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Ancient Chinese Medicine Thrives In Wisconsin

September 4, 1985

HALDER, Wis. (AP) _ Some farmers in this north-central area of Wisconsin, the beer-and-butter state, are learning to speak Chinese.

How better to deal with buyers from Hong Kong who annually purchase at more than $30 a pound a crop that in parts of Asia is reputed, among other things, to improve sexual performance?

The state is the world’s richest source of cultivated American ginseng, a bitter, brown root prized in China and other Asian nations where it is chewed raw or brewed into tea for its supposed medicinal value. The plant also grows wild in some areas, especially the central Appalachians.

But Wisconsin ginseng production has expanded so rapidly in the last 10 years that some growers fear the supply will soon outstrip demand unless new markets can be developed. In addition, seed exports to China have mushroomed in recent years.

″The cat’s out of the bag, and the cat had kittens while it was in there,″ said Jeff Schira, president of the 400-member Wisconsin Ginseng Growers Association.

In Marathon County, seat of the state’s ginseng industry since the mid- 1800s, approximately 1,000 growers expect to harvest more than 800,000 pounds of root this fall, Schira said. There were fewer than 100 growers in the area 10 years ago.

About 95 percent of the crop is sold to Hong Kong dealers.

Because the price is determined by dickering between each buyer and seller, about 20 growers and brokers have signed up for a course in conversational Chinese being offered through the University of Wisconsin-Mara thon Center.

Most of the ginseng ends up in China, Schira said, but it also is distributed throughout Asia and even in Canada and Europe.

Some ginseng is consumed by Americans, usually in powdered form in capsules and tea, but most processed ginseng sold here is Oriental ginseng, a different species imported from South Korea and China, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

American and Oriental roots both have places in Chinese medicine, which strives to achieve a balance between opposing, natural forces called yin and yang.

Both species are believed to help achieve this balance, but American ginseng is considered a ″cool″ herb with calming effects, while Oriental ginseng is a ″hot″ herb believed to invigorate the user.

Beverly Braley, director of research for the Ginseng Research Institute in New York, said it is ″generally a tonic for the body″ that improves health and feelings of well-being when taken regularly over a long period of time.

Several local farmers say they chew the root at least occasionally. Some said it helps ward off colds.

Ginseng - shang, as it is called locally, or sang in the Appalachians - brought more than $25 million into Marathon County last year, Schira said, but few growers are getting rich on it since most are dairy or grain farmers who set aside only an acre or two for ginseng gardens.

The gardens must be weeded by hand and carefully tended to prevent root rot from spreading, and must have about 70 percent shade. Ginseng seeds take 18 months to germinate and plants must grow four years before their roots reach the minimum 5-inch length desired by Asian buyers.

And it’s expensive. Several growers estimated it costs $20,000 an acre to get started, with seed accounting for half of that at up to $90 a pound.

But with yields averaging 1,400 pounds, or more than $45,000 worth per acre, it’s easy to understand the industry’s rapid growth.

By contrast, sweet corn returns about $284 an acre, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.