Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part article.
WAUSAU, Wis. – Ginseng – perhaps Wisconsin’s most exotic crop – is at root of a first-ever festival to be held Sept. 15-17 in Wausau. The International Wisconsin Ginseng Festival is expected to bring Chinese buyers, Wisconsinites and others to Marathon County, Wisconsin, the epicenter of the U.S. ginseng industry. A major sponsor of the event with a $20,000 donation is Baumann Farms LLP, the largest ginseng farm in Wisconsin and the United States.
Baumann Farms is operated by Kirk Baumann, 57, and his younger brother, Kraig Baumann. The brothers have 600 acres under cultivation and plant another 200 acres annually. Seed harvested in fall 2017 will be planted in May 2018 and will start growing in 2019. Once the crop is up and growing, the Baumanns wait four years to harvest the roots. Those roots are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine and by an increasing number of consumers in the United States.
The Baumanns’ ginseng gardens are located in Marathon County as well as the Wisconsin counties of Langlade and Portage. The base of operations is north of Wausau on the east side of the Wisconsin River, where they have a large processing facility and an on-site dormitory that temporarily houses crews from Mexico. The crews are legally bused to Wisconsin by the Baumanns. The federally inspected housing includes a restaurant-like cafeteria, weight room, and recreational area with pool and ping-pong tables. The Baumanns have seven full-time employees and also hire others locally to weed the ginseng by hand.
Kirk Baumann said his parents, Gerald and Shirley Baumann, started growing in 1978 slightly more than an acre of ginseng near Mosinee, Wisconsin. They transitioned out of raising 23,000 laying hens on their home farm near Wausau west of the Wisconsin River. The present processing site, a former dairy farm, was purchased in the early 1990s.
Kirk Baumann fabricates a lot of equipment and shade-garden infrastructure for his highly specialized root crop. He said there are about 180 ginseng growers in Wisconsin.
“Eighty percent of production is in Marathon County,” said Baumann, who previously served as vice-president of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin. “It used to be raised in just about every county in Wisconsin. Ninety-five percent-plus of the U.S. crop comes out of Wisconsin.”
Ginseng is regulated according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the only global treaty to ensure that international trade in plants and animals does not threaten their survival in the wild. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it provides a framework for cooperation among counties to prevent decline in wild populations of animals and plants. Currently 175 countries, including the United States, are included in the convention.
Baumann said Wisconsin raises about 7 percent of world production of American ginseng – between 750,000 and 800,000 pounds of ginseng annually. Canadian growers, who number about 180 and are mostly in the province of Ontario, produce 5 million to 6 million pounds each year. American ginseng is native to deciduous forests in the United States, from about Wisconsin to Maine, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains. Wild ginseng also grows in eastern Canada. Both the United States and Canada grow American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, which is a “cousin” to the ginseng grown in China, Panax ginseng. Both Asian and American ginseng contains ginsenosides, substances that give ginseng medicinal properties the Chinese have valued for centuries. The two types of ginseng, however, contain different types of ginsenosides in different amounts.
Baumann said wild ginseng harvested in Wisconsin has higher ginsenosides content than cultivated American ginseng. Harvestable wild-ginseng roots are from plants 10 years or older. Wild ginseng, in greater demand by the Chinese, commands a 20-fold-higher price. The grower estimates 60,000 pounds of wild ginseng are harvested each year in the United States.
In the United States the harvest of wild American ginseng for international trade began in the mid-1700s. The majority of American ginseng harvested today is exported to China. The harvest continues to have strong economic and cultural importance to many communities in the United States and to American Indian tribes.
In the 1990s, during a boom time in the industry, Wisconsin’s production was far greater – more like 2.2 million pounds produced by 1,400 growers, many of whom were dairy farmers diversifying with ginseng. But the industry fell on hard times. By the early 2000s, grower numbers were about 10 percent of what they’d been the decade before. Aggressive foreign competition from Canada, where ginseng production was subsidized to encourage a switch away from tobacco, pressured the market and prices fell. Rainy growing seasons and disease pressure also plagued the crop.
But in 2010 unusually heavy snow loads severely damaged many shade structures. About the same time Canada had several early spring frosts, which damaged its crop. Prices recovered, said Baumann, who had been expanding during the down time and doing custom shredding of mulch for gardens to undergird the business.
Today Wisconsin’s ginseng industry is stable and prices profitable. The Baumanns are pursuing value-added product, such as branding their roots for sales to Chinese customers. They also are selling on their website their own brand of ginseng tea for the U.S. market. And they’re contributing to the advancement of the industry as a whole by supporting the International Wisconsin Ginseng Festival.
At the festival ginseng beer will be served and available for purchase from local breweries. The Great Dane, a Wausau microbrewery, has worked with Baumann Farms to create their beer for the festival. Ginseng food will also be featured. Baumann Farms is sponsoring a main stage with live entertainment on Wausau’s downtown square, and the Baumanns will have a booth nearby.
There will be multiple vendors of all types, tours to the historic Fromme property to unearth the roots of ginseng production in Wisconsin, ginseng cooking demonstrations, opportunities to dig roots at other area ginseng operations, a 5-kilometer run or walk in Marathon City, a ginseng maze and other interactive activities for kids at Wausau Children’s Museum, and much more. Visit www.wisconsinginsengfest.com or call 715-355-8788 for more information. Visit baumannwisconsinginseng.com for more information on Baumann Farms.
Jane Fyksen writes about crops, dairy, livestock and other agricultural topics; she is the crops editor for Agri-View based in Wisconsin. Email Jfyksen@madison.com to contact her.