Ginseng's Export Power Rooted in Wisconsin

Jan 12, 2018  | 7 min  | Ep4321

Next week, NAFTA negotiators will sit down to continue a trade battle with an unknown outcome. President Trump – who has famously called for scrapping the 23-year old treaty – now says he prefers a deal.

U.S. row crop farmers are stuck watching from the wings to see whether their record corn and soybean production will have open roads to foreign ports. However, one upper Midwestern crop has long found a path to prosperity in a world awash in grain. 

Wisconsin might be known as America’s Dairyland, but another commodity - rooted in the Badger State since before the nation’s existence - holds a long history of lucrative returns from Asian export markets.

Will Hsu/Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “Ginseng has traditionally been used in both cooking and as a medicine.  A lot of Chinese practicing culture believe that food is a medicine.  So the items you consume impact your bodily health.  I think as Westerners we’re just starting to discover that based on our diet.”

Will Hsu is a second generation ginseng producer near Wausau.  Ninety-five percent of the plant’s domestic cultivated origin is sprinkled across Wisconsin, according to USDA, and Marathon County is the hub. 

Will Hsu/Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “Very similar to France and Italy, which are known as the old world regions for growing wine…the taste and flavor of Wisconsin ginseng has been ingrained in people for the last 100 years.”

State estimates indicate roughly one million raw pounds of ginseng are harvested, laboriously, across Wisconsin every year - representing an over $50 million industry.  And some say retail sales can boost profits exponentially.

Paul Hsu/Founder - Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “Well, I’m the farmer.  He’s the brains, so works out as a team very good.”

Originally from Taiwan, Will’s father - Paul Hsu - founded the core of the family business over 40 years ago when he and his wife discovered unmet demand for the niche product in Asian-American communities across the U.S.  The Hsu’s enterprise now includes several hundred acres under production with nearly 1,000 employees across the globe.

Paul Hsu/Founder - Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “Chinese…real warm.  It’s hot – yang, and American ginseng – yin.  So there’s two different functions.  Two species…”

Panax Ginseng was discovered in China’s Manchuria region thousands of years ago, but the popular panacea eventually fell victim to overharvest.  However, in the 1700s, Jesuit missionaries followed the thread from Asia to North America, along the 45th parallel, to Panax Quinquefolius, a cousin plant with similar cure-all claims among some Native American tribes.

Will Hsu/Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “You don’t always find four prongs.”

Then around the dawn of the 20th century, the wild root moved from forest to farm in Wisconsin, cemented trade partnerships and earned a gold standard reputation.

Bob Kaldunsky/President - Ginseng Board of Wisconsin: “Eighty-five percent of our market is China. So yeah, it’s tied in. It’s hard-wired.”

Bob Kaldunsky heads up the state’s ginseng board, a quasi-governmental promotion group of active producers, funded through shade assessment – a tax on the farm structures that help mimic woods-like conditions for the fickle herb.

Despite strong demand, Kaldunsky says the number of ginseng growers in Wisconsin has declined from over 1,000, 20 years ago, to about 180 today.

Bob Kaldunsky/President - Ginseng Board of Wisconsin: “There’s 5 producers that produce 75 percent of the crop. And the balance, then, that’s about 175, produce the other 25 percent.”

This consolidation could be attributed to discouraging infrastructure expenses, time and land challenges.

Will Hsu/Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “Three to five years, normally, before we harvest, and we don’t plant on the same land twice.”

Paul Hsu/Founder - Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “Ever.”

Because cultivated ginseng only grows in a particular location once, large producers must constantly secure new cropland.  But the Hsus say successive owners can reap the benefits of ginseng’s one-shot deal.

Will Hsu/Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “What most farmers typically find is after we’re on the land it’s in a better state than it was before – especially to grow some of the other cash crops that are more typical here in Central Wisconsin.”

Growers don’t expect the reality of finite land to brew into a crisis any time soon, but sustainability could be as close as the edge of the field.

Paul Hsu/Founder - Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “I have been training diggers for 30 years, at least.  Maybe 35 years.  We give them top price so they only pick mature plants and also dig in certain times and certain sizes.”

By state law, the original wild, woods-grown ginseng must be at least 10-years old before being extracted for sale.  Properly licensed by the state, anyone can dig into Wisconsin’s private lands, with permission, during the months of September and October.  And dealers say wild root commands much more than the average $30-55 per pound off the farm.

Paul Hsu/Founder - Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “Depending on what location, how good they are – 500, 600, 700 dollars a pound.”

That’s because the older the root, the higher the number of ginsenosides – active compounds within the plant that impart its elixir-like prestige.  Private landowners like the Hsu’s recognize the importance of conservation – developing their own method – ‘wild simulated’ – as part of the state’s multi-pronged approach to viability.

Will Hsu/Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “So this is kind of that in-between space, not quite wild, not quite farm-raised, that you see a lot of agriculture moving into.  So you can take any patch of woods, if you take care of it and do a good job of it, and turn it into this.  And in the wild, some of the best roots are 15-30 years old.”

Paul Hsu/Founder - Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “So this is at least 40 years, maybe more than 40.  Very seldom do you have 60 year old roots, maybe one in 100 to 1,000.  But 100 years or older, I’ve only found two in 43 years.  I have one and, Jack Ma, from Alibaba - I gave him one.”

Over the years, Paul Hsu has forged connections with politicians and high-profile businesspeople who swear by the economic and health benefits of ginseng.  And while producers brush off concerns over trade bluster out of Washington, some do offer a word of caution.

Will Hsu/Hsu’s Ginseng – Wausau, Wisconsin: “History has shown times where trade to China has been shut down…this industry was dead.  The demand, as income levels rise in Asia, is really coming from there. So to help farmers in Central Wisconsin, the best thing we can have is access to those export markets.”


For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.

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