China buys Wisconsin ginseng

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published January 1, 1994  | January 1994 issue

American ginseng has been the choice variety in China for nearly 300 years.

Currently, most ginseng bound for China is sold through Hong Kong dealers. But soon Wisconsin-grown ginseng will go directly to mainland China as a result of a historic agreement signed last month by state and Chinese officials.

The Chinese are expected to buy about 20,000 pounds, or $800,000 worth, of the root crop annually for processing, grading and packaging in Ningbo, a city south of Shanghai.

The root is popular as a tea and as a flavoring in cooking and is used for medicinal purposes, especially in China. Asian buyers say Wisconsin ginseng is the best quality in the world; and growers in central Wisconsin produce 95 percent of cultivated US ginseng.

A native American root crop, ginseng grows in shade, and while some plant it in wooded areas, most growers place canopies over their fields. The climate and soil in central Wisconsin are ideal for raising ginseng.

But with about $40,000 per acre in startup costs, growing ginseng "is not a get-rich-quick scheme," says Ron Rambadt, executive director of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin in Wausau. Growers must wait three to four years before harvesting a crop, and it usually takes a grower six to eight years to break even, according to Rambadt.

About 1.5 million pounds of ginseng are harvested in Wisconsin annually, but for every acre harvested, three acres of roots are in the ground. Ginseng offers a profitable yield in a small space though, says Gary De Moe, owner of Wisconsin Ginseng Inc. in Elk Mound, who adds that one acre of ginseng can harvest a ton or more of dried roots. And American ginseng sells for $40 to $50 per pound.

About 1,400 ginseng growers are currently active, 1,000 in Marathon County, but less than 25 percent are full-time. Most are dairy farmers or work in town and raise ginseng as a secondary business.

In 1992, US ginseng exports to Hong Kong, the major destination and distribution point for ginseng, totaled $92.9 million, an increase of 118 percent from 1988. Adding Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and other markets, over $104 million of ginseng was exported in 1992.

Kathy Cobb