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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

Not Just Beer and Cheese

Wisconsin’s famous ginseng

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Although beer, brats and cheese are three commodities we Wisconsinites are skilled at producing and happy to consume, the stereotype derived from them has eclipsed our state’s overall depth and diversity. Not only do we produce some of the country’s best cranberries, cherries and honey, Wisconsin grows nearly 95% of America’s cultivated ginseng. According to the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin, there are approximately 175 ginseng growers in the state, farming about 1,500 acres. The majority of that ginseng is grown in just one area: Marathon County.

“Ginseng was a native plant to Wisconsin,” explains Butch Weege, executive director of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin (GBW). “Growing ginseng in Wisconsin dates back to the late-1800s, when entrepreneurs recognized the affinity Chinese Americans had for native wild ginseng.”

Those budding farmers started catching seeds from the wild plants and growing them in a managed environment. Ginseng is a major ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine and is often used in Western cultures as a dietary supplement. It comes in a variety of forms: as a root, powder, capsule, chewing gum, tea and more.

“In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is considered to have a panacea effect in treating many things,” Weege says. “Out of all the things I have heard, read and discussed with people in China, it is most commonly considered a body balancer.”

Herbalists refer to ginseng as an adaptogen, a substance that helps the body adapt to adverse physical, chemical or biological stressors by increasing nonspecific resistance toward them.

Formed as a nonprofit organization in 1986, the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin represents all of the state’s ginseng growers. According to the board’s Web site, it functions under a marketing order managed by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. By definition of that market order, the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin has several obligations to the industry. According to Weege, the GBW develops projects that promote ginseng, both as a product and an industry, and help growers employ new methods to market their commodity in foreign markets. A second priority is to help ginseng growers who seek research assistance on issues such as quality standards, environmental problems and plant disease control.

Third on the market order’s agenda is to develop educational programs for producers, buyers and consumers; for example, collaborating with medical researchers, wherever they may be in the nation, who are interested in using Wisconsin ginseng for research projects. The GBW recently collaborated with the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in a 2007 pilot study to determine the efficacy of treating cancer-related fatigue with ginseng. The preliminary results of the study are encouraging. A larger trial is planned this year to determine if these results can be confirmed.

Wisconsin-grown ginseng commands a premium price in world markets because it contains high levels of the active ingredient ginsenoside and low levels of chemical residue. Our ginseng is considered to be so desirable that smugglers are labeling Canadian- or Asian-grown ginseng as “Wi s c o ns i ngrown,” a practice that undercuts Wisconsin growers and misleads consumers into buying an inferior product. In 1991 the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin introduced its registered Wisconsin Ginseng Seal to identify ginseng that is 100% grown and harvested in the state of Wisconsin. According to Weege, the GBW has been battling counterfeiting of this seal, particularly by Chinese companies, since 2004.

In August 2007 Sens. Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, along with Congressman Dave Obey, introduced the Ginseng Harvest Labeling Act of 2007 to the Senate and the House of Representatives. The legislation would require that ginseng root, as a raw agricultural commodity, be clearly labeled to identify where it was harvested. When the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, otherwise known as the Farm Bill, passed both the Senate and House of Representatives by veto-proof margins, it included a provision based on the Ginseng Harvest Labeling Act of 2007.

To learn more about Wisconsin ginseng and its global renown, visit: www.ginsengboard.com and www.ginsengherbco-op.com.