The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

December 25, 2013

New reality show focuses on W.Va. ginseng business

BECKLEY —  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 that 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.”

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