Can the wild ginseng be tamed?
Times may have changed, gold may be have asserted itself and there may be fewer people out scouring the mountains for ginseng, but a hiker stumbling across one of the wild roots can still dig it out and easily claim 10 million won ($10,500). That’s enough to convince some farmers here to try a hand at growing it on their own.
Most ginseng, known as insam in Korean, is cultivated at farms around the country and sells for a decent, though not enormous, profit. Wild ginseng, known as sansam (literally, mountain ginseng), has proven itself less adaptable. Nevertheless, more farmers appear to be trying to grow it than ever.
Aren’t they the same species? Yes, but the difficulty of ginseng cultivation means most farmers rely on fertilizer and pesticides; those who know ginseng well, however, ― and there are a lot of those people in Asia ― say the taste of wild ginseng can’t be beat.
The tough part is getting the ginseng to survive. After the seeds are planted, they are left to grow naturally ― no watering, no fertilizer. Only a small portion of the ginseng will survive, and only if the conditions are right: an altitude of 400 meters (1,300 feet) to 800 meters and the right amounts of sunlight, humidity and air.
“It needs enough water, but it can’t be too humid nor too dry. There also needs to be sufficient sunlight, but not too much,” said Park Dong-jun, 61, a farmer in Namyangju city, Gyeonggi province.
Mr. Park is one of the pioneers of wild ginseng cultivation in Korea. After suffering health problems, he traveled the country searching for wild ginseng with professional diggers. One day, he encountered a swath of ginseng root around Namyangju. He later found out that the ginseng roots had been planted by a group of senior citizens living nearby. Most of the seniors had passed away, but Mr. Park started managing the land where the ginseng roots were planted, covering 1.6 square kilometers (395 acres) spread across four nearby mountains. In 1994, he received a New Intellectual award from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry for his contributions to the production of wild ginseng.
“Wild ginseng is hard to discover because it’s not easy for it to grow in a natural environment,” Mr. Park said.
“When I planted wild ginseng seeds for the first time, only a few sprouted seeds and even those died in five years,” said Park Young-nam, the head of a wild ginseng growers association in Chuncheon, Gangwon province. “I kept harvesting seeds from wild ginseng and planting them in the mountains. Finally, I was able to obtain a strain of wild ginseng that is more adaptable.”
Cultivated wild ginseng is harvested at some point between its sixth to its 12th year. Compared to farm-grown ginseng, cultivated wild ginseng has thinner roots and smaller axial roots and its branches extend vertically. Farm-grown ginseng has branches that grow horizonterally.
Ginseng seeds are spread naturally by winds or wild animals, often birds, which feed on the seeds and excrete them elsewhere. Some farmers feed pheasants wild ginseng seeds and then gathers and plants the droppings on mountains. “That way, the wild ginseng grows more robustly,” Park Dong-jun said.
Suppose you have successfully grown a crop of wild ginseng ― you’re not out of the woods yet. There is no official method of classifying cultivated wild ginseng for market sale. “If someone planted farm-grown ginseng seeds on a mountain, would it be wild ginseng or farm-grown ginseng?” Mr. Park asked.
There is also the problem of illegal imports. According to industry sources, large amounts of illegal imports arrive from China, Canada and the United States. Locally grown wild ginseng roots cost around 100,000 won, but Chinese imports sell for a tenth of that price. Making things more confusing, some Korean farmers plant Chinese ginseng. For now, ginseng can be imported, but the tariffs are so high as to be prohibitive ― one reason a large part of the Chinese ginseng in Korea has arrived through the black market.
Nor can ginseng farmers leave their crop unattended. Wild animals will dig up and eat the roots, and some thieves have been known to carry off hundreds of roots in one night.
“A long time ago an old person who used to grow wild ginseng told me that it would make me rich. But he also said I should remember one thing. If the wild ginseng roots were stolen, I shouldn’t be upset. He said I should instead just plant more,” Mr. Park said. “So when it actually happened, I didn’t feel so bad.”
While Korean farmers have been slow to take up wild ginseng cultivation and marketing, farmers in other countries have moved much faster. Mr. Park said he once visited a wild ginseng farm in Wisconsin, where he was dumbstruck to see the enormous scale of wild ginseng cultivation there. These American wild ginseng roots, often called hwagisam, sell for around 10,000 won a piece on the international market.
“When I went to Wisconsin, I kept sighing,” Mr. Park said. Then he tasted the American ginseng. He found that it tasted bitter and spicy compared to Korean wild ginseng, which is sweet and aromatic. “Then I gained courage. I realized that Korean wild ginseng is still competitive. I plan to focus on the innate quality of Korean wild ginseng.”
Wild ginseng farmers and industry officials say the government needs to take action to support the local wild ginseng industry and set standards for wild ginseng.
“Korea has the potential to become a major exporter of wild ginseng. It can be a highly profitable industry,” Mr. Jeong said. “The government needs to pay more attention to wild ginseng cultivation and provide more assistance to farmers.”
by Limb Jae-un