Wisconsin Ginseng Commands Premium Price

fromWPR

Buyers from China and Taiwan have traveled halfway across the world this week to one rural central Wisconsin county that is the center of a multimillion-dollar business in an ancient oriental herb. Wisconsin-grown ginseng is in high demand from people who have been growing and using the herb for 5,000 years.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Wisconsin produces 90 percent of the ginseng that's grown in America, and this week that crop has drawn buyers from as far away as China and Taiwan to Central Wisconsin. Ginseng has been used as an herbal remedy for thousands of years.

As Glen Moberg of Wisconsin Public Radio reports, the state's crop is commanding its highest price in decades.

GLEN MOBERG: It was about a century ago that a few farmers in Marathon County, Wisconsin figured out just how to cultivate the unique North American strain of ginseng, which grows naturally in the deep shade of Wisconsin's old growth forests. They planted their crops under canopies and grew the sensitive roots in mounds to keep them dry. This is a hard crop to grow. It takes four years for ginseng plants to mature, and once they're harvested, the land can never be used for it again.

Grower Joe Heil is the president of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin. He says nobody knows exactly why that is.

Mr. JOE HEIL (President, Ginseng Board of Wisconsin): I personally believe it leaves something in the soil, that ginseng will not grow in that same ground again. Even 100 years later, you cannot replant on that same ground.

MOBERG: So every four years, farmers here have to pick up and haul the canopies to new fields.

Mr. HEIL: It's a lot of sweat. It's a lot of blisters. Your back hurts at night. It's not a walk in the park.

MOBERG: I'm standing in Joe Heil's ginseng field looking at row after row of thick wooden poles supporting the heavy tarps that provide the canopy, the shade that these delicate plants need to survive. Ginseng growers are used to rough Central Wisconsin weather, but Joe Heil wasn't prepared this past May for a storm that dropped a foot of heavy wet snow on these fields and brought the tarps and the poles crashing down.

Mr. HEIL: Everything was on the ground. Our posts were all snapped off. The plants were all decrepit and all rolled up because they were freezing. And we had a big mess.

MOBERG: At least 30 percent of the crop was destroyed by the freak snow, and then heavy summer rains swamped many of the surviving roots with fungal diseases. But the crop disaster had a silver lining for anyone with surviving ginseng. What was once about $20 a pound now sells for more than $50 a pound -the highest price in decades.

(Soundbite of machinery)

MOBERG: In Joe Heil's farm shed near the village of Edgar, raw ginseng roots are soaked in a tumbler, loaded onto a conveyor, and dropped onto wooden drying racks. Heil is entertaining two important guests today. Paul Hsu from nearby Wausau is one of the biggest ginseng growers in America. He's speaking Chinese with a slender young man wearing a blue windbreaker and neatly pressed slacks.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MOBERG: Jacky Chang has travelled here from Beijing to buy what he says is the world's best ginseng.

Mr. JACKY CHANG (Owner, Tong Ren Tang): The ginseng that is grown in North America, especially in Wisconsin - that's the best quality we could find in the world.

MOBERG: Butch Weege of the Ginseng Board says Chang's company, Tong Ren Tang, is the biggest and oldest ginseng firm in China.

Mr. BUTCH WEEGE (Ginseng Board of Wisconsin): Tong Ren Tang has been in the business of providing traditional Chinese medicine, herbal products, to the royalty in China going back to 1649.

MOBERG: And Weege says this season marks another first for farmers here -selling their crop directly to mainland wholesalers.

Mr. WEEGE: Vast majority of our crop, historically, for 100 years, has always gone to Hong Kong. Free port, no duties, no taxes. But this is the first time we've had a mainland China relationship.

MOBERG: This small group of farmers predicts sales this season could top $30 million. The relationship represents a new opportunity for these Wisconsin growers - direct access to a huge market that's been using ginseng for 5,000 years.

For NPR news, I'm Glen Moberg in Edgar, Wisconsin.

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