Getting Started: Chap 1-5
How To Grow
The Best Retirement
Business Available Today.
BulletProof Retirement Income
Your Best Opportunity For High Income With Very Little Work:
We believe that the very best retirement funding opportunity today- for most people -lies in
producing wild-simulated American Ginseng for sale to the Asian markets. Traditionally,
ginseng has been grown in “gardens” which were artificially shaded with wood or
vegetative material, and where the ginseng was grown in densely planted beds. This is
known as “field-cultivated” ginseng. An offshoot of this is to find an appropriate spot and
plant the ginseng in a stand of trees which will produce suitable shade. This is known as
“woods-cultivated” or “woods-grown” ginseng.
The premium ginseng product, however, is wild ginseng. The wild simulated grower is
planting the ginseng in such a way as to imitate the wild process of plant propagation, but
with better success.
Asia, and specifically China, have traditionally been the
buyers of the vast majority of the world’s ginseng supply.
While there are dozens of grades and many very nebulous
quirks in the Chinese process of grading ginseng, wild and
wild-simulated ginseng command the highest prices and
always have. Regardless of the chemical analysis, the older
and wilder the root looks, the more valuable it is in China.
China is now self-sufficient in field-cultivated ginseng
production, and is now exporting ginseng to the US. The
photo at left is at a Chinese ginseng farm in the Jilin province.
It is foolish to try to compete with the Chinese for low-grade
ginseng when it is easy to produce the highest quality.
Because of the rapid industrialization in China and their
subsequent rapid accumulation of wealth, Chinese people
are able to spend far more money on premium items they
want- such as ginseng. The market for wild-simulated
ginseng looks very good for at least the next 30 years.
Is Ginseng the Business For You?
Growing ginseng has some specific requirements, with respect to both the climate and
regulatory environment. Ginseng does not grow in the warmer portions of the US. See
the Plant Heat Zones map at the American Horticultural Society [shown below]
http://www.ahs.org/pdfs/heatmap.pdf Zones 3-7 are appropriate for growing ginseng,
although it can be grown in
zone 8 (the light yellow on the
map). Ginseng also requires
deciduous forest canopy with
75% to 80% shade to grow.
These climate and habitat
requirements tend to be the
most limiting factors of ginseng
In addition to the climate issue,
there are the international
regulatory issues. There has been sufficient concern over Wild Ginseng in the United
States such that the U.S. Endangered Species Scientific Authority banned its export
during the 1977-78 season from all states except Michigan. Michigan was exempted
because of its permit system governing the collection of ginseng.
Currently, American ginseng export is regulated under the Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreement. It can only be
exported if it is shown to be legally obtained and determined not detrimental to the survival
of the species. States are given control over the management and certification for export
of ginseng within their boundaries and are required to develop and implement a ginseng
management program. They are required to submit specific export findings on a three
The map to the left shows which states
have approved programs. Green states
have no wild ginseng harvesting
regulations, so export of wild (or wild
simulated- for they do not differentiate)
ginseng is not legal under the CITES
treaty. This means that anyone growing in
areas outside the Yellow states would be in
a regulatory never-never land. Is it wild or
is it cultivated?
As of 2004, the Yellow states have wild
harvesting regulations and programs, and
they qualify under the CITES treaty for
export licenses for ginseng.
Ginseng: An Overview
Ginseng is used mainly by people of the South East Asian Pacific Rim countries, although
it is gaining popularity in other cultures. The use of ginseng dates back 3000 years or
more in China where it is considered the most important herb in traditional medicine. It is
called the “elixir of life” and some people believe that, if taken regularly, ginseng can
reduce stress, increase physical stamina, quiet the nerves, enhance blood flow, help in
blood sugar and cholesterol levels, help regulate blood pressure, strengthen the
metabolism, vitalize glandular functions, slow the degeneration of cells and increase
Since wild forms of ginseng are rare in Asia, wild (or “wild-simulated”) P. quinquefolium
from the U.S. is highly marketable there. Extension Specialty Crops Specialist Andy
Hankins, who visited China in 1999, found perfect “hands” of U.S. ginseng being used as
expensive gifts; he recommended that U.S. exporters pay more attention to protecting the
“hands” from damage in shipment, rather than just shipping them in barrels as a
commodity. (A “hand” is a complete, unbroken ginseng root with its branches resembling
human body parts.) This advice is especially relevant to wild-simulated grower who are
producing a premium product.
In keeping with his 1997 prediction that Chinese production of American ginseng would
make China self-sufficient in farm-raised grades by the year 2000, Hankins reported in
May 2000 that cultivated American ginseng is now imported via San Francisco from
China. Manufacturers of ginseng preparations marketed in the U.S. prefer to use cheaper
grades of imported Asian ginseng (P. ginseng), and now American ginseng (P.
quinquifolium). The cheaper grades of both species are those produced quickly under
shadecloth, like the Chinese ginseng farm shown below.
Ginseng is used in many forms. It is purchased as a whole root, root pieces, powdered
root or extracts, to name a few, and is ingested in tea, soups, as pills or capsules, or may
be chewed in small pieces. It is also becoming popular in various cosmetic products as
shampoo, skin creams etc. Ginseng is the most widely used medicinal herb in the Asian
Pacific Rim countries. The three commercial varieties of ginseng have many similar
quantities but are considered to have different effects – the American ginseng giving a
cooling or depressant effect and the Asian species a warming or stimulating effect as
examples. The active ingredients are a group of closely related chemicals called
ginsenosides, which are produced by and stored in the plant.
Ginsenocides fall into a group of related phyto-chemicals (plant chemicals) called
saponins that are found in many plants. The ones in ginseng are called ginsenocides. The
range for samples tested will be from one to five per cent. Asian and North American
ginseng have different amounts of these chemicals in their structure causing them to do
slightly different things, yet they are much the same. North American ginseng (Panax
quinquefolius) has 29 different ginsenocides, which are a higher total percentage than the
20 ginsenocides found in Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). This does not necessarily make
North American ginseng better for all things, as the distribution of the individual
ginsenocides is important; for example, Rb1 is very
high in North American ginseng, compared to
Asian. Rg1 is not absent in North American
ginseng, but is found only in negligible amounts.
The ginsenocide Rg1 is considered to be the
stimulatory chemistry in Asian ginseng making it
more useful as a medicine.
The extra ginsenocides found in North American
ginseng are thought to be the chemistry
responsible for helping the body cope with stress,
by means of adaptogens, which help the body to
adapt to various stresses. The percentage of
ginsenocides varies in ginseng. The age of the
roots, how and where it was grown, the part of the
root used, the genetic makeup of the seed as well
as the species of ginseng all play a role.
Ginseng sprouts each year from the root, and
every fall it forms a bud before the top dies.
These buds form a series of scars on the top of
the root, a special “neck” that is called the “vertical
rhizome.” The age can be determined by counting
the scars on the neck of the root.
In this illustration, AS is the annual stem and ASB
is the annular stem bud. RC is the root crown,
and each arrow points to an annular scar, indicating a year’s growth.
In the wild, Ginseng plants do not reproduce until they are at least 4 years of age. The
flowers have both stamens and carpels, and are capable of self-fertilization. Cross-
pollination does occur, and known pollinators of ginseng include halicted sweat bees
(Dialictus spp.) and syrphid hover-flies (Toxomerus geminatus). However, these
pollinators probably do not transfer pollen between distant individuals.
The seeds develop inside berries, which grow in a “head” that may produce 30 to 40
berries. Each berry tends to contain 2 seeds, although the actual number ranges from 1
to 4. The seeds of ginseng are highly perishable: if they dry out, they die. To germinate,
seeds require an after-ripening process (warm-cold sequence of temperature changes)
that averages 18-22 months. The embryo is inactive during the first winter, matures during
the next growing season, and then endures a second winter before it is able to germinate.
Field research conducted by Lewis and Zenger found that only 0.6% of wild ginseng
seeds germinated after 20 months, although the researchers found that the ginseng seeds
that did germinate had a high probability (97%) of developing to maturity. In contrast,
where seeds were sown by humans, germination rates were 55-75%.
Growing as it does under the shade of deciduous forest cover, ginseng is adapted to low
light levels. Ginseng can reach light saturation at anywhere from 10% to 30% of full
sunlight, and any further exposure to the sun after this point will reduce the development
of chlorophyll and depress growth.
Growing Ginseng As A Business
As with other agricultural activities, this business requires land on which the crop can be
planted, seed to plant, and a combination of time and management in order to survive and
thrive. There are 3 main ways to make money growing ginseng:
In fall, after the new growth-bud is set, the green leafy tops can be cut and dried for
sale as tea. At least one study found that the concentrations of ginsenocides were up
to ten times higher than in the tops than in the roots. The market for ginseng tops is
still very small, however, and they really need to be chemical-free.
After about 5 years, the mature ginseng plants will produce about 100 to 120 pounds
of seed per acre that can be harvested, stratified and either used or sold the following
year. The seed is easy to sell and will provide income while the roots continue to
grow and gain value. Currently, wholesale seed prices range from $35 to $45 per
pound, and retail prices range from $50 to $90 per pound.
Finally, after anywhere from 10 to 12 years, the ginseng roots themselves are finally
large and old enough to be worth premium prices. Wild-Simulated ginseng is
indistinguishable from wild ginseng, and it brings wild prices. Currently wild roots over
10 years old will bring over $400 a pound.
Growing ginseng is a flexible business. The longer the roots stay in the ground, the larger,
older and more valuable they become. If your habitat is good, there isn’t any reason you
can’t leave the ginseng in the ground until you feel like digging it out. There isn’t a
schedule you’re required to keep. This flexibility is combined with producing a product at
the top of the Asian quality ladder. All other grades of ginseng are considered inferior to
wild ginseng, so the wild root always brings the best price. Even if the entire market for
ginseng drops, the wild-simulated grower is still going to get the best price.
The only real question the wild-simulated grower has to answer is “how do I produce high
quality (wild) ginseng of good weight and appearance in as short a period of time as
Ultimately, the ginseng grower is faced with the problem of trying to create a perfect
growing habitat for an extremely valuable plant, with enough stress on the plant to give it a
wild appearance and enough sunlight and nutrients to give it good growth. This is a
difficult task. Mistakes will usually cost the grower time, and they can only be corrected
with time. While this business will yield a nice income after 10 to 12 years, it should be
looked at as a long-term business with 20 to 30 year horizon.
The long product cycle makes this an excellent prospect for an intergenerational family
business, with the elder generation establishing the enterprise and the children moving
onto the farm after the ginseng is established and generating income. This requires
obtaining a larger quantity of land and planting several acres every year, but once the farm
starts producing income the parents can turn the management (work) of the farm over to
the children and grandchildren.
Would you like to live in an area with a low cost of living, a low crime rate, little or no
government bureaucracy and regulation, a slower pace of living and a higher quality of
life? Most people would say “yes, but… how would I pay for it?”
Long-term, the ginseng will pay the costs of living in the country, but it is a business. Like
any other business, it has startup costs, and a product development lag-time. The trick is
to find a way to make ends meet for the 5 or 6 years before your seed income starts
coming in, and we have been working on that problem for years.
Would you willingly live with a very reduced income if it meant having a high income
business later? Some people are willing, some people are not. Bulletproofretirement.com
publishes very specific information on how to live on very little income in order to keep
your ginseng operation going until it will support itself. As it turns out, these are exactly the
techniques that ensure a comfortable retirement on very little income.
The search for a way to overcome the problems associated with the “perfect” business led
us to develop the BulletProofRetirement.com website.
Planning and Preparation:
“Everything goes To the Man with the Plan…”
Before planting ginseng, you have to have a basic idea of what you want to do. It is
axiomatic that if you do not have a plan to get where you’re going, you probably aren’t
going to get there.
Growing wild-simulated ginseng is not a get-rich-quick scheme. At the same time, there
are some elements that will allow you to have a great deal of flexibility. You do not need to
be physically present or near your ginseng cultivation areas for a period of years at the
beginning, which provides a great deal of flexibility in planning. During the later
maintenance and seed harvesting years, you need to be living on or very near the land on
which you grow ginseng to guard against pilferage and disease.
Growing ginseng has five distinctly different phases:
1. Business plan development and site selection.
2. Ground preparation and planting
3. Early years maintenance
4. Maintenance and Seed Harvest years
5. Final Harvest
The Business Plan Development phase is the most important, as this is when the grower
decides just what they want and how they’re going to go about it. If it’s going to be “grow it
and get out” then plan for it. If it’s going to be a multi-generation family business, do the
appropriate planning and find an appropriate farm. Some major issues to be discussed in
the plan are the goals, the definition of what success is and a discussion of what the exit
Growing ginseng is a lifestyle business once it’s established, requiring a certain amount of
care and husbandry, but allowing a great deal of freedom otherwise. During the growing
season the majority of the “work” is walking through the plots, observing the crop and
making sure it’s not suffering. If seed is being produced, berries need to be harvested
and processed. If seed production is not desired, the flowers need to be clipped in order
to ensure that the plants focus their growth on root development.
It is possible to be an absentee grower for the first few years, but plan on having to live on
or very near the property within 4 years after it’s been planted. This gives you plenty of
time to make an orderly transition.
The Ground Preparation and Planting phase can be a “one-shot” affair, or it can be an
ongoing process. It depends on the goals and desires of the growers. The initial planting
can be handled during the course of a month in the late fall, with site preparation taking
place during the summer and fall preceding the planting.
The Early Years maintenance does not require much more than checking for disease,
insect and rodent damage, and taking appropriate action if necessary. Keep in mind that
you will lose plants, and the natural attrition of plants will thin out the rows to a sustainable
and disease-resistant level. Seeds planted in fall of 2005 would not require any real
attention until the summer of 2009, and possibly not until 2010 if growth is slow. The Early
years will end when the plants start producing seed.
The Maintenance and Seed Harvest phase is the time when you must be diligent to
regularly walk around in your planting areas. It is imperative that you know what you have
and it’s condition. If you begin to suffer pillage or disease, you must take appropriate
action. When the berries mature, you have to pick the berries when they are ripe or you
risk losing the seed crop. After the annual growth-bud is set, the tops can be cut, dried
and sold for ginseng tea. When the ginseng is at this level of maturity it is a target for
thieves, and it needs to be protected. Fortunately, the tops die back in early fall and after
the leaves fall off of the trees, it is almost impossible to find the plants and dig the roots.
The ginseng is safe in the ground until the spring, when it will send up a shoot again.
It is not necessary to maintain residence in your ginseng growing area over the winter, and
it is possible to have a sun-state residence for winter, and a temporary residence in the
north. Some might choose to migrate north in an RV, stay for the season and migrate
back when the leaves fall. Others might choose to live in a “vacation cottage” or cabin,
with their “real” home somewhere else. The ginseng doesn’t care.
The final harvest phase will involve a lot of work, and you might want to start making plans
for finding labor. It will be necessary to have a place to dry the roots, and you’ll have to
give consideration to selling them. It is also possible to do a limited harvest, turning over
the farm to children and taking a portion of the harvest as an annuity for the rest of your
life. Your children might be very interested in this business once it’s already established
and has cash-flow, but it calls for careful planning and good relationships.
The point to this chapter is that you cannot buy some seed and throw it out on the ground
and expect there to be a fantastic harvest 10 years from now. That’s fantasy. You have
to decide what you want, where you want to be in 10 to 12 years, and what kind of income
you want to get out of this. After that, you have to be willing to do the work necessary to
get what you want.
Finding Appropriate Land To Grow Ginseng
In general, growing wild-simulated ginseng is going to boil down to a couple of points that
you cannot work around. There are minor points like soil nutrients that can be worked
around, but the major points are these:
Shade: 70 to 80 percent shade is needed to shield the plants from the sun. Without
enough shade, the ginseng is burned and dies. However: with shade levels of 90% to
95% and above, the ginseng grows very slowly. The most common mistake a new
grower makes is to plant under too much shade.
Second, the soil has to be moist enough to keep the ginseng growing but well drained
enough to avoid problems with overly wet soil. Not enough moisture and the plants die in
the heat of summer. Too much moisture and they get root-rot and die. Much is also
made of growing on the cooler north and eastern facing slopes. This is an especially
important consideration in dry areas.
The slope of the ground needs to be gentle enough that you can work on it. We’ve
planted ginseng on slopes that could not be walked up, but rather had to be climbed. After
years of experience at this, we’ve come to the conclusion that if we can’t take our golf cart
on the slope, it’s too steep for us to plant to plant on.
Necessity, however, can dictate that you plant where you can. If you wind up planting on
an extremely steep slope, do the best you can and pay attention to your crop.
The quality of the shade is going to be the most important issue of all. In studies of
wild ginseng, which often is growing in deep forest cover of 95% shade or more, Lewis
and Zenger found:
"Our data show that on an average a one-pronged plant will be 4.5 (plus or minus 1.6) years before it
develops a second prong, that a two-pronged plant will be 7.6 (plus or minus 2.4) years before
developing a third prong, and that a three-pronged individual will average 13.5 (plus or minus 3.3) years
before adding a fourth prong." Walter H. Lewis and Vincent E. Zenger, "Ginseng Population Dynamics,"
American Journal of Botany 69 (1982): 1485.