Ernest Boring was an entrepreneur who found a way to make a business from nature. “My dad started out with a honey house next to his home until he found out my mom was allergic to bees,” said Michael Boring. “Then he be-came a fur harvester and used the old honey house to dry the furs. He dug ginseng and sold scrap metal in between. He sold furs for years to a man who kept asking him when he was going to start buying ginseng. That question sparked the idea to make the buying and selling of ginseng and other roots and herbs into a business, one that has provided the family with a living for over 40 years.”
“They started the business in the building that had once been the honey house,” continues Michael, who took over management of the business when his parents retired. “My mother, Carolyn, was right there with my dad, doing the bookwork, going to the bank, making sure we had cash on hand to pay the diggers. All of us children worked with him, too, whether we wanted to or not! I remember going out to dig for ginseng with my dad and Uncle Frank telling me what to look for. I kept looking and couldn’t find any until he said, ‘You’re about to step on it!’ That experience got me hooked on the ginseng business.
“My dad was good to work with. He told me ‘what’ to do but not ‘how’ to do it. He let me figure out the best way for me to get the job done. For example, when I was helping him with the scrap metal business, I was in charge of loading and unloading the metal in the truck. I figured out a way to load and bundle metal so that when we got to the seller, they could just hook the bundled load of wire, and we could drive the truck out from under it. It might have taken me an hour to load the truck, but it only took a minute to unload it. I was probably 12 or 14 then. I’m 52 now.
“When I was grown and my dad was thinking about retiring, I asked him if he was ever going to hire someone to help with the business, and that’s when I went to work for him. About a year later, he decided he was going to close the business and told me that I needed to find another job. I told him that this is what I wanted to do. So we kept the family business going, and I am the one who ended up running the business. My wife, Christy, keeps the books and helps with the day-to-day running of the business, and we have two other full-time employees. My late brother, Charles, my older sister, Renee’ Billingsley, who recently passed away, and my older brother, Vincent, have also been involved in the business but have had other full-time jobs. We all grew up here, just outside Pikeville, and Vincent and I still live here.
“I wanted to keep the family business going, but I also wanted to help people. A lot of people in the area count on the money from selling ginseng and other roots and herbs to supplement their incomes. Having a place to sell it locally makes it easier on them and helps the local economy. Also, the roots and herbs we sell are used in medicines that people are looking for now: medicines to boost their immune systems during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the botanicals we sell such as goldenseal root are used in those medicines. The demand for goldenseal has about doubled since the pandemic hit, and you can dig it all year.
“The business has changed a lot since my father started it. The harvesting, buying and selling of ginseng is now a federally regulated business, and the harvesting has a legal season from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31. However, the real end of season is determined by the weather. The first frost will kill the plants, and the fallen leaves will cover and hide the plants, so once that happens, the harvest is done.
“When dad started the business, there wasn’t a season for ginseng. You could dig it all summer up ’til the frost. But because it was being dug before it produced seeds, it was in danger of disappearing. One of the sustainable harvesting guidelines for ginseng is that the mature red seeds must be immediately planted back in the soil where the roots were dug. These guidelines were set up to make sure the plants are not over-harvested and that there will continue to be new plants each year. No license is required to dig wild ginseng on private land in Tennessee, but harvesters must have the landowner’s permission and show proof that it was legally harvested. Nearly all public land is closed to harvesting or requires a permit to dig.
“When my dad started the business and when I started in the business, most of the sales were by word of mouth. My dad never did any advertising, and most of what we sold was exported. Today, with the internet, the buyers find us through our website or on one of the various lists of dealers. Our ‘diggers’ used to be mostly locals, but now they can get online and find out what different dealers are paying, and many will drive 50 miles farther to get a little higher price. We probably have about 100 diggers that we buy from.
“There are two ways to sell ginseng: fresh and dried. The dried roots will bring more per pound than fresh roots. Not all ginseng is the same quality, however, and the price per pound depends on the quality of the roots. We are a certified a ginseng dealer and a buyer of other botanical material for Tennessee and Kentucky. Most of what we buy comes from the mountains surrounding the Sequatchie Valley, but we do buy permitted goods from other areas.
“Ginseng grows in shady areas on north-facing hillsides in areas such as the Cumberland Plateau and the rest of the Appalachian Mountains. It does not grow in hot climates. You won’t find it farther west than Arkansas or Missouri.
“Ginseng buyers look for dense plants with lots of rings, which indicate that the plant has grown slowly and is more potent. This makes them more valuable. Some harvesters try applying fertilizer, but that makes the roots grow too fast, and they are harvested ‘slick,’ looking more like a carrot, without the rings and wrinkles that are so valuable.
Growing in too much sunlight will also make them grow too fast and make the plants and roots less valuable.
“To make sure that the harvesters are following the guidelines and that they have the highest quality roots, we host training sessions on ethically harvesting, cleaning, drying, storing and preparing material for market.
“Since there is a short buying and selling season for ginseng, we also deal in other roots and herbs such as goldenseal root, wild hydrangea, slippery elm bark, squaw vine, and wild indigo, among others.”
The business has now outgrown the old honey house where it all began. To accommodate the increased volume, Boring has just completed a new office/warehouse building just off Highway 127 north of Pikeville. The building features more room for proper storage of roots and herbs and is better equipped for doing business in the internet age. It even has one room set up for conducting Zoom training sessions for harvesters and meetings with dealers from around the world.
The company is also in the process of launching a new line of products combining CBD oil and ginseng. Boring provides the ginseng, and a partner produces the oils and candles. With the new product line, Boring will be opening a store that will feature local products that are either vintage, homemade or hand-crafted. The products will also be available online at coldspringssupply.co. The “co” is not a mistake; it stands for “company” and is meant to set Boring apart from all the “dot coms.”
“Another little known fact,” said Boring. “We are providing ginseng to researchers at Middle Tennessee State University.”
According to Dr. Iris Gao, head of the project, ginseng seeds take two years to germinate and an average of seven years to mature and produce seeds. The researchers are cloning ginseng plants to produce new seedlings to replace the plants harvested, thus skipping the two-year germination period and reducing the time between harvests. By using local genetic material, the new plants should thrive because they have been propagated from plants that are adapted to the local environment.
“This could be great for diggers who depend on harvesting for their income.” said Boring. “I’m proud to be part of a program that will help ensure there will still be ginseng for the next generation.”