Wausau — Ginseng is going to be the center of attention this fall, as central Wisconsin celebrates the root in its first ever ginseng festival.
The International Wisconsin Ginseng Festival will be held from Sept. 15 through Sept. 17. The festival is a celebration of central Wisconsin's production of the traditional herb, which is commonly used in tea and as an herbal supplement, and is especially prized by buyers in China. The event will take place in several sites throughout the region: The 400 Block in downtown Wausau, ginseng fields throughout the county and the historic site of the Fromm farm in Hamburg.
The cultivation of ginseng in Marathon County goes back to the Fromm brothers, who in the early 1900s started farming ginseng to help pay for the silver foxes they were raising, said Lisa Berry, the sales director of the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Visitors and Convention Bureau. The brothers went on to establish an internationally known fur business, and as their business grew, so did the cultivation of ginseng in Marathon County.
Since then, ginseng has stuck in central Wisconsin, where the cool climate supports the plant and there's good drainage too. The soil and the climate make central Wisconsin one of the world's best places to produce the root, which must grow for four years before harvest.
"We produce 95 percent of the ginseng in the United States," Berry said of Marathon County. "And we're proud that it's thought of as the (world's) finest."
Berry got the idea for a festival about two years ago, and since then she's been hard at work pulling together community resources to create a fun-filled weekend.
"It's a complete community collaboration. Each part has ownership over what they want to do," Berry said.
Local breweries including Bull Falls Brewery will make special ginseng brews and restaurants including Polito's Pizza will concoct special dishes featuring the herb. The Center for the Visual Arts will host a poster making contest, which will offer $1,000 to the winner and a chance to display artwork in the downtown galleries of the CVA.
Some attendees have already booked hotel rooms, which means people are already planning on making their way to Wausau for the special weekend, Berry said. She expects the festival to draw people into the area from all over the world.
"We're expecting a large economic impact," Berry said.
Ginseng is a very popular herb in China, Berry said, and because of that, the Visitors Bureau is already creating signs that will have directions and information in both English and Mandarin Chinese, thanks to a grant from Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin.
It's no surprise that the fest will draw in visitors from China. The nation buys nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin's ginseng crop each year, according to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article from 2013. A trade deal touted by Gov. Scott Walker in 2013 means that nearly $200 million dollars worth of the Wisconsin root will be purchased by Chinese company Tong Ren Tang Pharmaceutical within a 10-year period.
Other organizations and businesses also have stepped forward to help make sure the Wausau festival happens this year. Local sponsors have donated over $100,000 and another $40,000 came from the state's tourism agency.
The international fest also will highlight diverse cultures in central Wisconsin and feature performances by local Native American and Hmong groups.
Ron Krautkramer, a local ginseng producer and president of Ginseng Board of Wisconsin said he believes the festival will help people notice the crop in a way they never have before. Krautkramer's fields are located in the town of Rib Falls.
"I'm personally hoping that it will expand the market," he said. "I think it'll bring an awareness to people who weren't aware and showcase our industry."
The festival will be free and open to the public, and will feature events such as a 5k run, a chance to dig your own ginseng root straight from a field, cooking demonstrations at Monk Botanical Gardens by local chefs and restaurant owners and a chance to ride the rapids at White Water Park or just watch the kayakers do their thing.
"We will have something for everyone," Berry said.