I’ve heard it said that almost everyone has at least one relative in Wisconsin. Well, China’s most famous medicinal root—ginseng—is no exception. The story of American Ginseng is an interesting one full of intrigue, villains, heroes and drama. Wisconsin is called America’s Dairyland, but there is another little Wisconsin agricultural product that I think deserves some recognition too. After all, it has been garnering a lot of attention from the rest of the world for over 100 years—particularly Asian countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea. In 2013, exports to China of Wisconsin ginseng were up 110% with revenue from this one product alone exceeding 38 million dollars! In order to fully appreciate the American ginseng we produce here in Wisconsin, a little background on its Asian cousin is necessary.
History of Chinese Ginseng (Panax Ginseng)
It all started about 5,000 years ago in the mountainous region of Manchuria in Northern China where Chinese ginseng was first discovered. A small, deciduous perennial that produces a bitter, starchy root, Chinese ginseng was probably originally used as food. The root, however, quickly became revered for its strength-giving and rejuvenating powers. The Chinese named it Ren Shen—roughly translating to “man-root,” The human-like shape of the little root was thought to symbolize harmony and balance of the body. Chinese Ginseng is mentioned in one of the oldest written Chinese medical texts—the Huangdi Neijing (475-221 BC) and is considered the top herb with anti-aging and anti-cancer properties. Chinese medical classics state that ginseng “strengthens the vital organs, secures the spirit, anchors the soul, stops fear and fright, eliminates diseases, brightens the eyes, sharpens the senses, and benefits intelligence. When taken long-term, it promotes strength, health, and longevity.” The plant grows very slowly and according to Chinese folklore the plant is taking its time to absorb and distill the essence of heaven and earth in order to offer health, happiness and longevity to man.
Early in its history of use in China, ginseng came to be highly sought after by Asian royalty and military aristocracy. Dynasties were set against each other over it. Known as the tonic of emperors, commoners were forbidden to use it. The nobility so carefully controlled its collection that they were oftentimes the sole possessors of the root. It was not unusual for ginseng to command a price 250 times its weight in silver and several times its weight in gold. By the third century AD, China’s demand for ginseng had created international trade with Korea. Korea took in Chinese silk and medicine in exchange for wild ginseng. Eventually, the over-harvesting of the root nearly wiped out all wild ginseng in Asia, bringing the lucrative trade to a halt. Korean farmers spent years experimenting in order to develop a cultivated variation of wild ginseng. They were eventually successful in producing a “farmed-root,” although it was not nearly as potent as the wild ginseng. Products labeled Korean cultivated ginseng continues to be the main source of Panax ginseng available in the world today.
History of American Ginseng (Panax Quinquefolius)
While the curative properties of American ginseng were well known by North America Indian Nations including the Cherokee, the Iroquois, and the Menomonee, the plant may have gone completely unnoticed by European settlers had it not been for a Jesuit missionary by the name of Pierre Jartoux.
In 1713, while in China, Jartoux wrote a letter home to his friend describing his experience with Chinese ginseng. He wrote, ”I found my pulse much fuller and quicker, I had an appetite, and found myself much more vigorous.” Four days later, due to extreme exhaustion, Pierre was having difficulty even staying upright on his horse. So he tried chewing a bit of more of the root and after an hour, he reported feeling like a “new man.”
Pierre Jartoux sent along a drawing of this plant that had impressed himso, noting that as the climate in eastern Canada was quite similar to that of Manchuria, he wondered if this plant might possibly grow there as well. His letter came to the attention of the Jesuit brother Joseph Francois Lafitau, an amateur medical botanist. Lafitau took to searching the forests near Montreal for a plant that looked like the one in the drawing and after three months, he found one. It was Panax ginseng’s North American cousin: Panax quinquefolius.
The Chinese market was so deprived of wild Panax ginseng due to overharvesting in Asia, they were willing to pay a premium for its American counterpart which had similar healing properties. A new industry sprung up practically overnight. By the late 1700s shipments of American ginseng were being sent to China and veritable fortunes were being made. Suddenly, everyone was looking for the plant and wild American ginseng was found in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin and other states. Trappers, traders and woodsmen familiar with the woods were eager to get in on the game and were adept at locating the elusive plants. These Sang Hunters, as they were called, snatched up the wild roots as quickly as they could find them in hopes of getting rich. Competition was fierce and primeginseng regions were protected secrets. By the mid 1850s a half million pounds had been harvested from America’s wild ranges and exported to Asia. Unfortunately, this zealous over-harvesting led wild American ginseng to the brink of extinction within a few decades. Attempts to cultivate the roots were made far and wide, but they always failed. That is‚until the Fromm brothers of Wisconsin.
The Fromm Brothers
In search of open land and greater opportunity, a German family by the name of Fromm made their way to the new land across the sea. In 1852, the Fromm family settled in what is now known as Marathon County, Wisconsin. They were an industrious bunch, to say the least. There are so many impressive accomplishments attributed to this family—one of which is that they were the first people to successfully cultivate ginseng in North America!
It is said that the Fromm brothers, Walter, Edward, John and Henry—were outdoorsmen. They loved hunting and wandering the woods. As the tale goes, it was the brothers’ dream to catch and raise silver foxes to sell to the lucrative fur industry. In 1904, fox pelts were fetching up to $1,000 each—more for especially nice ones. They tried to catch the foxes they needed, but were unsuccessful. They didn’t have the money to buy them either. As the brothers continued to brainstorm on how to raise the funds, one of them overheard a local say that a farmer who “knew what he was doing” could earn $20,000 an acre by growing ginseng. After checking out the going rate for a pound of ginseng, they were convinced this was how they would raise the money to finance their fox farm. Over the next several years, the brothers dedicated themselves to studying the wild ginseng in its natural habitat. Applying what they learned in painstaking experimentation year after year, they were eventually able to plant seeds from the wild Wisconsin ginseng and cultivate Panax quinquefolius successfully. By 1913, the Fromm brothers were one of three firms registered to cultivate ginseng in Marathon County. By 1919, the Fromms led the County in ginseng root production with nearly 500 acres under cultivation.
The Ginseng Bubble
There is no doubt about it that ginseng industry had arrived in Wisconsin. But successful cultivation techniques were understandably considered proprietary secrets by the successful few. Eventually, secrets were leaked or shared and more and more farms were successful at growing the challenging crop.
It may be our blustery winters, something in our soil, or the coincidence of being on the same 45th parallel as the region in China where ginseng was originally discovered, but Wisconsin ginseng has come tobe known as the best quality ginseng coming out of North America. Due to its fine quality and high ginsenoside content (the compounds in ginseng that make good things happen), Wisconsin ginseng has continued to gain market popularity.
Attracted by the lucrative export market, farmers that had been growing tobacco and corn were switching to ginseng. Although growing ginseng didn’t require a huge amount of land, it was still a high risk because of the huge investment of time and money that was required before any potential reward would be experienced. It could easily be four to five years before a newbie could expect their first harvest, if their crop didn’t fail altogether. Once harvested, ginseng can never be grown in that same plot of ground again due to a fungus that kills the plants in subsequent years, so the farmers have to find new, virgin land to grow each crop of ginseng. In spite of all these obstacles, by the year 2000, the number of ginseng farmers in Marathon County had swelled to about 1,400, producing approximately 2.4 million pounds of Wisconsin ginseng combined.
But what goes up, eventually comes down. The ginseng bubble was said to have burst later that same year when Canada entered the market. Prices that had beenin the high $40/ pound range earlier that year, plummeted to $8 to $10 per pound.
If that were not enough, Wisconsin ginseng growers suffered another blow when in 2010, a heavy spring snow fell on the gardens, collapsing many shade structures that protect the ginseng from the sun. Crops were destroyed and along with it—many years of work and sometimes a family’s life-savings.
Today there are about 150 to 200 ginseng farmers in Marathon county. Recently I took a little drive up to Marathon County to pay a visit to two of the growers of ginseng that we feature at Willy Street Co-op.
The Burmeister Family Farm
The Burmeister family has been cultivating American ginseng here in Wisconsin for over 100 years. Like the Fromm family, Julius Burmeister immigrated to America from Germany and settled in Marathon County. Julius was friends with the Fromm brothers who taught him the secrets of ginseng cultivation. Julius Burmeister may not have the claim to fame of being the first Wisconsin ginseng grower, but he was one of the first ten. Today, the family continues to cultivate American ginseng, harvesting some 10 to 15 tons annually.
I picked up Mike Burmeister, the great-grandson of Julius Burmeister, in Wausau and we headed east to take a look at the family’s farm lands. On the drive, I learned Mike Burmeister is a great storyteller. As we drove through the colorful, autumn landscape toward the gardens, he spun tales of his great-grandfather and the Fromm brothers that sprung to life in my imagination. I pictured huge barrels filled with ginseng root, men in fur coats slapping down gold pieces on the barrel head in negotiation... We bumped down a smaller dirt road and as the car came to a stop, I saw two deer bound in to the forest surrounding the open valley. The view was breathtaking from the gardens and I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t mind being a ginseng root here.”
Mike is passionate about Wisconsin ginseng—past, present and future! (I think he must have been weaned on the stuff). One of Mike’s innovations that he brought to the family business started as a class project in college. There, Mike developed his ginseng capsules and says that he has been happily self-employed ever since.
Burmeister Farms practice what is known as integrated pest management. That means they are basically organic until something comes along that cannot be controlled by organic methods. Then, and only then, do they use carefully selected biodegradable chemicals to spot treat. Every batch of Burmeister ginseng is high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) tested and guaranteed pesticide-free. Mike shared with me how important it is to him to provide a product that meets the expectations of the American consumer—especially where quality and purity are concerned.
In addition to capsules, many of the Burmeister ginseng products—such as whole root, tea-cut, pure ginseng powder and a 2 oz liquid extract—are all available in the Health and Wellness aisles of the Willy Street Co-op. One of my favorite Burmeister products is Mike’s new instant ginseng tea. It will be available at both Willy East and West this month. This powdered tea is an ultra-pure, super-critical extracted ginseng with a touch of honey added. It dissolves instantly in cold or hot water and is absolutely the most refreshing and delicious thing I have ever tasted. Although it contains no stimulants, it gives me an energy lift that is undeniable. You can learn more about all of the Burmeister ginseng products at their website at www.burmeisterginseng.com.
The Schumacher Family Farm
The Schumachers have been farming ginseng for about 50 years. Jim Schumacher met me at their new headquarters located about 13 miles west of Wausau in the little town of Marshall. Inside the tidy facility, everyone was busy doing jobs. As Jim walked me around, I thought I could see a family resemblance in their faces. Jim’s mom was carefully hand-packing perfect little ginseng roots into colorful gift boxes that said “Grown in Wisconsin” on them. Jim’s brother was checking on the ginseng root currently in the grinder. Jim’s dad wasn’t there, but is also a crucial part of the operation.
We jumped in Jim’s vehicle and he drove me out to a rather large ginseng plot. As he swung open a big metal gate, and we rounded the corner, I could see instantly how much work goes into simply setting up the shade screens for the ginseng garden. Large posts have to be buried into the ground at each end of a row. The rows are about six feet from center to center. Upon these posts were placed wooden slotted panels. Jim told me the goal was to filter out about 75% of the sun’s rays. He explained that if the ginseng plants were exposed to direct sunlight for even a day or two, they would die. We walked along the beds where Jim allowed me to get a closer look at the recently dormant crop of “third years.” I bent down and picked a few of the bright red berries and stuck them in my pocket. Jim said these ginseng plants would be ready for harvest next year around mid-October. He pointed to another field behind us and said that one had just been harvested a few days earlier and asked me if I would like to see the fresh herbs that were drying in a nearby shed.
As Mike unlocked the door to the large shed, I could hear fans blowing inside. When the door swung open, an intense aroma of fresh ginseng wafted out. I took a deep breath in and savored the rich ginseng scent. Freshly harvested ginseng had to be handled just so with so many days to cool and so many days to dry. Jim held up a root about three inches long and said, “Can you see those little hair-like fibers sticking out? You don’t want to damage those! They contain the highest concentration of ginsenosides.”
Back at the Schumacher Ginseng headquarters, Jim pulled a large bucket out from a cooler, opened up a big bag and pulled out a twisted little man of a root to show me. He said “This is some wild ginseng we purchased.” Pointing to nodules along the roots length, he explained that each year, a new node would form on the root, so that you could tell the age of a root by counting the nodes. The root I was holding had some 40 nodes, indicating it was a 40-year-old root.
The Schumacher family primarily produces whole root ginseng which is preferred by the Asian market, a loose tea-cut, and packaged tea bags. By purchasing the whole root, consumers are able to see the quality they are buying and can appreciate the root in its natural state. Schumacher Farms also make a capsuled ginseng which is available at the Willy Street Co-op.
Health Benefits of American Ginseng
Ginsenosides present in American ginseng have been found to have anti-tumor and anti-oxidant actions as well as a general energy tonic and adaptogen. Adaptogens are natural substances that help mitigate the effects of stress on the body. The fight or flight response to stress is designed to kick in, in the event we need to high-tail it away from a lion or a bear, for example. But in our current high stress society, those alarm bells are going off all too often. When we get stressed, a surge of cortisol is released from the adrenal glands initiating physiological changes that were never intended to be long term. The relaxation response is supposed to take over as soon as the threat has passed, getting us back to normal function. Adaptogens have a normalizing effect on these bodily processes.
Mayo Clinic recently published a study showing that American ginseng had a profound effect on cancer related fatigue. The details of this study can be seen here: www.mayo.edu/research/forefront/ginseng-fights-fatigue-cancer-patients. The group that received daily supplementation of Wisconsin ginseng reported a 20 point reduction on a 100 point scale of cancer-related fatigue, with the greatest effect being reached at eight weeks. American ginseng contains no stimulants, but is believed to increase energy by lowering unhealthy cortisol levels. I know that since I have been using ginseng daily, I’ve had a lot more energy, even though I quit drinking coffee.
I invite you to come try the Wisconsin-grown American ginseng we have available at the Willy Street Co-op. And while you’re here, pick up a root or two for your relatives who aren’t lucky enough to live in Wisconsin!