Central Wisconsin a Ginseng farming mecca

Ginseng farming in central Wisconsin is world renowned and produces among the largest crops in the world. It is a root crucial to Chinese and Korean culture, and they have been importing American ginseng since 1750. Wild ginseng once thrived along most of the nation's eastern seaboard, from Maine to Alabama and west to Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. It still grows wild, but it was over-harvested in the mid-1970s and was subsequently defined as an endangered species. Currently, 18 states issue licenses to export it. In Wisconsin and several other states where ginseng is cultivated, a permit is not required to export artificially propagated ginseng. We’ll visit two farms, one in Marathon, the other in Lincoln County.

March 31, 2010


"Two of the four Fromm brothers collecting wild ginseng in the forests of Marathon County. The Fromms would later have a vital role in the domestication of the plant, which would prove to be of great significance to the economy of the county (Painting by LeRoy Jonas, Sr.)." Text and image from Wisconsin Heartland, The Story of Wausau and Marathon County," by Michael Kronenwetter, picture research by Maryanne Norton. Sponsored by the Wausau Area Chamber of Commerce and the Marathon Historical Society.

Living in Wausau, in central Wisconsin’s Marathon County, no matter what direction you head you see ginseng farming. Marathon County is said to be the mecca, but we found a neat farm in Park River in nearby Lincoln County as well.

Historically, more than 95% of commercial ginseng grown in the U.S. for export to Asia has been cultivated under shadecloth in Marathon County. During WWII, ginseng farming in the US almost disappeared, except for the four Fromm brothers of Hamburg, Wisconsin. When World War II ended they sold the ginseng on hand for over one million dollar, and Wisconsin became the center of the ginseng trade in the U.S. Competition is stiffening from other quarters abroad, however. The most popular ways of consuming ginseng root are as an infusion or as an extract. The dried roots can also be sliced for consumption by themselves or in combination with other foods such as honey. Alternatively, they can be powdered and added to foods, or the powder may be packed into gel capsules. Ginseng prefers northern climates for the cold winters which allow for a necessary period of dormancy. Additionally, ginseng grows best in areas of shade, requiring up to 70% shade a day.

I’d like to take you to two ginseng farms, one in Marathon County, the other in Lincoln County.


This is a shot of a ginseng field in April, over on N. 25th and Radar Rd. You can see how the land has been prepared, the covers have been mounted on the poles, but the fields are not yet covered.


These are stacks of the covers standby in case others are damaged by the weather. These were located on N 25th.


This is one of many ginseng farms in Marathon County, this one located on Star Road in the town of Hewitt, close to STH 52. These next shots were taken in August. The plastic black covers have been unfolded and now provide the requisite shade. This is a hard crop to grow. After planting the seed, from 5 to 7 years are required to produce a marketable root. Let's get a closer look.


The Fromm Brothers are said to have the largest ginseng farm in the country, cultivating 100 acres. So you can see you do not need a mega-acre farm to do this, but you do need a lot of tender, loving care. You can see that in each row there are many, many plants.


First-year seedlings produce one compound leaf with three leaflets. This leaf, 1 to 2 in. in height and spread, is the only above-ground growth in the first year. Underground, the plant develops a thickened root about 1 in. long and up to 3 in. wide. At the top of the root, a small rhizome or "neck" develops with a regeneration bud at the apex of the rhizome. In autumn, the leaf drops, and a stem supporting new leaves emerges from the regeneration bud the following spring.

The plant develops more leaves, with more leaflets, each year until the fourth or fifth year. A mature plant is 12 to 24 in. tall and has 3 or more leaves, each consisting of 5 ovate leaflets. Leaflets are approximately 5 in. long and oval-shaped with serrated edges. In midsummer, the plant produces inconspicuous greenish-yellow clustered flowers. The mature fruit is a pea-sized crimson berry, generally containing 2 wrinkled seeds.


After three years of growth, the roots begin to attain a marketable size (3 to 8 in. long by 3 to 1 in. thick) and weight (1 oz). In older plants, the root is usually forked. Wild or high-quality cultivated ginseng root has prominent circular ridges. Highest quality mature root breaks with a somewhat soft and waxy fracture. Young or undersized roots dry hard and glassy and are less marketable. (University of Wisconsin)

Let’s swing over to the Pine Rivers region of Lincoln County.


While driving west on Center Road in the town of Pine River, a wonderful ride through rural America by the way, we came across what turned out to be Pagel's Ginseng Farm. She's a pretty good size ginseng operation. Here is part of the left side of the panorama view. You also get a nice appreciation for the look of the land in this very southern section of Lincoln County. We are only a few miles north of Marathon County, very close to the city of Merrill, and not far from the Wisconsin River to the west.


We talked to Jennifer at the farm. She and another young lady were working on what they cal the 2s, which means the crop is in its second year of growth; it has one more to go before the roots are ready for harvest. We took a couple nice photos of the 3s, which will be harvested this year, in the fall.


In their third year, the crop is beautiful --- bountiful, bright green, filled out. This photo was shot into the sun, so we turned around and shot the other side with the sun to our backs. It makes a difference.


You can see troughs to either side of the mounds of crop. Your "city-boy" editor asked if those were for irrigation. Jennifer, being polite, did not laugh, but promptly responded, "No, those are so the tractor can go through.

As an aside, while in Lincoln County’ Pine River area, I’d like to show you a glimpse of the Pine River, at the junction of the Pine River and Center Road, a couple miles southeast of Merrill, and about a mile northeast of where the river flows into the Wisconsin River. I’m a nut-job for these kinds of views.


This is a look downstream the Pine River from the park. As you can see, serene and relaxing.


Just enough "rapids" to create a soothing sound in the background and, if you found a nice piece of grassy ground, a great place to take a nap. The Pine River rises to the east in Langlade County, a few miles west of Hwy 45 and the town of Antigo.