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Uprooted: Ohio's Dangerous Culture Of Ginseng Hunting

An investigation into Knox County’s most unusual criminal enterprise.

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In Knox County, Ohio, and throughout Appalachia, there exists a kind of holy grail of rural life: ginseng, a storied, threatened, highly regulated root plant believed to have remarkable medicinal properties. The bizarrely shaped root – known for resembling a human man – thrives in North America and Asia, and has been harvested nearly to death in both places. The practices of digging and exporting ginseng have been going on for centuries. 

A status symbol among China’s upper class, the U.S. variety of ginseng is highly sought after overseas. In eastern Asia, but particularly in Hong Kong, a fully grown Ohio ginseng root will sell for at least $200,000 to the right buyer. For Americans looking to grow “wild-simulated” ginseng in their local woods as a side hustle, this sounds like a dream come true. To those who prefer to steal off private property or simply defy wildlife regulations to poach the plant, it sounds like easy money. 

It’s not.

This is a story about crime. Ginseng is an obsession, a way of life, a perceived ticket to wealth and the basis for a sink-or-swim industry that unnervingly resembles the drug trade. This is a story about stealing what others have worked hard and long to create. It’s about tragedy – both murder and mysterious deaths, arrests and prison time, desperation and deceit. And it all unfolds against the backdrop of a powerful relationship between the rural U.S. and China, forged through the innate human desire for large amounts of money and prestige. Ginseng growing and hunting has created an invincible hope that economic security, or even upward mobility, is possible for rural Americans who often live in poverty on the fringes of society. Most of all, this is a story about these people and their interactions with the natural world, and how they either will or won’t preserve it.

Kenyon College is connected to the ginseng world, though only through our close proximity. The liberal arts college “bubble” in Gambier makes it difficult to follow the lives of our cultural near-opposites around Knox County. We voted differently, we’ve been raised and educated differently, and most of us will never interact at all. But right under the noses of Kenyon’s students and faculty, these two worlds briefly intersected.

Ginseng On The Kokosing

In 2018, near the Kokosing River, someone spotted two mysterious figures on a bench. Something felt off, so they made a call to the Knox County Sheriff’s Department. A deputy responded. It’s typical for ginseng diggers on private property to be reported to the sheriff’s department or local police first, if they’re called in at all. Those are the forms of local law enforcement we’re all familiar with. But for reports like these, Sheriff David Shaffer’s department knows to call in the expert. 

That person is Austin Levering, Knox County’s wildlife officer. That makes him the go-to law enforcement official for ginseng violations of all kinds. Calls to the local sheriff’s department reporting suspected ginseng theft are turned over to Levering, who does his best to keep the chaotic mix of shady business and blatant robbery in check. Levering’s job covers a lot of territory (when we first started emailing, he mentioned being distracted by “deer rut season”), but ginseng violations are a major component. Levering is used to being lied to by ginseng diggers breaking harvesting rules. But when the suspect still has dirt under his fingernails and officers find a load of ginseng hidden nearby, those excuses go up in smoke pretty quickly. The 2018 case on Kenyon’s property was one of those caught-red-handed cases. 

Hunting ginseng, Levering insists, is easy. You just have to harvest in season (September first through late December), officially register to do so every season, keep records every day you dig, not take plants less than five years old (indicated by the number of prongs on the root, no less than three), always plant seeds where you harvested and – possibly the most important rule – not take ginseng off someone else’s property. The hunters who materialized on Kenyon’s campus, however, clearly didn’t want to abide by this ginseng-harvesting bible. They were caught with backpacks full of recently dug-up roots, clearly having just finished digging in the woods. No matter where they got it, their ginseng was illegal – this happened in August, outside of the harvesting season, and the men didn’t have records of where they’d been digging.

One of the team was taken to Knox County Jail for different, non-ginseng violations. That’s when Levering showed up on the scene. He interviewed the ginseng hunter, and several charges were pressed (the maximum sentence for possessing out-of-season ginseng is a $1,000 fine, and up to 180 days in jail). The wildlife officer was pretty confident the stolen ginseng had been taken off Kenyon’s property. But the man he interviewed claimed to have dug his ginseng in a different county earlier that night, and Levering couldn’t prove otherwise.

Protectors Of The Grail

“I could put an advertisement out for this coming weekend, for a ‘How To Grow Ginseng’ workshop, and I guarantee I’d have 50 people sign up,” ginseng expert Chip Caroll told me over the phone. “So there’s a lot of interest in it. And it doesn’t seem to be going away.”  

    Caroll, the sanctuary steward at United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary, regularly hosts educational ginseng workshops for anyone interested in learning. He was excited to talk about his nephew, a Kenyon student who plays on the basketball team, and to share his encyclopedic ginseng knowledge. Jackson Wald ’22, who contributed reporting in the early stages of this story, first reached out to Caroll for an interview. 

Caroll is familiar with the risks of growing ginseng – and efforts to change that. He described one sophisticated new approach: A botanist has developed an invisible, calcium-based dye that can easily be added to growing roots. Growers can use a blacklight to identify the dye, making doused ginseng traceable, even after it’s been stolen and sold to a dealer.

Pictures shared by ginseng hunter Mike Evans.

Caroll is also involved in a push for policy reform. Specifically, he wants to move the minimum ginseng age for legally harvesting the plant from five to 10 years old. The goal of this reform – which has already passed in some states, but which Caroll hopes to see nationwide – is to give the plants more time to reproduce. Wild ginseng, by far the most valuable variety, is now in short supply due to overharvesting. Farm-grown ginseng (the kind used in your Arizona Green Tea) is cheap: “Cultivated ginseng is not worth a fraction of what wild ginseng is worth,” says Levering. The physical difference between those two types of ginseng, at least to an experienced eye, is striking. Wealthy buyers overseas use large wild-grown roots as a status symbol, often preserving them and displaying them prominently in their homes. Cultivated ginseng, on the other hand, is used in drinks and supplements almost exclusively. 

There is a third option. “Wild-simulated” ginseng is what most connoisseurs, including Caroll, advocate. Landowners can plant ginseng in their own woods, and allow it to grow independently. It takes years for the roots to reach maturity, and the harvesting process is still regulated. There’s also the perpetual risk of being robbed. But for the patient, the lucky and those with strategically placed security cameras, the money is good.

There is a third option. “Wild-simulated” ginseng is what most connoisseurs, including Caroll, advocate. Landowners can plant ginseng in their own woods, and allow it to grow independently. It takes years for the roots to reach maturity, and the harvesting process is still regulated. There’s also the perpetual risk of being robbed. But for the patient, the lucky and those with strategically placed security cameras, the money is good.


Wild-simulated ginseng isn’t quite as valuable or as impressive as true wild ginseng, but it’s definitely nothing like the farm-grown stuff. Growing wild-simulated is more than a path to potentially life-changing income for rural Americans without generational wealth or abundant resources. According to Caroll, it’s also an excellent way for new landowners, people who bought up acres because they could afford to, to get in touch with nature and spend more time in their own woods. But the wild-simulated method promoted by people like Chip Caroll is also a method of keeping the species intact in its traditional environment. That is, Caroll believes, a worthy cause. “You can’t grow the ginseng without the trees. And the trees like the ginseng grown underneath them,” he said of ginseng’s importance to the local ecosystem. 

Even as overharvesting makes the plant scarce, poachers continue to follow ginseng to wherever it remains. These days, that endeavor leads them directly to Kenyon’s home county: “Knox County is an amazing resource with many landowners that own hundreds of acres. Unfortunately what we’ve seen in southern Ohio, where ginseng has been so popular, [is that] land has been cleared of ginseng in many places. So, we’re seeing people migrate,” Levering laments. Evidently, the poachers who left their own county and ventured to the Kokosing in 2018 aren’t alone: “You know, when I catch violators in this county, they’re typically not from here. They’re from maybe two, three hours away, and they’ve heard about Knox County, and they come here to dig ginseng illegally.”

Risky Business

One fact of life in Knox County – and the Midwest at large – is the terrible issue of opioid addiction. In The Collegian Magazine’s spring 2018 issue, Claire Fraise ‘21 and David Han ‘21 wrote an article describing the opioid crisis manifesting itself in Knox County, and reported on efforts to help its victims, some of whom live in the local wilderness. The seemingly easy, get-rich-quick appeal of ginseng hunting – especially illegally – isn’t lost on people in the community who are in the dire situation Fraise and Han illuminated in this magazine. People addicted to drugs, who are in poor health and lack money or strong social connections as a result, are among those attracted to ginseng. 

Its popularity has gone up and down in the past, but ginseng hunting has thrived in recent years. A popular reality TV show on the History Channel, Appalachian Outlaws, popularized ginseng hunting in 2014 and 2015, which didn’t help matters. Especially dismayed at this development was Levering, then a young wildlife officer just starting his career. Levering claims to have seen a spike in ginseng violations after the show aired, back when he was assigned to Mercer County.

Ask anyone familiar with the subject, and they will tell you: Ginseng madness is very real. The hysteria – fueled by TV representations, by the thrill of the chase and, most of all, by the allure of large amounts of money – is extreme. People become genuinely obsessed. It’s almost an addiction, one which involves hard physical work and heavy competition. On a larger scale, the “semi-legal” ginseng industry resembles the drug world so obviously that it’s impossible to ignore. 

Dr. Brad Castle, an Ohio ginseng grower and dealer, told the Collegian Magazine that Ohio’s dealers are deeply untrustworthy. He recalled an anecdote where ginseng-ers filled bags with sand, covered on top with ginseng, to manipulate potential buyers into spending more for less. The big-shot dealers in the state, he insists, are the worst. Levering describes the ginseng thieves themselves as excessively dishonest people. They frequently take the same risks over and over again, getting so strung out that they’ll eventually find themselves in jail for stealing, or something worse. The ginseng community – including poachers, farmers, law enforcement officers, dealers and conservationists – is fervent and intense. People are always lying, always transporting valuable material under dangerous circumstances, and always hoping for the next adrenaline rush or big financial reward. Trust is scarce and legal indiscretions are common. For lack of a better term, it’s sketchy. 

Like the illicit drug trade, for ginseng poachers, and even for their dealers, police intervention is the price of doing business. In 2009, a two-year undercover investigation by Ohio’s DNR Division of Wildlife – where Austin Levering works now – led to 36 people facing a total of 61 criminal charges related to the illegal harvest and sale of ginseng. The bust was code-named Operation Uprooted.

Like the illicit drug trade, for ginseng poachers, and even for their dealers, police intervention is the price of doing business. In 2009, a two-year undercover investigation by Ohio’s DNR Division of Wildlife – where Austin Levering works now – led to 36 people facing a total of 61 criminal charges related to the illegal harvest and sale of ginseng. The bust was code-named Operation Uprooted. 

That’s not the only high-profile ginseng crime story. Within the Ohio ginseng community, certain news reaches everyone. One such incident, in 2013, is especially notorious. A 79-year-old Preble County resident named Joseph Kutter was charged with voluntary manslaughter, tampering with evidence and gross abuse of a corpse, and sentenced to a total of five years and six months in prison. Kutter shot 31-year-old Bobby Joe Grubbs with what prosecutors believe was an AK-47. According to Kutter, Grubbs had been trespassing on his private property with the intention of stealing the ginseng that grew there. Kutter also claimed that Grubbs charged at him during their confrontation, but there were no witnesses to corroborate his story. 

Grubbs was reported missing by family members in late May 2012, and his remains were found by cadaver dogs that June. Kutter had moved the body several times before finally hiding it in his mulch pile. Years later, this disturbing turn of events hovers on the consciousness of the rest of the ginseng growing and digging network in Ohio. Growing marketable ginseng takes years. Protecting it, like stealing it, is a fraught enterprise. It’s not surprising that the hunt for ginseng has already escalated into a matter of life and death.

“Easy Hauling”

Most ginseng-related crimes are simple and almost identical. Someone was caught stealing someone else’s ginseng, the incident got called in, the person got picked up, and they probably paid a fine. With others, like the Kutter case, the stakes are considerably higher. And sometimes, the misadventures of Ohio’s ginseng hunters just get weird.

Sheriff Shaffer stopped answering my emails when I brought up the disappearance and death of Ernest Baker.

Baker was once a ginseng poacher, although his day job was running a small pet store. He was married and lived in Roseville, Muskingum County, not far from Knox. He used to go hunting for ginseng in Knox County alongside his friend Sony Phillips – they went into the woods to dig together on at least 15 separate occasions between August 17 and September 20, 2019. Their wives, Anne Phillips and Katisha Baker, would typically wait in the truck. According to Levering, it’s become common ginseng poacher practice to have one person do the (literal) dirty work, and a partner to drop them off in a car, then pick them up hours later.

During their brief stint digging ginseng, Knox County’s four most notorious poachers had numerous encounters with law enforcement. One landowner actually caught Sony Phillips and Ernest Baker on camera stealing his ginseng, and gave their image to the police. On another occasion, Sony was stopped by police with a 10-pound bag of ginseng concealed under the hood of his car. According to Katisha Baker, Sony also deleted a number of text messages from her phone around this time. Police notes from another occasion cite a “Cop/Prostitute incident” in relation to the group, with no further explanation. Once, local officials were discussing the latest Phillips-Baker situation when another car suddenly pulled up behind them. It was Sony and Anne Phillips, the very people the officers had just been talking about. In the back-and-forth that followed, the officers showed Anne and Sony a picture of their son, Tray. Anne responded: “Is that Tray Phillips?” Sony jumped in, saying: “That’s your son.” 

The group sold their ginseng to two separate dealers, Forrest Simmons and Joe Gillogy. Transactions were sometimes made in Anne Phillips’s name, likely because Sony had been arrested so many times already. Gillogy’s Ginseng, one of the two ginseng dealerships the Baker-Phillips team sold to, is a family business. Brian Hall, a proud third-generation ginseng dealer, is the grandson of founder Joe Gillogy, who started buying and selling ginseng and other medicinal roots in the 1960s: “I grew up around it. Now I’m in full control of the operation 60 years later.” According to him, virtually all ginseng ends up exported. When asked if he thinks the ginseng industry is beneficial to Ohio, Hall said he simply doesn’t know.

The last three times Baker went out hunting ginseng, he and his partner were accompanied by Phillip’s son, Tray. On one of these excursions – September 20, 2019 – all three men went out, but only two came back. An unsettling amount of time after their return from the woods, the Phillips men finally reported Ernest Baker missing. According to them, he got separated from the group and just wandered off. Baker had a history of health problems: He’d lived with cancer (but was in recovery and reportedly doing well), and once had a stroke. After the successful cancer treatments, Sony and Anne Phillips moved in with Ernest and Katisha Baker. Ernest was living off disability checks.

The multi-agency search for Baker started almost immediately after he was reported missing at 10 p.m. on Friday, September 20, and went on for two days. Because he had gone missing inside Knox County, Sheriff Shaffer and his department played a major role. Ohio State Highway Patrol helicopters, a rescue group on horseback, and three different canine units surveyed the area. Baker went missing very close to the border with Coshocton County, but the Bladensburg Fire District, Kokosing Valley Search and Rescue, Knox County Sheriff’s office and other groups involved with the search apparently stayed within the boundaries of Knox.

When Baker’s body was discovered two months later, it was on the other side of that border, on a private field in Coshocton County. A hunter, not a search party, found the remains – only one mile from where Baker went missing. According to an autopsy and death investigation report obtained by the Collegian Magazine, there was no evidence of trauma, and toxicology reports were no longer possible due to considerable decomposition. The cause of death was, and still is, undetermined. Ginseng roots, pictured at the end of the report, were found in his pockets.

“There’s a big culture of illegal ginseng harvesting [in Knox County],” said a source familiar with the subject. Some regular offenders, he added, have become celebrities among law enforcement. Sheriff Shaffer, who was involved in the investigation following Baker’s disappearance, declined to answer questions regarding ginseng hunting in Knox County, and didn’t respond to a request for comment on Sonny Phillips and Ernest Baker. Levering claimed to have been involved with the case, and expressed a desire to talk about it. But when he asked his supervisor for permission to do so, he was denied. 

After Baker’s death, someone did start talking: his wife, Katisha. While Anne Phillips was known to take the fall for her husband when he was caught with illegally dug ginseng, Katisha went to the police herself when she no longer had a spouse to protect. Her version of the story, when provided voluntarily, contradicted information obtained from earlier police interviews with members of the group. According to her, Ernest wasn’t even very good at harvesting ginseng.

In the days immediately leading up to Baker’s disappearance, Tray Phillips started lashing out at Katisha. He also complained that “Ernest was being a fucking asshole, like he was on the roof.” (The source familiar with the case was unable to discern which roof was being referenced.) The following Friday, after Baker went missing, the Phillips family asked Katisha to give Tray a ride to the gas station – there was a warrant out for his arrest, so he wanted to avoid driving his car. There is currently another warrant out on Tray Phillips, this one issued in late January 2020.

Two days before Baker went missing, Katisha Baker reportedly sold her husband’s ginseng directly to Joe Gillogy himself. According to Brian Hall, Gillogy’s has “some of the best ginseng harvesters in the USA.” While some diggers show up daily, forging a special bond with their dealer, others only bring their ginseng to Hall once or twice a year. “There is a poaching and theft problem. That comes with the amount of money involved with ginseng,” Hall told me. “If it wasn’t as high-dollar it may not happen. Who knows.”

Katisha Baker also told police that while recruiting Ernest, Phillips insisted to his friend that their ginseng scheme would be “easy hauling.”

A Complicated Reality

Ultimately, ginseng is a blessing and a curse for rural communities. The paradoxical American dream of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” seems a little more plausible when a plant in your backyard can be sold for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s an easy buck for victims of the opioid crisis and a potential fortune for poor and middle-class Ohioans, in Knox County and beyond. But a culture of criminal behavior has made the whole enterprise dangerous, and the hard work of legal growers could always come to naught. In some cases, the outcome could be much worse, when a situation devolves into violence, or when secrecy overrides safety. And to conservationists and wildlife experts like Caroll, ginseng fever is a serious problem for the environment. Ginseng dealer Brian Hall, too, has concerns: “Ginseng is becoming endangered or extinct. We have seen a significant decline in the amount of ginseng harvested in the last five years,” he told the magazine.  

Every winter, the otherwise unassuming ginseng plant turns gold and produces bright red berries. During this window of time, the treacherous work of finding and digging roots becomes legal, within limits. But after centuries of fighting over this unlikely commodity, there already isn’t enough gold to go around.    


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