With the International Wisconsin Ginseng Festival quickly approaching, local ginseng companies in Marathon County are gearing up for a weekend of celebrating the historic plant that heavily contributes to Wisconsin’s economy and export market. That means we should be seeing some interesting creations as growers are pairing up with other local venues. Some rumors indulge the idea of a vodka fused with ginseng, others have ice cream with ginseng, but we can assert that one of those rumors to be true right now — ginseng and beer.
Marathon County, the largest county in Wisconsin, is home to nearly 150 ginseng growers raising about 700,000 pounds of ginseng every year in an area that comprises a microcosm of the county’s available land. Almost 80% of that annual crop will jump ship to China. But then where does the other 20% go?
Booth 5330 at the Natural Products Expo East was well-represented at the large-scale convention in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Each year Hsu’s sets up for three days of meetings, educating consumers, and learning more about the scope of the Natural Products industry.
Of the many reasons to attend a trade show of this magnitude, the most important is exposure. Depending on the show, the potential for visitors nears the tens of thousands. Two symbols that grab the attention of passers-by are the Something Special From Wisconsin logo that we feature on many of our products, and our Hsu’s Root to Health logo. Sometimes, we run into someone who is, or was, from Wisconsin and then we get into a conversation about beer, cheese, or the Packers and we feel right at home.
We quickly learned from our past experiences that the Natural Products industry has some good eggs, but also maybe a few cracked eggs too. I for one learned my lesson last year when I got somewhat sick from eating off of each exhibitor’s counter. Our advice to new exhibitors and visitors is to stay disciplined and try new products sparingly.
One thing we realized at last year’s expo was that a gap exists between the Eastern (Asian) and Western (U.S. and Europe’s) outlook on ginseng. To bridge that gap is to essentially identify an international customer. More specifically, it means tailoring to both Eastern and Western values simultaneously. The world is getting smaller and our online presence is continuously being revamped and reevaluated to fit our global needs. The addition of Hsu’s Amazon page is one way we can stay current. Our trips to Expo West in Anaheim give us the insight into a broadened demographic with the large Chinese population on the West Coast.
The scope of competitors we find at the show typically doesn’t vary outside of Korean ginseng companies, but even they do not always travel to Expo East because of the lack of an Asian demographic on the East coast as opposed to the West. This year we had the second American ginseng company join the Expo, the Ginseng Herb & Coop from Marathon, WI, along with a representative from the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin.
Brand identity is very important to all of the exhibitors because for every category of product there could be up to fifty or more competitors or like-minded businesses competing for the same pool of consumers. At Expo East, one can see a lot of similarities in brand strategy, aura, and even product likeness among vendors.
The most volatile yet buzz-generating section is most always the food/confectionery aisles where vendors are displaying their organic cookies, smoothies, candies, and even finished pizzas, tacos, and much more. Another pro-tip we have is to remember that even if something is labeled as organic, certified organic, all-natural, etc., do your research on the products, consult your physician, and know what you are putting in your body. Non-dairy products almost always contain nut products such as cashews and coconut and the amount of children and even adults in the United States that suffer from food allergies is overwhelming.
We prepare for the Supply Side West trade show in Las Vegas starting on Thursday, October 6th by shifting focus to our ingredient division. Hsu’s supplies many large-scale operations with clean and potent American and Asian ginseng powders and powdered extracts for private-label use. Our ginseng is found in supplements, liquid extracts, and even a beer or two.
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September 1st marks the beginning of the Wild Ginseng season in Wisconsin. Each State is allowed to set its own parameters for length of season, but since ginseng is most potent after August the trend is roughly the same across the country. Also, with Wild American Ginseng being listed as endangered, the season does not typically last more than two months.
Already, Hsu’s has seen its fair share of Wild Ginseng hunters bringing their fresh finds in exchange for hard-earned money. With the season being short, and the value of Wild Ginseng being as high as it is, thousands of people across the country are searching through anything that remotely resembles a forest.
In its natural habitat on the forest floor, ginseng is able to sustain itself for many years and gain considerable potency as it ages. The only way to estimate Wild Ginseng’s age is to count the ‘rings’ that appear on top of the root. Those rings are actually the lifeline of the root, and if the original root dies, the lifeline, known commonly as the ‘mother root’, will spawn a new root in its place. If a root sustains a series of harsh winters and conversely a series of favorable winters the lifeline will expand and contract based on its conditions under the surface. The fluctuation of size found throughout the lifeline is how we determine the root’s age and thus will eventually be separated by age and size for its use as a finished product.
Rumors of 100-year-old roots are not uncommon, as we may have one of our own. However such an anomaly is something few hunters will witness within their lifetime. Given the amount of Wild Ginseng harvested every year, the days of finding a root of that caliber and age may be over, especially for future generations. That is why the cultivation of American ginseng may become more important than ever in the next few decades.
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Late August is a special time for ginseng growers in Marathon County, WI. The arrival of the ginseng plant’s berries is a sign that the harvest season draws near, and simultaneously thousands of Wild Ginseng hunters are scouring the woods across the nation for the most valuable ginseng in the world.
In our fields, groups of workers are beginning to manually pluck those berry clusters from the plants and collect them in their baskets. From there, they will be transported to our new farm facility which is the hub for creating seeds and sending them through the stratification process. Each berry contains up to two seeds, and a mature ginseng plant may yield between twenty and thirty seeds every year. Through stratification, we are able to store our seeds throughout the entire winter so they can be used for next year’s planting season starting in July.
Harvesting berries to create a seed stock is important for two reasons: we are able to maintain our own stock for future harvests, as well as offer our seeds to aspiring ginseng growers around the nation; and, when the berry cluster matures and is harvested, the potency of the root increases as the plant is signaled to send its resources downward. For that reason ginseng farmers in Marathon County will wait until the end of September to harvest.
For Wild Ginseng hunters, the arrival of ginseng berries makes the search significantly easier. In the viridescent forests of Wisconsin, the bright red clusters are far more telling of the presence of ginseng than the plant’s other physical characteristics. Hunters have a fairly small window of opportunity to find, dig, clean, and sell their Wild Ginseng (legally).
But for some, finding it is over half of the battle. In Wisconsin, places like the city of LaCrosse and many towns along the Mississippi River in Southwest Wisconsin are still the leading areas where hunters can still find ginseng in its natural state. Outside of Wisconsin, the most abundant source of Wild Ginseng is the Appalachian Mountains in an area that span from New York to South Carolina. There, hunters and poachers alike take part in the fast-paced and often lucrative Wild Ginseng hunt.
Certain social blights have marred the U.S.’s Wild Ginseng trade’s reputation in recent years. In the opening week of Wild season in 2015, a North Carolina farmer reported that over $6000 worth of Wild Ginseng was stolen from his property. It is a situation encouraged by over-dramatized reality TV shows such as ‘Appalachian Outlaws’ and will likely continue as the price of Wild Ginseng per pound remains high.
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