A new reality show on The History Channel is shedding light on West Virginia’s ginseng business. “Appalachian Outlaws” premieres Jan. 9 and was filmed in Nicholas, Greenbrier, Monroe, Wyoming and Raleigh counties.
The show profiles the growers, the diggers and the middlemen involved in the ancient herb valued at $600 a pound and grows wild in all 55 counties in West Virginia. The cable network says supply can’t keep up with demand for the crop and it’s causing fierce competition during the short two-month harvesting season.
Ginseng dealer Tony Coffman told the Register-Herald that the show is really about educating people about the business. But he said it isn’t a documentary.
Coffman said ginseng is an industry that is made up of several different types of ginseng.
“Most of what you buy at GNC and places like that is part of a cultivated industry, mostly based in Wisconsin,” he said. “The cultivated stuff doesn’t bring in too much. On average it’s $30 to $50 a pound. A lot of the fibers are $2 to $4 a pound. The wild ginseng is a different story.”
Coffman’s grandfather was a ginseng-buyer in the 1920s and was making a living off of it in 1930. Coffman said he was working full-time with his grandfather by the time he was 17.
“Back in those days you didn’t have to worry about cultivated and woods-grown and all of these other types of ginseng. There was just so much of it and it wasn’t that valuable,” Coffman said. “When he first started buying it was probably $3 a pound. He sold it for $5. It just kept climbing from there.”
In addition to Coffman, the show features different crews of competing collectors.
According to the show’s website, it “follows these unique characters in their quest to acquire this plant that affords many their livelihood. People will fight each other, steal it and risk jail time – or even their lives – to get their hands on it.
Coffman said he still gets asked if the show will make everyone in the state look bad.
“Everyone keeps asking me, ‘Are you casting West Virginia in a good light?’ This is about the ginseng business. This isn’t like Buckwild. It’s not trying to make fun of West Virginia, but it is about Appalachian culture somewhat,” he said.
“I have all my teeth. I’m not smoking a corn-cob pipe. I wear shoes. I’m a pretty shrewd businessman on the show. I know my stuff. I’m competitive though and you don’t want to get in my way.”
For More Information on Appalachian Out Laws Visit the Official History Channel Website that Includes this Special Video Sneak and this Press Release:
Deep in Appalachia, a war is brewing over one valuable commodity: ginseng. With global demand skyrocketing, dealers are eager to get in on the game, and with prices hovering around $1,000 per pound, diggers are in a frenzy to harvest the mountain gold. Some even believe its gnarled roots have special healing powers. Whoever controls the ginseng, controls the mountains.
The Appalachian Mountains have just the right elevation, rainfall and mineral-rich soil to produce the best wild ginseng in the world. Over-harvesting in Asia has increased demand, pushing prices to an all-time high. People are rushing to cash in, but it’s only legal to dig for it from the end of summer until the first frost. To prevent over-harvesting in the U.S., some states have started regulating where it’s legal to pull ginseng, which has made territorial lines even blurrier than before. And with ginseng fever heating up, outsiders are creeping in.
The driving forces behind Appalachia Outlaws are our ginseng buyers and competitors, Tony Coffman and Corby Patton. Corby is moving in on Tony’s territory, trying to curb Tony’s empire and expand his own. But these mountains aren’t big enough for the both of them. Corby would like nothing more than to edge Tony out as the top ginseng baron of these hollers. This season, Tony is depending on Appalachian ginseng whisperer Rufus Keeney to help push him ahead; meanwhile, Corby sees an advantage in paying bonuses to diggers. One thing’s for sure: With the Asian markets’ soaring demand for ginseng, they’ve got big orders to fill.
Out-of-state “‘senger” Greg Shook heads to West Virginia, which has fewer regulations on digging. Folks like father-and-son team Joe and Mitch Simpson, however, don’t take kindly to non-natives picking in their backyard; they need ginseng to buy ammunition and traps for fur season. Ron McMillion and Obie Bennett, meanwhile, are ginseng know-it-alls who’ll go anywhere and do anything to get their hands on the biggest roots. Even non-traditional ginsengers, like snake hunters Richard and Nathan Evans, are getting in on the action. It’s a fever that’s causing landowners like Mike Ross to resort to military-style tactics to keep poachers away from prized patches.
Appalachian Outlaws follows these unique characters in their quest to acquire this plant that affords many their livelihood. People will fight each other, steal it and risk jail time—or even their lives—to get their hands on it. In Appalachia, 401Ks are built on ginseng, moonshine and fur; feuds last for generations; and every day is a matter of survival.