FURTIVE FINDS. Marv Kraus of rural Elkader finishes paperwork
with a ginseng harvester in this September 23, 2019 photo.
Ginseng can only be harvested in September and October on
private land with permission of the landowner by licensed
harvesters. This harvester, who declined to be identified,
gathered four bags over a week on private property he has been
harvesting on for more than three decades. (Liz Martin/The
Gazette via AP)
From The Asian Reporter, V29, #20 (October 21, 2019),
Ginseng hunters say secrecy part of their
By Erin Jordan
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Like morel mushroom hunters — or
maybe even more so — ginseng diggers are quiet about their
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
"In Iowa it’s not quite as crazy as ‘Appalachian Outlaws,’
but people are very protective of their woods," Marv Kraus, 58,
of rural Elkader, told The Gazette.
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 (DNR)
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 September 1 to
October 31. It’s illegal to harvest the plant from public land,
including state parks, or from private land if you don’t have
In a strikingly similar incident, the Iowa DNR announced
August 20 it is investigating after two other Chicago-area
residents were found with 125 ginseng plants and a shovel at
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
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
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
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.
Many of the roots found in Iowa are sold to Midwest
companies, but the eventual buyers are almost always Chinese,
"I sell to some Chinese customers out in California," he
said. "My wife and I travelled 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
"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
Zezulka sells the Iowa ginseng he purchases to Wiebke Fur &
Trading Company, with sites in Eitzen, Minnesota, and La Crosse,
Wisconsin. 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
He’s aware some people wear camouflage and get dropped off at
public land or private land where they don’t have permission to
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."