Wisconsin ginseng producers have been experiencing adverse impacts due to the ongoing U.S.-China trade dispute. These tariffs are especially hitting Marathon County, since that's where a majority of ginseng in the United States comes from.
As part of our We Live Up Here series, WXPR's Joshua Junig tells us the story of Hsu's Ginseng in Wausau... how they came to be in the first place and what they're expecting in the years to come.
You may or may not know that Marathon County, WI, is commonly referred to as the “Ginseng Capital of the World,” with Wausau-based Hsu’s Ginseng Enterprises being one of the largest exporters of American ginseng.
But as President of Hsu’s Ginseng, Will Hsu, notes, it took years of patience and investment in order for the family business to take off and be recognized as a global leader in the ginseng industry.
Hsu says, “It’s kind of in some ways the ‘American Dream,’ right? He came here with nothing and he built this business.”
Hsu’s origin story traces back to 1974 when Will’s father, Paul Hsu – a Taiwanese immigrant then working as a social worker in Fond du lac – was asked by a coworker whether or not he had ever heard of ginseng.
Hsu was of course familiar with it due to its’ prevalence within Eastern medicine, but he was surprised to hear that Wisconsin was actually quite well-known for its’ ginseng.
So, after getting a list of farmers in the Marathon County region, Hsu was able to buy some ginseng root from local growers and sent them back to his mother in Taiwan.
Paul was one of 14 children, and his mother was experiencing various health issues at the time.
Hsu recalls, “And so, my Dad sent some [ginseng root] home and told my Grandfather to see if it helps. And my Dad received a letter back from my Grandfather saying, ‘the ginseng you sent works – send more.’”
The Chinese word for ginseng literally translates to “the essence of man.”
And it was at that point that Paul decided to set out on this business venture by retailing WI ginseng.
It wasn’t until 1976 when Hsu and his wife moved to Wausau, and ‘78 when he purchased the farm and then the office building: marking Hsu’s shift to focus on cultivating ginseng full-time.
So, at this point you may have some questions, such as, what is ginseng anyways?
“There’s the Asian species which has been written about for thousands of years in a lot of early Chinese medicinal texts and that’s Panax C.A. Meyer. And then there’s the American species which is Panax Quinquefolius. The plants are similar, but they don’t look the same and they don’t act the same,” says Hsu.
How do you consume it?
“Teas, tinctures, and whole root are the most common ways. There’s been some evolution because of convenience where you can now have powders. You can have capsules or caplets. You can have slices which are also very convenient because they steep quicker, they have more surface area so they absorb water quicker,” he adds.
And why is central WI so attractive for cultivating ginseng?
Hsu continues, ”The soil in Wisconsin is much more like the original soil from thousands of years ago. When the glaciers receded, they left all this glacial till in this area.”
The stars aligned perfectly to enable Hsu’s and other WI ginseng growers to cultivate the most sought-after ginseng in the world due to its’ high quality.
Studies have been done in both Eastern and Western medicine finding that ginseng can help boost energy, regulate your immune system, and even have anti-cancer benefits.
Hsu states, “My Dad and I have always believed [that] if you take ginseng and you find that it has positive benefits for you, you never stop taking it. Most of our consumers that have been buying ginseng from us for years, not only do they believe in it, they use it. That’s why they buy it. You would not spend hundreds of dollars on a product if it didn’t work.”
Considering what’s been going on between the U.S.-China relations on trade, I asked Hsu what effects they’ve experienced due to the Chinese tariffs on U.S. imports.
He says, “You’re seeing a decrease in demand by foreign Asian consumers that aren’t buying the product abroad. That’s the primary effect. A lot of our export customers from China are sitting here saying, ‘I’m going to wait this out because I don’t like the uncertainty and I don’t like paying the tariff.’ And it’s not a small tariff.”
The trade dispute has created a need to think outside the box. This entails growing their domestic market with new products such as concentrated ginseng capsules, herbal energy drinks, and even partnering with WI breweries and distilleries to roll out ginseng beer and bourbon.
However, Hsu admits that actually finding domestic consumers willing to purchase these new products is harder than it seems.
“So, could the United States consume all the ginseng that we make? Sure. Are we willing to pay for it? That’s like asking are we willing to pay for cars that are all made in the United States, are we willing to pay for TVs that are only assembled in the U.S.,” Hsu notes.
He says, “I think it’s a great idea, but when it hits consumers in the wallet, a lot of times we vote with our money differently.”
But all in all, Hsu remains optimistic that the ginseng industry is still viable even with the ongoing trade dispute because of the integrity and trust that comes with Hsu’s brand.
Their ability to evolve as a business by exploring new markets and creating new initiatives such as the annual International Ginseng Festival held in Wausau, and their agreement with Foxconn Technologies to promote WI ginseng abroad will allow Hsu’s to hold their own in the global ginseng industry for years to come.
Hsu states, “You have to continue that tradition. You know that’s why we have a ginseng festival and some of these other things that we’re doing to help kind of engrain in the new consumer that this is where you come to for the best ginseng in the world. And that’s really kind of what gives me hope and some optimism for the future of this industry – is that if we can do a good job of that, we’ll continue growing ginseng here for another 100 years.”
Joshua Junig recently finished an internship at WXPR. He is a junior at Carroll University in Waukesha majoring in Philosophy, Politics, & Economics.
This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Soothe by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue).
This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.