The Yin of Ginseng

Feature Stories Spring 2013 Issue

The Yin of Ginseng

By Shannon Henry Kleiber | Photo By Jim Klousia | Illustration By Bambi Edlund 0

The gnarled ginseng root, looking a bit like a parsnip and offering health benefits as a stimulant, aphrodisiac and stress-reducer, is a tough one to grow. It takes nearly five years and can never be planted on the same land twice. But if a farmer has the patience and the resolve to become a ginseng grower, he or she might, if the season is good, be rewarded with riches and good health.

Around the world, ginseng has an intriguing history. There are tales that the plant has spurred wars, caused country borders to change and, because of its value, attracted thieves and liars. And it has made Wisconsin a ginseng capital, bringing in $20 million annually (thankfully, without the wars).

In both the soil in Wisconsin and the determination of the state’s farmers, something about ginseng just works. Wisconsin is the top cultivated ginseng producer in the United States, with about 90 percent of the country’s crop grown here. The root, a perennial, needs shade in the summer, a real winter to rest, and a particular mineral makeup in the earth that feeds it and lets it drain.

There are two types of ginseng: American Ginseng (primarily Wisconsin Ginseng) and Asian Ginseng. According to Chinese medicine, the American Ginseng is “Yin,” or cooling, to the Asian Ginseng, which is “Yang,” or warming.

Ginseng tea is probably the best-known use of the root, but it is also sold in powder, dried slices and capsules.

In cooking, ginseng is often paired with chicken or might be found braised with pork ribs, steamed with cabbage, and boiled in dumplings. Ginseng gives a distinctive, smoky, slightly bitter taste. For tea, it’s suggested to simply steep a desired amount in boiling water with a dollop of honey to sweeten.

The active ingredient in ginseng, the “ginsenosides,”is thought to increase energy, boost the immune system and regulate stress. At the same time, Ginseng aficionados warn that too much may contribute to insomnia; though on the positive side, a recent study by the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center in 2012 found that Ginseng fights fatigue in cancer patients. After eight weeks, the study found, cancer patients taking ginseng capsules reported less general exhaustion, with no apparent side effects. Dr. Debra Barton, the main author of the study, is planning further research into the use of ginseng for cancer patients.

In Wisconsin, ginseng (known to locals as “shang”) has been cultivated for at least 100 years. The Fromm Brothers of Hamburg, Wis., were one of the first recorded farmers. They planted ginseng during World War II to fund their fur trade. Hmong families, who moved to Wisconsin from Southeast Asian countries, have supported the ginseng production as workers and farmers. At first, the Hmong were laborers in the ginseng fields but now make up about 20 percent of the state’s growing community.

Butch Weege, who lives in the Wausau area, married into a ginseng-growing family. After 30 years, being unable to plant on the same land twice, they ran out of land—a vexing problem that scientists have not been able to solve as of yet. While this seems like an untenable issue, Weege says the ginseng growers work around it, shifting crops and finding new plots of earth. “It’s not for the weak of heart,” he says.

Ready to retire but still interested in the ginseng business, Weege decided to work for the Wisconsin Ginseng Board in Marathon, Wis. The board is a non-profit created in 1986 by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to represent the state’s ginseng growers. Today Weege is one of seven elected board members and serves as the board’s international marketing director.

The board has 145 farmer members in Wisconsin who grow on a total of 1,500 acres. Ginseng growers are required to register with the state and purchase a license. In 1991, the board developed a “Wisconsin Ginseng Seal” to brand and protect their product. They have also worked on partnerships to distribute Wisconsin ginseng worldwide, such as with Tong Ren Tang in Beijing, one of the largest Chinese medicine companies in the world.

Wisconsin produces about 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of ginseng a year. That may sound like a lot, and does place the state in the top spot nationwide, but the 1990s were the ginseng heyday. There were then about 1,400 farmers in the state, says Weege. But soon after, Canadian growers looking for an alternative to tobacco started to compete and prices began to fall, and the Wisconsin Ginseng trademark was being pirated. “I’ve spent days, weeks, hours, months, in Chinese courts,” says Weege.

After that, the board better protected their trademark and cleaned up their brand. The farmers who held on through the years are part of a “die-hard” group of growers, and now there are even a few new interested growers.

Wisconsin growers took another hit when in 2010 some unseasonably warm weather brought plants out early, followed quickly by a snowstorm.

And then there’s the poaching. Because of the rising prices of ginseng—fluctuating greatly between $80 and $150 per pound for whole roots and $68 per pound for cut tea and powder—people have been stealing the plant. Usually, says Weege, the “wild” ginseng grown by more casual farmers is the target for thieves since his registered members have very tight security on their properties. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources put out a warning in 2012 about these poachers, saying that landowners should be aware of the thieves, who stalk through the woods in camouflage looking for the ginseng plant’s bright green leaves and red berries.

Ginseng growers eventually hope to do research to better understand why the same land can’t be re-used, but for now they are focused on new sales opportunities for this challenging and slow-growing yet rewarding and life affirming Wisconsin crop. Next up, says Weege, is perhaps commercializing the plant through the Wisconsin Ginseng Board’s sales arm, which is looking into energy drinks and bars and introducing Wisconsin Ginseng to those regions of the world that haven’t experienced it yet.

Sam Gae Tang (or Chicken Ginseng Soup)

This traditional Korean soup is used for restorative purposes, just like chicken soup is treasured in western cultures. But it is also very popular in the heat of the summer, as the “Yin” of the Wisconsin Ginseng offers cooling properties.

Shannon Henry Kleiber is a Madison-based writer. Her second book, On My Honor: Real Life Lessons From America’s First Girl Scout, about Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, came out in 2012. She is a former staff writer and columnist for The Washington Post.

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