginseng may be harvested in Iowa from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. Licensed harvesters can sell the roots until March 15 and retain up to 4 ounces for personal use for one year after expiration of a permit.

For more information, check out the DNR’s fact sheet.

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