By Keene Winters
Sometimes the things that “we know” need to be refreshed with a round of scrutiny. What we think we know, becomes a mental rut. For example, we all know that Marathon County is one of the best places in the world to grow ginseng and that the root is a popular product in China and other parts of the Asia-Pacific Region. We know some people in our area “farm” ginseng, and there is not much more to it.
However, potentially, there is a lot more. With a little vision and imagination, the countryside’s unique abilities to grow ginseng could be a major pillar of Central Wisconsin’s 21st Century economy. The key is to become a direct retailer of the finished consumer product rather than just a supplier of raw materials.
Back in the 1860s, Wausau got its start supplying raw materials. Whole pinewood logs fashioned into rafts were floated down the river to places like Saint Louis where they were turned into finished products that consumers could use. In time, this area acquired the ability to saw lumber, make window and door frames and create paper. In those cases, the local economy took the raw material and created finished goods for use by consumers, capturing all the value added from all the stages of production for the local economy. We should do the same with ginseng.
The Asia-Pacific Market is colossal already and growing fast. According to Northstar Economics, there were 525 million middle-class consumers in Asia in 2010, already more than the 338 million in North America. It is the forecast that is mind-blowing. By 2030, it is estimated that there will be 3.23 billion middle-class consumers in the Asia-Pacific Region and only 322 million in North America. That is a difference of ten-to-one. Not having plans to market to China and its neighbors means missing one of the great mega trends of the 21st Century.
To be sure, putting a small Midwestern town on the map in places like China would be an insurmountable task, save for the fact that we are in the center of the world’s finest ginseng fields. Ask an average American to name a few cities in China, and you will probably hear names like Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Similarly, if you posed that same question to a middle-class Chinese consumer about the United States, one would expect to hear New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and maybe Chicago. Wausau is not on that map.
Interestingly, market research indicates that there is one other place that Chinese consumers have heard about and want to visit. It is the Mall of America. They are not necessarily sure where it is, but they know they want to shop there.
Part of the foreign experience in visiting the United States is shopping. We have the world’s best consumer-oriented logistics. Products are in our stores in abundance. Foreign consumer markets are hamstrung by tariffs, trade barriers, inferior local production, barriers to starting businesses, and undeveloped logistics. In the U.S., the consumer is king, and a trip to America is a time to indulge in a consumer paradise.
Now let us connect the following dots: Chicago, Wausau, Minneapolis, ginseng and shopping.
Imagine a vacation tour that starts with Asian consumers with new-found wealth sight-seeing in Chicago. After a few days, a motor coach takes them to downtown Madison for a quick photo-shoot with an iconic American capitol building in the background. Then the coach proceeds to Wausau for an evening meal and an overnight stay.
The next morning there will be some sightseeing and opportunities to taste and buy ginseng. By that evening, the tour group should arrive in Minneapolis.
Include a day or two of shopping at the Mall of America before people fly home with some Marathon County ginseng and other loot. That is a marketable vacation experience.
The best thing about this idea is that we are not alone. We have potential partners in Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis and their respective local and state boards of tourism. Ginseng puts us in the big leagues.
Naturally, Wausau has some work to do before it is ready to receive Asian guests. To be good hosts, there will need to be places for tourist to stay, restaurants that serve authentic Asian cuisine, retail outlets that sell ginseng and other amenities that will be welcoming to another culture.
A potential tourism hot spot in this venture could be the Fromm Brothers’ Farm. In the 1920s and 1930s, John, Edward, Walter and Henry Fromm built an internationally famous business empire centered around their Hamburg farm by pioneering the cultivation of ginseng and cornering the market on silver fox pelts. The restored farm could be a key stop for Asian and other tourist and a cornerstone in our efforts to market Marathon County ginseng.
Again, we want a local economy that does more than just export raw agricultural goods like ginseng roots. This area would be better off if we did more of the value-added steps that turned the root into a finished consumer product locally. Moreover, to the extent that we can sell directly to Asian consumers by attracting tourists or promoting a mail order business, then we will capture a larger share of the wealth generated by this uniquely local crop.
If we are willing to break the mold on what we think we know, Wausau and Marathon County could be much more than just a region where ginseng is “farmed.” It could be a place where consumer-ready ginseng products are created, sold and celebrated.
Editor’s Note: Keene Winters, who served as an alderman in Wausau from 2012-2016, is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Fromm Brothers Historical Preservation Society (www.FrommHistory.org).