Vernon County was once a leader in state ginseng production. In the late 1800s and early in the next century, local woods were full of ginseng — and the people harvesting it.
Scavengers could earn up to $3 per day, no small sum for the time. Others hit it big with commercial farms; the house built by ginseng baron Charles Lord in 1908 in Ontario still operates as a bed and breakfast.
Today, Wisconsin produces 95 percent of the United States ginseng crop. Though commercial operations in other parts of the state now account for most of the root produced in Wisconsin, there are still locals lurking in the woods.
“It’s good money and it’s fast money,” said Shawna Stringham, a Department of Natural Resources conservation warden. “You can sell it that day and get cash.”
In 2011, prices skyrocketed from about $200 to $500 dollars per pound to fuel rising demand for the root, thought by some to have medicinal benefits.
The spike led to a rash of camouflaged ginseng poachers sneaking onto private property.
The DNR has been cracking down. There are highly specific regulations for ginseng harvesting and seasons, and not following the rules can hurt plant reproduction.
Still, there appears to be less and less of the root locally, said Marian Ahnen, a Vernon County ginseng broker who purchases from local collectors for a Wausau-based company that distributes in China. .
Stringham calls her the “ginseng queen.”
Yields have decreased about 30 percent over the past couple decades, Ahnen said, and were especially poor after last year’s drought.
She preferred not to share poundage for business and security reasons; her storage area was broken into and robbed last year.
Ahnen buys from more than 15 counties but receives most of her product from Vernon and Crawford counties.
Demand hasn’t flagged since prices went up, she said, and she isn’t concerned about competing with cultivated ginseng.
“Wisconsin has, really, the best ginseng there is,” she said.
And that will keep people in the woods.
“Every year I think more and more people are going out and harvesting ginseng,” Stringham said. “It’s getting more and more competitive.”