When Will Hsu ’00 led a group of alumni and friends to a secluded forest glade on a cool day in early October, he was entrusting his fellow Badgers with his biggest secret: the location of his hidden treasure.
That hidden treasure, Hsu revealed, was wild ginseng, valued at $750 to $1,000 per pound, compared to the $70 to $100 per pound fetched by farm-raised ginseng. Hsu taught the group to identify the seemingly ordinary-looking ginseng plants amid the other woodland vegetation. This disclosure was just one of the secrets revealed to the alumni and friends who’d come that day to the lush, green countryside just outside Wausau on this Made in Wisconsin trip, presented by the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
Hsu is the second-generation owner of Hsu Ginseng Farm, the largest ginseng farm in operation in the United States. After graduating from UW-Madison, Hsu earned an MBA from Harvard — but before returning to Wisconsin to work on the farm, which his father started in the 1970s, Hsu honed his business skills with a 10-year stint at General Mills. His exceptional knowledge of business and ginseng cultivation impressed the group.
“Will Hsu was so informative,” says Betty (Elizabeth) Ackerman Brunner ’60. “He knows his business inside and out.”
Hsu explained to the group the basics of ginseng cultivation and told them about the special qualities of the revered plant. The alumni and friends then toured the farm and saw the huge fields of ginseng. They also got a sneak peek at a brand-new building: inside, the group was able to watch workers cleaning the roots of the ginseng plants and preparing them for drying. Governor Scott Walker and the press were scheduled to visit this facility for its ribbon cutting, but the alumni and friends were allowed to see it first.
Did you know? Wisconsin ginseng growers produce more than 10 percent of the world’s supply!
Associate Professor Russell Groves of the UW-Madison Department of Entomology broadened the group’s knowledge of ginseng farming. Groves, who is also the state’s vegetable Extension specialist, explained that Wisconsin ginseng growers work closely with the experts at UW-Madison to develop and execute integrated pest management, or IPM. In ginseng farming, that management plan needs to consider the special nature of the ginseng crop.
“The ginseng root is purchased as a medicinal that is shipped around the world,” says Groves. “The challenge is how we make it a pesticide-free commodity.”
The alumni learned that meeting this challenge involves both timing and chemistry. “Growers have to keep a watch for what pest is out there and when it’s out there,” says Groves, adding that in terms of chemistry: “Our tools are reduced-risk, alternative pesticides.”
A highlight of the day was a lunch of Chinese specialties that included Hsu’s own ginseng: the perfect way to round out a day devoted to the fascinating plant. The food was excellent and helped to make a memorable day unforgettable.
The alumni who made the two-hour trek north from Madison for this Made in Wisconsin trip enjoyed a beautiful day full of interesting stories, behind-the-scenes looks, and great food. They gained a new appreciation for the work of ginseng farmers and a sense of ginseng’s place in the minds of consumers around the world.
“Its popularity is the most interesting thing to me,” says Brunner. “The fact that wild-grown ginseng is so valuable that poachers steal it and trade it on the black market for drugs — that was really surprising.”
All of WAA’s Made in Wisconsin trips are designed to take alumni behind the scenes of successful businesses. The Made in Wisconsin trips take that a step further by giving alumni a chance to see and do things no one else gets to do, such as a foray into a top-secret ginseng patch in a northern Wisconsin forest.
“These WAA trips are exceptional,” says Brunner. “It’s great to hear the stories of tremendously successful grads.”
See other opportunities to go behind the scenes of some of Wisconsin’s most interesting and successful businesses through Made in Wisconsin and other Alumni Learning opportunities for alumni.