RUSHFORD, MINN. – The telltale sound of a shovel scrape drew Department of Natural Resources conservation agent Mitch Boyum up a hill and deeper into the southeastern Minnesota forest. A sloped tract of privately owned land marked with no trespassing signs, the spot was overgrown, nearly inaccessible and a known repository of American ginseng.
Picking his way along an abandoned road cut through the heavy forest decades ago, Boyum could see two figures working the soil, their attention fixed on the green-leafed bounty at their feet.
“It’s all over!” one of the men shouted to the other, joyfully tallying up the plants thriving in the shade. Moments later, Boyum busted the ginseng poachers and issued trespassing citations. It was all over, all right.
Relying on tips, reports from hunters, his own patrols and hunches based on a childhood spent growing up in the area, Boyum keeps an eye out for poachers each fall in the state’s Driftless region, where steep valleys and soils rich in calcium and other nutrients give life to a wild crop of ginseng, otherwise known as Panax quinquefolius.
The wild plant grows slowly, sprouting its signature five-leafed green stems and red berries by late summer before the diminishing daylight of autumn turns it yellow and drooping and ready for winter.
The panax part of its scientific name means “all-healing,” and it’s the belief in ginseng’s restorative powers that has created a strong international market for wild American ginseng. A pound of dried root sells for hundreds of dollars; it can be grown commercially as well, but cultivated plants fetch lower prices.
The plant, once abundant in parts of Minnesota, is now a species of special concern and one of the native plants covered by the 1973 International Treaty for the Protection of Endangered Species.
Boyum, who has picked ginseng since he was a teen growing up in southeast Minnesota, said most diggers are local people he’s known for a long time. “It’s kind of like everything else — 90 percent of the ginseng harvesters don’t do anything wrong,” he said.
It’s not an easy payday for ginseng harvesters, Boyum said. Diggers spend hours stumbling up and down steep hills, fending off mosquitoes, ground bees, poison ivy and ticks, while methodically searching for mature plants — it must have three prongs and 15 leaves — and then carefully extracting roots the size of baby carrots.
“You’ve got to like to do it,” said Boyum.
It’s illegal to dig up ginseng in state Wildlife Management Areas except at the Whitewater WMA in Winona County, where a permit is required. Diggers also can harvest ginseng on state forest lands after acquiring a $25 permit. Looking for ginseng on private property requires the landowner’s permission.
For dealers, the DNR charges a license fee of $5. The state has sold 27 ginseng dealer licenses so far this year, but that number likely will climb by the time the Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 legal harvest season ends.
“It’s really early in the year yet,” said Jade Cumberland, the third generation co-owner of Cumberland’s Northwest Trappers Supply in Owatonna. The store is one of the larger buyers of local ginseng for export on the commercial market. Almost all their product goes to China, Cumberland said.
On a recent weekday, Boyum patrolled the valleys near Rushford while chasing yet another tip: A digger known to have poached last year had been recently spotted running into a cornfield near a ginseng area, wearing a backpack.
Boyum knew the man, and knew where he lived.
“We just talked about this!” he said to himself, driving toward the man’s house.