WAUSAU, WISCONSIN - In this upper Midwestern state known for dairy, beer and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, ginseng growers want to make sure that the bitter root also gets its due.
So they’ve organized the first International Wisconsin Ginseng Festival. Set for Friday through Sunday in this mid-state river town, it will feature the root’s role in culinary, health and beauty products and local history. The event, just before the fall harvest, is expected to draw at least several hundred ginseng aficionados from Asia and from U.S. cities with large ethnic Asian populations.
Organizers hope the visitors’ appetite for Wisconsin ginseng will catch on with a broader consumer base. Even state residents, mostly of northern European descent, have limited experience with the plant beyond seeing vast "gardens" shaded with black fabric canopies.
With the festival, "we’re creating awareness," said Tom Hack, the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin’s international marketing director for several years ending last month.
Leading U.S. production
The state produces about 700,000 pounds or 317,500 kilos a year of cultivated ginseng – roughly 95 percent of the entire U.S. crop, which still totals less than 10 percent of the global yield. The vast majority goes to China and Hong Kong, where it has been used for thousands of years as a tonic to reduce stress, boost energy, focus attention and even treat male sexual dysfunction. A 2012 Mayo Clinic study found American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) eased fatigue among cancer patients.
American ginseng has alleged "cool" or restorative properties. The Wisconsin-grown root, considered especially potent, last year commanded a wholesale price ranging from the low $30s to $55 a pound – roughly double that of Chinese-grown root, Hack said. American wild ginseng root, the most prized, can command hundreds of dollars per pound.
But growers like Will Hsu worry that consumers may not be familiar enough with the root to differentiate.
"It’s global competition," said Hsu, whose family’s ginseng farm and sales operation near Wausau is among the country's largest. "If you do not educate consumers on the difference in taste and yield from Wisconsin, they’ll view it as a commodity that’s interchangeable."
The area’s long, cold winters and mineral-rich topsoil provide favorable conditions for ginseng, which takes at least three years to mature. It took off as a commercial crop in 1904 when four brothers – the Fromms – started cultivating the root as well as collecting it in the wild. Production peaked in the early 1990s, when 1,500 growers – mostly hobbyists with full-time jobs – produced over 2.2 million pounds or almost 100,000 kilos.
But some growers sold seed to Canada and China, setting up competition that flooded the market, depressed prices and drove out many Wisconsin growers. Their numbers have dwindled to fewer than 200 today. Their 317,500-kilos yield is dwarfed by output abroad, Hack said. "Canada is, like, 4.5 million pounds" or just over 2 million kilos. "China’s at least 5 million" pounds or 2.26 million kilos.
"Seeds that came from our industry came to really haunt us," added Hack, a hobbyist himself.
Growers face two related problems: product fraud and trademark infringement. Shady dealers misrepresent foreign-grown ginseng as American, Hack said. His board introduced a seal in 1991 to certify roots or products made entirely of Wisconsin ginseng, but "we’ve got companies using our logo that are not authorized to do that. Our industry has now started taking legal action" and alerting various regulatory agencies.
The commodity group also reviews international shipping records and has its handful of worldwide distributors look out for suspect products.
"We have a monitoring program in place in China," Hack said, "so we can address infringers there."
The more challenging task, Will Hsu argues, is cultivating discerning consumers of ginseng root, berries, and the resulting teas, powders, extracts and herbal supplements.
"The biggest problem for our industry, not only with labeling, is now you’re going to have some countries like Taiwan where [there’s] a whole generation of consumers who really only consume Canadian ginseng or Chinese-grown," he said.
"They don’t even know Wisconsin ginseng," lamented his father, Paul Hsu.
The Hsus and Hack discussed that quandary last October at the headquarters of Hsu’s Ginseng Enterprises Inc., where workers in the adjoining processing facility sorted and packaged freshly harvested roots. Paul Hsu, who emigrated from Taiwan, began the business in the 1970s. Now Will Hsu, in his early 40s, oversees daily operations.
A marketing ground game
Armed with a Harvard MBA and sales experience at food giant General Mills, the son promotes the concept of "terroir," which links an agricultural product to the land on which it’s grown. Just as the French province of Champagne is known for fine sparkling wine, he wants to ensure that central Wisconsin retains global recognition for premium ginseng. The company's 2017 calendar and other printed materials showcase "Terroir at N45th Parallel" – the area’s latitude.
Wisconsin's dark loam lends the ginseng a distinctive, earthy taste, Will Hsu said: "It’s bitter, it’s herbal. That is not a taste kids look fondly upon."
As with beer, it’s an acquired taste, he added. For the festival, the Hsus are partnering with the local Bull Falls Brewery to make a limited-release ginseng brew.
Festival vendors will peddle other items made with ginseng – such as wine, macaroons, teas, muffins and stir fries – and offer cooking demonstrations to show the plant’s versatility.
Visitors also will be able to dig their own roots at certain gardens.
The generational challenge affects both labor supply and consumer demand.
On a mild day early last October, three dozen workers harvested ginseng, some kneeling in freshly turned soil to gather ginseng roots, others lugging filled buckets to a waiting truck. Almost all were Hmong, who began emigrating from Laos and Thailand to the state four decades ago, after the Vietnam War, and many were advanced in years.
"People in my age group don’t want to do the work," said Aaron Kaiser, 28, whose family owns the garden. A third-generation grower, he fits in ginseng duties – including as a director on the marketing board – around his job as a math teacher.
As for demand, young ethnic Chinese don’t necessarily share their forebears’ enthusiasm for the herb.
"It’s not good for young people, it’s for old people," said Yongcheng Kuang, a student at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Marshfield/Wood County campus who hails from Shenzhen in China’s Guangdong province. Nonetheless, it was among the gifts he brought home to relatives during summer break.
Hack, the marketer, acknowledged that "the younger generation has different buying trends. But there are 1.3 billion people in the country of China, and the majority do recognize TCM – traditional Chinese medicine."
Wisconsin ginseng growers may get an assist from the state’s pending deal with Foxconn Technology Group. The Taiwan-based electronics maker signed a memorandum of understanding saying it would "investigate working together" with the Ginseng Board "to promote Wisconsin ginseng in Asia," the board said in a July news release.
While the board continues its focus on international markets, "we’ve never taken into consideration the market potential right here in the United States," Hack added.
With the festival, Wisconsin growers hope to make inroads.