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Ginseng Farmers Protect Crop and Reputation

In the 1980s, Wisconsin reigned as the world's ginseng capital. Herbal medicine buffs prized the state's so-called 'man roots' for their potency, and farmers raked in an average of $125 million a year. But stiff competition from Canadian and Chinese growers paired with trademark piracy has diminished the Badger State's standing. Now Wisconsin farmers are taking the offensive to reclaim the glory days of ginseng

In a small Chinatown shop in Los Angeles, Joe Heil strides past several barrels of ginseng up to the register. Holding a box that displays the official seal of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin, he confronts the clerk, demanding, "Is this grown in Wisconsin?" The clerk replies that he was told it was. But Heil doesn't believe it. "I can tell you, that this is Chinese. All of this, Chinese. All of it." Heil says he can tell it's Chinese by the color, skin, and smell of the root. The clerk asks him to leave.

Heil isn't a government agent. He's with Wisconsin's Ginseng Board, on one of many sting operations in Chinatowns across the nation. "Our product is being misrepresented to the consumer," he explains. "They're paying a lot for something that's not going to give them a lot of benefit or the same benefit that they believe they're getting if it's Wisconsin ginseng."

Ginseng from the Badger State can bring in three, even four times more than other types. Wisconsin's climate and soil nurture a potent form of ginseng that many people believe is unsurpassed at curing a wide range of ailments, according to Chun-Su Yuan, director of the University of Chicago's Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research. "Wisconsin ginseng has ability to reduce the body weight, to help in fighting of the diabetes and conditions, like insomnia, indigestion, et cetera."

But unscrupulous vendors are selling foreign-grown ginseng as Wisconsin-grown to customers who may not know the difference. To growers, it's like selling sparkling white wine that wasn't produced in France as champagne. To help consumers know they're actually getting ginseng grown in Wisconsin, Congressman Dave Obey has drafted legislation requiring labels that list the country of origin. Capitol Hill has yet to act on it. The Wisconsin Democrat says, "The Congress is institutionally biased against anything that doesn't sound like 100% free trade. They think you're trying to engage in protectionism. I don't call it protectionism to require that people level with people in terms of what it is they're actually selling and buying."

At his Mosinee, Wisconsin farm, Butch Weege checks on his ginseng crop, which lies under a broad canopy of black mesh and wooden trellises. He carefully pries out a root with a spade. "We have a pretty clean three-year old ginseng root," he says as he gently brushes the dirt off. "His exterior is not affected by any soil-borne pathogens." Weege says 20 years ago, roots like this could bring in up to $176 a kilo. But today, with Chinese and Canadian-grown ginseng glutting the market, the average payout is about a quarter of that, $48.

But there is some good news. Weege says Chinese officials recently contacted the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin regarding a customer complaint filed with the trade office in Shanghai, challenging the validity of some supposedly Wisconsin grown ginseng. "This was an image of our seal, it was being pirated," he explains. "That little snowball has picked up in size and is now getting attention in Beijing. Sorta mind-boggling to us, the interest that the national government in China has taken in our particular case here. They'll tell us we are the gold standard but [they] just are not certain that [they're] getting genuine Wisconsin."

To that end, Ginseng Board members like Joe Heil are keeping vigilant on how the Wisconsin brand is being represented both here and abroad. Back in Los Angeles, Heil visits another Chinatown market, where he grills a couple of clerks on their ginseng stock. "Is it grown in China, is it grown in Canada, is it grown in Wisconsin?" he asks them. They tell him it's American.

Heil says he has no problem with stores selling Chinese or Canadian ginseng, as long as it's identified as such. Any piracy of the Wisconsin seal, he says, hurts state growers like him. "I want to continue to grow ginseng. I want to survive as a ginseng farmer. But it's getting harder and harder at this point. And I always said that if I'm not going to be successful, I'm going to go down fighting. So I guess this is the fight."

Tighter policing of the market could mean better fortunes for Wisconsin's 300 ginseng growers. But things are still a far cry from when the state had 1600 growers, raking in nearly $125 million annually.