Chapter 9. Marketing and Prices.
At one time the Chinese wanted the roots washed white, but for several years past this has not been the case, and, in fact, root washed clean and white is very undesirable. In collecting wild root the digger or collector goes into the woods in the morning, finds an occasional root which he digs and puts into a cloth bag, after shaking off what dirt he can. This stock is added to occasionally through the day and at night he reaches home tired, and the bag of roots, not quite wilted, is laid aside and possibly not washed for a day or two and often never washed. This wilting, in some manner, fastens a dirt color to the root that can never be washed out. This is wild root. and is the way practically all of the wild is handled. The Chinese consider this root the very best and it follows that cultivated root should be made to look as near like the wild as possible. To this end let your roots alone for about a day after digging before you wash them.
In washing, never attempt to use a brush or do any scrubbing, just rinse the dirt off and stop there. This may be done by turning the garden hose on them, if you have a good water pressure, or if you have nothing of this kind, take a bushel basket or wash tub and fill it nearly half full of water and put in some roots letting them soak for a few moments; then stir briskly and remove and allow the water to dry off before putting in either basket or box. The baskets I use are made of galvanized iron and are tight, Never allow a ginseng root to stand long in water as it will become water soaked and never after that dry as white inside as it should.
If the root is to be shipped away to be dried, it is ready as soon as the water from washing dries off. Put the roots loosely into box or barrel and ship at once by express, using no packing. If the weather is warm, it is well to bore a few holes in package for ventilation. Never press the roots in tight as they will heat and start to decay. If the roots are to be dried at home spread them in a warm, airy place. This may be on racks or on the floor of some room. An attic is a very good place, as near the roof of a house it is usually warm, but be sure to give plenty of air. Allow the roots to remain thus until wilted and, in fact, they may be allowed to complete the drying in this way by turning them over occasionally. After a root is well wilted, if they are sprangly and ill-shaped, they may be bent and tied so the shape will be somewhat improved.
The essentials of good drying are to start the root so it begins to dry before it sours and after that to dry very slow.
If a root is dried fast, the outer shell becomes dry and set or firmly fixed before the inside drys and so forms a shell on the outside that is hard and smooth, but if at least a month is given for drying, the inside of the root dries and as it shrinks, draws the outer shell with it and leaves the skin more wrinkled than if dried quick; and again, in rapid drying the center will show some color instead of breaking white. When it breaks it will break like a piece, of glass, where if dried slow, as it should be, the act of breaking will be soft yielding instead of a snap. When the roots are dry, remove all little roots up to one-eighth of an inch in diameter and in case of long sprangles even larger pieces than that should come off. This small stuff is called fiber and sells around $1.00 per pound.
It has been many times stated that three pounds of green root would make one of dry root but this we do not find to be the average. The writer has dried about six hundred different crops of green root, coming to us green, from almost every state in the Union, and from all kinds of soil and all ages of plants. From a carefully kept record of all these crops, I find it takes three and one-third pounds of green root to make one of dry. This applies to fall dug root. Blighted root and root dug in spring or summer takes very nearly four pounds green to make one dry. Roots from Oregon dry heavy, often going as heavy as one pound to three and occasionally we get close to that from other states but the average is as above stated, three and one-third to one.
Ten years ago, in cultivated root, the market did not want a light spongy root but today that is just what is wanted, as this is what the wild root is. In this connection the reader should carefully go over what we have said as to quality in another chapter. Log, slim roots, roots that are very heavy and hard, smooth skinned roots, and roots that are sprangly are not wanted and the price of such is low.
Before offering your roots to a dealer, be sure they are perfectly dry, not simply dry outside, but be absolutely dry clear through. Even when thus dry, it will take up moisture in a warm rainy day, so it will have to be re-dried, either by the weather changing or by artificial heat. I have known root to take on one pound for every tell during a warm rain. Before sending to market the root should be so dry that it will break before bending. You ask why this special care to have it so very dry? The answer is that the destination of this product is China and in going there it has to cross the ocean and its disposition to take on moisture and to guard against other dangers it is sealed up air tight before being shipped. If not perfectly dry it will mould long before the three months would elapse in which it would reach China. This root is too high in price for the consumer to buy water with it even if it could cross the big pond in a moist condition. If the dealer has to sell it perfectly dry he must buy it so.
The grower often feels grieved because a dealer docks him for the moisture, but he should not as the dealer has to have it dry before he sells it. The grower should see to it that his root is absolutely dry and then he need stand no shrinkage in that regard. There is, however, always some shrinkage in shipping as the handling and loading and unloading of packages will break off more or less of the fibers and these are lost or have to go at a less price.
It is not always advisable for the grower to remove the fiber. This may well be left to the dealer as he knows just how much should come off as the grower might remove more than he need to and thus lose. On all cultivated root the fiber must finally come off but wild root is still sold with adhering fibers.
Root is not fit to dig and dry for market before it is five years old and usually it should be much older than that.
It is not a difficult task to properly dry ginseng roots but at the same time a difference of a dollar a pound can easily be made. If dried a little too slow dark spots will appear on the outside of the root and if broken the inside of the root shows dark in these places where the root has soured instead of drying. If dried a little too fast, the center of the root colors.
After the root is dry it should be stored in a dry room and carefully covered to keep it from light and dust. Ginseng dried in the sun does not have as mild and pleasant a flavor as that dried in the shade. The question of driers is one that each individual should solve for himself. The man who has but a few bushels of roots can dry them nicely on his attic floor or about the house somewhere, while the man with a large garden should have a good dryer.
It is about as hard to tell what the color demand will be as it would be to tell in advance what the fashion in women's bonnets would be. The demand for color of root at one time was white, then the next season it changed to almost black, or the color given by very dark soil. For three or four years the demand has not changed and calls for a medium dark root. This may be gray, gray brown or a yellow brown, such as yellow clay will give. I think growers would be safe not to pursue an extreme dark or light, but a middle course.
In boxing or barreling dry root for shipment great care should be used to have the package full so as to avoid moving about and breaking the roots. A good practice is to crumple up some newspapers, put them in bottom of box, put the root in and gently shaking the box, cause the roots to settle down as much as they will and then with more crumpled papers fill the package as full as possible. This will hold the roots in place and save many pieces of roots and many necks from being broken and lost.
The following table is made from the official report of the United States Department of Commerce and Labor and is not entirely complete for the last year (1913).
The student of this table will notice that the increase in price has been much more rapid than the decrease in quantity. It seems probable that American Ginseng growers will never again face quite so severe a set-back as that of 1905, which was produced by the cry that cultivated Ginseng was inferior to wild roots and would not prove acceptable to Chinese importers and consumers-for investigation has revealed the fact that the Chinese themselves cultivate Ginseng to some extent and experience has shown that, for several years, the average price for good American cultivated roots has been nearly as high as wild root.
From these figures it is clear that the Ginseng crop is of considerable proportions and steadily increasing. It is classed with chemicals, drugs, dyes and medicines and in its class equaled or exceeded in value by only three things: copper sulphate, acetate of lime and patent medicines. These figure, include, of course, both the wild and cultivated root, A little investigation, however, will soon convince anyone that the genuine wild root has formed but a small portion of that exported in the last three years. This is for the very good reason that there is practically no wild root to be found. it has been all but exterminated by the "seng digger," who has carefully searched every wooded hillside and ravine to meet the demand of the last few years for green roots for planting. Practically all of the Ginseng now exported will of necessity be cultivated. Of all the Ginseng exported from this country, New York State very probably supplies the greater part. It was in that state that the cultivation of the plant originated and it is there that the culture has become most extensive and perfected. The largest garden in this country, so far as known, is that of Drs. Swan and Hertzog, Chardon, Ohio, who have 27 acres of beds in forest shade. The crop is certainly a special one, to be successfully grown only by those who can bring to their work an abundance of time and intelligent effort. For those who are willing to run the risks of loss from diseases and who can afford to wait for returns an their investment, this crops offers relatively large profits.
It is very simple to prepare a few wild roots for market. Wash them thoroughly; this I do with a tooth or nail brush, writes a Northern grower, as they will remove the dirt from the creases without injury. Only a few roots should be put in the water at once as it does not benefit them to soak.
I have usually dried wild roots in the sun, which is the best way, but never put roots in the hot sun before the outside is dry, as they are apt to rot.
The cultivated root is more difficult to handle. They are cleaned the same as wild roots. On account of size and quality they have to be dried differently. My first cultivated roots were dried around the cook stove, which will answer for a few roots, providing the "lady of the house" is good natured.
Last year I dried about 500 pounds of green roots and so had to find something different. I made a drier similar to Mr. Stanton's plan, i. e., a box any size to suit the amount of roots you wish to dry. The one I made is about two feet by two and a half feet and two and one-half feet high, with one side open for the drawers to be taken out. The drawers are made with wire screen for bottom.
They should be at least two inches deep and two and one-half inches would be better. I bored a three-fourth-inch hole in the top a little ways from each corner and five in the center in about ten inches square, but now I have taken the top off, as I find they dry better.
I started this on the cook stove, but did not like it as I could not control the heat. As I had two Blue Flame oil stoves I tried it over one of them and it worked fine.
They were three-hole stoves, so I laid a board across each end for the drier to rest on. The drier has a large nail driven in each corner of the bottom so that it was four inches above the stove. Then I fixed a piece of galvanized iron about 10x20 inches so that it was about two inches above top of stove, for the heat to strike against and not burn the roots.
At first I left out two of the lower drawers for fear of burning them. I only used the middle burner—and that turned quite low. I tried the flame with my hand between the stove and roots so as not to get it too high.
In this way I could get a slow heat and no danger of burning, which is the main trouble with drying by stove. It would take from two to four days to dry them, according to size. As soon as they were dried they were put in open boxes so if there was any moisture it could dry out and not mould, which they will do if closed up tight.
In using an oil stove one should be used that will not smoke. Never set the roots over when the stove is first lighted and they should be removed before turning the flame out, as they are apt to get smoked. Do not set stove in a draft.
In packing the dry roots in boxes I break off the fine fiber, then they are ready for market.
Some time prior to 1907, or since cultivated Ginseng has been upon the market, its value has been from $1.00 to $2.00 per pound less than the wild and not in as active demand, even at that difference, as the wild. Today the value is much nearer equal. At first those engaged in the cultivation of Ginseng made the soil too rich by fertilizing and growth of the roots was so rapid that they did not contain the peculiar scent or odor of the genuine or wild. Of late years growers have learned to provide their plants with soil and surroundings as near like nature as possible. To this can largely be attributed the change.
Preparing the Roots for Market.
The roots are dug in the autumn, after the tops have died. Great care is taken not to bruise or injure them. They are then washed in rain water, the soil from all crevices and cracks being carefully cleaned away by a soft brush. Then they are wiped on a soft absorbent cloth, and are ready to be dried for market. The roots should never be split in washing or drying. It is of great importance, too, that the little neck or bud-stem should be unbroken, for if missing the root loses two-thirds of its value in Chinese eyes. The roots may be dried in the sun or in a warm, dry room, but never over a stove or fire. Some growers have a special drier and use hot air very much on the principle of an evaporator. This does the work quickly and satisfactorily. As soon as the little fibrous roots are dry enough, they are either clipped off or rubbed away by band, and the root returned to the drier to be finished. Much of the value of the product depends on the manner in which it is cured. This method is the one usually employed in America, but the Chinese prepare the root in various ways not as yet very well understood in the United States. Their preparation undoubtedly adds to the value of the product with the consumer.
Importance of Taste and Flavor.
Soils and fertilizers have a marked influence on products where taste and flavor is important, as with tobacco, coffee, tea, certain fruits, etc. This is true of Ginseng in a very marked degree. To preserve the flavor which marks the best grade of Ginseng, by which the Chinese judge it, it is essential that the soil in the beds should be as near like the original native forest as possible. Woods earth and leaf mould should be used in liberal quantities. Some little bone meal may be added, but other fertilizers are best avoided to be on the safe side.
When the chief facts of Ginseng culture had been ascertained, it naturally followed that some growers attempted to grow the biggest, heaviest roots possible in the shortest time, and hence fertilized their beds with strong, forcing manures, entirely overlooking the question of taste or flavor. When these roots were placed on the market the Chinese buyers promptly rejected them or took them at very low prices on account of defective quality. This question of flavor was a new problem to American buyers, for the reason stated and one which they were not prepared to meet at a moment's notice. Hence, there has been a tendency with some exporters to be shy of all cultivated roots (fearing to get some of these "off quality" lots) until they were in position to test for flavor or taste by expert testers, as is done with wines, teas, coffees, tobaccos and other products where flavor is essential.
The grower who freely use soil from the forest and lets forcing fertilizers severely alone, has nothing to fear from defective quality, and will always command a good price for his product.
Ginseng should only be dug for the market late in the fall. In the spring and summer the plant is growing and the root is taxed to supply the required nutriment. After the plant stops growing for the season the root becomes firm and will not dry out as much as earlier in the season. It takes four to five pounds of the green root early in the season to make one of dry; later three and one-half will make one of dry.
In the Ginseng, like many other trades, there are tricks. In some section they practice hollowing out roots while green and filling the cavity with lead or iron. When Ginseng is worth four or five dollars per pound and lead or iron only a few cents, the profit from this nefarious business can be seen. The buyers have "got on to" the practice, however, and any large roots that appear too heavy are examined. The filling of roots with lead, etc., has about had its day.
Seng should be dug and washed before it shrinks; it should then be dried in the shade where the dust and dirt cannot reach it and should not be strung on strings. The roots should be handled carefully so as not to break them up, the more fiber the less the value, as well as size, which helps to determine the value.
The collecting of the root for the market by the local dealer has its charm; at least one would think so, to see how eagerly it is sought after by the collector, who often finds when he has enough for a shipment that he faces a loss instead of a profit. The continual decrease in the annual output of the root should produce a steadily advancing market. The price does advance from year to year, but the variation in the price of silver and the scheming of the Chinamen produces crazy spurts in the price of the root.
Present prices are rather above the average, but little can be predicted about future conditions. Chinese conservatism, however leads us to believe present prices will continue.
The table cannot show for the last two years the exact condition as the range in price has been much greater. Good root has been much higher and poor root much lower than usual. This fall (1913) wild root has reached as high as $10.50 and the best grades of cultivated root has also brought a high price, ranging from $6.50 to $10.00. It oftens happens of late that there will be a great difference in the price offered by different Chinese exporters, Within the last few months, it has several times happened, that one Chinaman would offer $1.50 more per pound for the same root than his fellow exporter would give and perhaps the next day, on another lot varying in shape or color, the offers would be reversed. But the price on low grades has been about alike.