by Lynn Olson, Cooperative Services Manager
Marathon County, Wisconsin may be one of the least likely places to grow the most popular herb in China, but an unceasing demand for ginseng has provided the growers for Bürmeister Ginger the opportunity to collectively become one of the largest suppliers in the United States.
A brief history of ginseng
Beginning in the late 1800s until the 1970s, American ginseng hunters had ravaged the wild perennial herb Panax quinqufolius or American ginseng for export to China. Close to extinction in the wild, several Wisconsin gardeners, including the Bürmeister family, acted to preserve the endangered species by perfecting artificial propagation methods nearly 100 years ago. Wisconsin ginseng gardeners are now credited with cultivating 90 percent of the propagated American ginseng supply in the U.S. and 95 percent of that is grown in Marathon County, near Wausau.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies ginseng as a “generally recognized as safe” food, and the powerful root is commonly used to benefit the body’s ability to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Others may use the herb to bolster energy, minimize stress or improve their strength. The root is sold and consumed in many forms including powder, teas or whole roots steeped in tincture and is sold in bulk in our Health and Wellness department.
How Bürmeister Ginseng came to be
Mike Bürmeister’s great-grandfather began cultivating the species close to 100 years ago by gathering the seeds from native plants and experimenting with growing techniques designed to mimic the ideal deep forest conditions of 70-90 percent shade and an average temperature of 50 degrees.
In a recent interview, Mike, owner of Bürmeister Ginseng, shared some of the history and details about the business that provides ginseng to the Willy Street Co-op and many others. He began by explaining his start in 1996 when, after graduating from the UW-Madison, he found a path to improve the market share for his family’s agricultural mainstay.
Mike Bürmeister: “Without the help of my family, I could not have begun work as an ingredient supplier to the natural products industry. I didn’t have capital coming out of college, but my family had tons of ginseng. When I secured a supply contract, they gave me the ginseng on account so I processed it into tea, adding value to the raw commodity. I sold the tea on the U.S. market and paid back my family. That’s how I started.”
Willy Street Co-op: “How many acres and gardens does your business include?”
Mike: “I mainly purchase ginseng from my family’s gardens. We still grow about 8-12 acres a year. I’m working more and more with other local gardeners. I go through about 6-10 tons of ginseng a year supplying the American market.
“Ginseng is not a farm crop. It’s a garden crop. We are gardeners, not farmers. I know it sounds like semantics but there is a difference. Farm crops can be grown without much care from the farmer. Not a lot of personal attention is needed. Garden crops require a gardener.
“Ginseng is very labor-intensive. You cannot rely on big equipment and chemicals to do the job for you. One farmer can grow 1,000 acres of corn by [themselves]. One gardener can only handle a couple acres of ginseng [alone]. It’s a difficult crop to grow. I would put the difficulty level close to growing orchids. The plant is sensitive. A lot can go wrong. You need to build a roof over your garden. The plant requires 75 percent of the sunlight to be shaded out. Raised beds covered with straw keep the plant dry and cool, which is what it prefers. Weeds are handpicked. All in all, not an easy undertaking.”
Willy Street Co-op: “Are any of your farms harvesting woods-
Mike: “Yes, I work with growers who grow everything from wild-simulated organic ginseng at $375 a pound to regular shade-cultivated ginseng, which is generally what Americans buy. All types of ginseng, seed, equipment, live plants, you name it, if it has to do with ginseng, I’m the guy to talk to. I am ‘The Ginseng Guy.’”
Willy Street Co-op: “Can you share any examples of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) or sustainable practices carried out on the gardens?”
Mike: “Since my college days at the UW-Madison, I have been championing the causes of green business and organic food. I was the first ginseng company to require mandatory pesticide-residue testing for all incoming inventory. This has since almost become industry standard. I give free information to growers on how to cultivate ginseng organically. I’ve developed the first American ginseng instant tea in the US. I am the largest supplier of American ginseng to the U.S. tea market. If you drink ginseng tea here in the US, there is a 75 percent chance you’re drinking my ginseng.
“We pick weeds by hand, no chemicals. We basically are organic until something like a fungus or disease comes along that cannot be handled by organic method. Only then do we use biodegradable chemicals sparingly to thwart the threat.”
Willy Street Co-op: “How fresh would our bulk ginseng items likely be when they’re delivered to our store?”
Mike: “Always from the previous fall’s harvest.”
Willy Street Co-op: “Where is your ginseng processed?”
Mike: “All processing is done at my cousin’s facility, American Pharmaceuticals and Nutraceuticals, or APN Labs, in Wausau, WI.”
Willy Street Co-op: “Is there anything that you’d like to share about the benefits of regularly consuming American ginseng?”
Mike: “I take ginseng almost every day and I am ‘strong like bull.’ No seriously, I can feel the difference when I skip it. It’s not a stimulant like caffeine, which takes you up and then drops you later in the day. On ginseng you just don’t get fatigued and tired as easily and there’s no side effects. You can do a lot more without as much rest time in between. The University of Chicago recently found that ginseng blocks cortisol, which is the main stress hormone. Less cortisol means less adverse effects from stress, more balanced blood sugar, higher metabolism, less fat retention. It just makes you chemically tougher. I believe, as do the Chinese, that it will help you live longer.”
Willy Street Co-op: “Can you describe American Ginseng’s growth in popularity from its establishment in 1996?”
Mike: “There has been growth, but slow. Americans are still only starting to understand that the American species, Panax quinquefolious, is the superior strain. Chinese and Korean ginseng doesn’t have as high a ginsenoside content (the natural chemicals in ginseng that have a beneficial effect).”
Willy Street Co-op: “Can you explain the agricultural advantages or benefits of growing ginseng in Wisconsin, or specifically in your part of the state?”
Mike: “The sandy-loamy soil and cool, dry temperatures in Wisconsin are a boon to ginseng cultivation. However, it can be grown successfully anywhere in the Midwest and up into Canada. American ginseng has been cultivated in my area for the longest time and through selective breeding we are sure we have the best seed stock. Our ginseng has been testing to over 12 percent ginsenosides for over 8 years. That’s 5 times as potent as the average American ginseng grown in Canada and China.”
Willy Street Co-op: “What effect has Canada’s push to grow American ginseng had on the market? Will we begin to see just North American Ginseng?”
Mike: “Recently the bottom fell out of the ginseng market. It was mainly due to overproduction in Canada and China. Too many people heard that you could make a lot of money growing ginseng. So a bunch of newbies flooded the market. And then they lost [it] when the market price fell below cost. Fortunately, my family’s equipment and land has long since been bought and paid for, so we weathered the storm just fine. Things are leveling out again.”
Willy Street Co-op: “How strong is your desire to remain independent?”
Mike: “I’m 33. I’ve been self-employed for over 10 years. I can’t imagine living any other way. I work when I want to work, I choose the people with whom I work...The only hard part is keeping your drive and ambition in the face of success. Self-employed means you have to be a self-starting type of person. It helps to have friends who are motivated, goal-oriented, driven people. I’m blessed with great friends.
“I am a Green business. Responsibility and sustainability are key elements in business and too often overlooked. The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. Not the other way around. I am saving money and planning a fuel-grade ethanol facility integrated with an industrial farm. The goal is zero emissions with the only products being fuel and food.”
For more information
For more information on Burmeister Ginseng, visit our Health and Wellness aisle and talk to a staff member or see their website at: www.burmeisterginseng.com or call (715) 849-9779.