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A Well Kept Secret: Ginseng Farming--100 years of American Ginseng Prices

by D F Curran

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In a well-tended garden, shaded from the sun by carefully constructed networks of wooden lath, invisible to planes or helicopters, the green leaves, and red berries of this plant prosper. The farmers who grow it keep their operations as secret as they can. They can earn more than $100,000 per acre.

Sound like something illegal? Actually these farmers are cultivating a legal crop, American ginseng. And though the prices fluctuate as with any crop this exotic crop can be worth as much as $70 plus dollars per pound and 2500 pounds can be taken off a single acre.

A small group of people have been making money from this crop since the earliest settlers came to this country. In 1716 a Jesuit missionary, Joseph François Lafitau read another Jesuit's account of a fabulous plant that was used in the Orient as medicine. Lafitau described the plant to his friends the Iroquois. His friends showed him that the plant was growing right by his cabin and the trade in American ginseng was born. John Jacob Astor started his vast fortune with a permit to trade from the East India Company and an idea. He had little money to invest but convinced a ship owner to split the profits on a shipment of wild American ginseng to China. The ship went off and was gone for months. Astor and the shipowner were about to give up hope when the ship returned with what today would be more than one million dollars in profit.

As the knowledge of wild ginseng's value went up, so did competition. The plant became harder and harder to find. People began trying to grow the plant in gardens. But due to the finicky nature of the plant cultivation was tricky. The seeds for instance have an 18 month dormant period before sprouting. It was only when some growers noticed the plants coming up a year after they were expected did cultivation get off the ground.

By the turn of the 20th century small ginseng plots could be found all over the country. George Stanton of Onondaga, New York, who is often called today "The father of American Ginseng" started a small magazine called Special Crops in 1903. Due to Stanton's efforts and the efforts of New York State Plant Pathologist H. H. Whetzel, scientific ginseng culture was born. Ginseng was still a tricky plant to grow, but with shared information more and more growers were able to successfully grow it.

World War II, however, almost wiped out ginseng growing in America, but for four boys from Hamburg, Wisconsin. The eldest of the four Fromm brothers, Edward, as a boy wanted to raise foxes. But did not have the money to start his long dreamed of venture. Having heard of the fantastic prices paid for ginseng he and his brothers began scouring the countryside and neighbors woodlots for plants. They built their own crude gardens with the material available and soon had enough money to get a start in fox breeding. Although the silver foxes they bred eventually earned them fame they continued growing ginseng. When Word War II started trade with China was stopped. Most ginseng growers in the country gave up on the crop which they could no longer ship. And disease also took its toll. But the Fromm brothers, having seen both the price of foxes and ginseng fluctuate over the years, and with silver fox money to sustain them, keep growing and storing ginseng. When World War II ended they sold the ginseng on hand for over one million dollars. Wisconsin became the center of the ginseng trade in the U.S. with over 95% of the crop exported to Hong Kong coming from that state.

Over the years ginseng culture has become modernized. Farm Implement dealers, such as Buetsch Implement in Marathon, Wisconsin, have developed sophisticated equipment for planting and harvesting. As an alternative to the wooden lath racks used since the early days provide 70% shade for the crop, plastic shade has been developed. However, despite all the modernization, ginseng growing is very risky. The investment for shade, seed and equipment is over $20,000 per acre. And over the five year growing period many things can go wrong.

Disease is severe problem. Although ginseng growers use the same pesticides as do potato growers, the Environmental Protection Agency requires that the chemicals be tested for safety for the specific crop. Pesticide testing costs for the chemical manufacturer are extremely high. Since only a relatively small number of farmers grow ginseng, it is often not worth it to chemical manufacturers to spend the money on testing. Only with the help of their various Departments of Agriculture have ginseng farmers been able to test and use pesticides.

Some years ago environmentalists in the south decided that wild ginseng was an endangered species. Even though all cultivated ginseng originated from wild ginseng and there was no proof that cultivated ginseng had mutated to a separate species, notice of an intent to put American ginseng on CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) was published in the Federal Register. Unfortunately the Wisconsin farmers with hundreds of acres of ginseng under cultivation, didn't read the Federal Register. Now, all ginseng exported from this country requires an export permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite disease problems, government red tape, and the expense, the promise of $100,000 per acre keeps the farmers going. If you are ever around Wausau, Wisconsin, take a drive around the farmland outside of town. You'll see acre upon acre of wood or plastic covered plants. According to the Wall Street Journal it is "one of America's most lucrative legal crops:" American ginseng.

[chart of prices over the years] [Price fluctuations 1982]

[the man-shaped root]

Copyright© David F. Curran 1981 - 1988.

Links to other Ginseng Related Sites:

Books on How-to Grow Ginseng.  

Hsu's Ginseng Enterprises, Inc.

Wild Ginseng Simulation in Virgina

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