RAINELLE, W. Va, Oct 1 (Reuters Life!) - After five hours hunting ginseng in the U.S. Appalachian mountains, Steve Wood produces a small plastic bag containing his day's haul of the prized root a little sheepishly.
"I doubt it's worth a dollar by the time it dries," said Wood, 49, fingering two tiny carrot-like roots through the plastic.
"I got over a pound last year, but it's not as abundant this year. It's been too dry."
Wood's real job is truck driving, but he finds happiness in the hills of Appalachia, where he's been digging ginseng since he was a boy -- one of thousands here who prize the root not as medicine but as a source of extra income.
It takes 100 to 300 small roots to make a pound of dried ginseng, no small task considering the plants are well-hidden, loved by animals and often picked over by dedicated diggers.
But over 200 years of demand for the root -- considered an all-round tonic in parts of Asia -- has made ginseng one of the most valuable wild commodities in Appalachia, an isolated and often impoverished region stretching across America's eastern interior.
"Some years you make money, some years you don't," said Wood with a shrug. "I just love being out in the woods."
Some 4,590 pounds of wild ginseng were dug in West Virginia last year at about $435 a pound -- bringing some $2 million in extra income, according to Robin Black, the resident ginseng expert at the West Virginia Department of Forestry.
The 200-year-old industry has a dedicated digging season -- this year it began September 1 -- and a system of licensed buyers who buy ginseng from individual diggers and sell it to exporters.
Black said ginseng diggers may be a dying breed.
"In this fast-paced world the younger people want things fast and quick, and harvesting ginseng is not fast and quick," Black said wryly.
But more and more ginseng diggers are becoming ginseng growers, planting seeds on their own properties or in national forests and returning years later to harvest their crop. The result is a "wild simulated" root indistinguishable from wild ginseng, and worth just as much.
About a 100 miles from Rainelle, Fred Hays shows off dozens of tiny green ginseng plants growing on the forested hills of his 150 acre property near Elkview. He's been scattering 10 to 20 pounds of ginseng seed around his place for years, and harvests his roots when they are seven or eight years old.
"I'm looking at ginseng as a retirement plan," said Hays, spokesman for the West Virginia Ginseng Growers Association, a nascent group teaching dozens of new growers how to plant seeds to produce wild-quality ginseng.
"You want to drop the seeds just beneath a layer of leaf litter," Hays said.
"I remember digging ginseng when I was six years old. I've always seen it as a big equalizer for people from Appalachia," he said, noting that the harvest surges when unemployment is high or the region's coal miners are on strike and ginseng becomes an alternative income for many.
Hays also knows of ginseng millionaires and dedicated growers who use electric fences to protect their well-hidden crops from poachers and hungry deer alike.
"We have one man, he looks like a hobo, but he sells close to half a million (dollars) every year," Hays said.
"The average guys, planting every year, can make about $15,000 a year just on the side."
Hays admits ginseng growing is often an uphill battle against the elements. Drought has taken a toll this year, deer have eaten the leaves, turkeys eat the seeds, and rodents go after the root itself. But the harvest makes it worthwhile.
"It's worth as much as marijuana, and it's legal," Hays said. "Plus it's better than playing the stock market."