By Jesse Wood
Dec. 1, 2014. On Monday, a Boone man was convicted of a felony for poaching ginseng, and the agricultural community is applauding the felony conviction, which they say is the first of its kind for an offense on private property in North Carolina.
David E. Presnell of 228 Hampton Trailer Circle pled guilty yesterday to stealing ginseng from High Country Ginseng, a commercial producer of the wild simulated root owned by Travis Cornett and partners.
When Presnell was illegally ‘sanging in August 2013, the price of the root was fetching up to $1,200 per pound.
Last year, Presnell trespassed on land featuring one of the ginseng patches of High Country Ginseng. A friend of Cornett’s saw Presnell exiting the ginseng patch and told Cornett, who then took a Weed Eater to the tops of the plants, so the ginseng wouldn’t be easily identifiable.
Days later, Presnell came back to the same patch, and this time Cornett was around to catch him red-handed. Deputies with the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office found a couple pounds of ginseng in Presnell’s home and returned it to Cornett. Presnell’s 11- to 23-month jail sentence was suspended to 30-months probation by Judge Gary Gavenus with the condition that Presnell submit to a DNA sample to be taken. Presnell has a prior record. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1983 and released from prison in 2007.
Cornett said that while he’s had other people poach ginseng roots off of his farms, Presnell was the first person he caught in the action.
“I wouldn’t have prosecuted him unless he came back twice,” Cornett said. “I just wanted to get the word out that you will get in trouble.”
Both Cornett and Watauga County Cooperative Extension Director Jim Hamilton applauded the conviction. After conferring with colleagues, Hamilton said that this is the first felony conviction of ginseng poaching on private land in North Carolina and possibly in the surrounding region.
Jim Corbin with the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services added that these cases have generally been tried as misdemeanor trespassing.
Hamilton called this a “great victory for the commercial ginseng industry” that sets a legal precedent that you will get in trouble if you harvest another person’s ginseng crop that is obviously being cultivated.
Hamilton said he works with about eight ginseng producers in the county and poaching is the number one risk in planting ginseng. At workshops, Hamilton has said in the past that he has told potential growers that there is only so much you can do: put up cameras and no trespassing signs. Now Hamilton is hoping the threat of a felony conviction will deter poachers in the future.
Both Cornett, who has 20 to 30 acres of ginseng on about 10 farms in different locations in the county, and Hamilton were among a small group in the local agricultural community that met with District Attorney Seth Banks about a month ago to discuss the impact of ginseng poaching.
Hamilton said that nearly a dozen growers planted about 1,000 pounds of ginseng seed this fall in the hopes that demand for the root continues to grow. These growers met with Banks to let him know that if all of these plants are successfully cultivated then this is going to have a huge impact on the local economy once the plants are mature, dug up, dried and sold.
Both Corbin and Hamilton also mentioned that the recent reality TV shows such as Filthy Riches, Smoky Mountain Money and Appalachian Outlaws that depict ginseng hunting in the Appalachian Mountains have harmed the crop.
Hamilton said that the show has sparked interest into ginseng because people think they can get rich quick digging up ginseng. However, it takes about seven years for a plant to mature, and dried roots fetch more than quadruple the price of fresh roots.
“I really think the popularity of these shows has really hurt the plant because folks are digging up smaller plants,” Hamilton said.