Before leaving Wisconsin, Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou visits a ginseng farm and a supper club near Wausau
After breaking ground on a $10 billion manufacturing complex in Mount Pleasant and announcing a new innovation center in Green Bay, Foxconn Technology Group Chairman Terry Gou made a couple of other, unannounced stops before leaving the state — to a ginseng farm and a Wisconsin supper club.
The Taiwan-based, self-made billionaire, who runs a company with around 1 million employees and roughly $159 billion in sales last year, worked in a visit to the Wausau area, heart of Wisconsin’s U.S.-dominating ginseng industry.
The overnight stop was part relaxation. Gou attended a reception and dinner at the Pinewood Supper Club in Mosinee (relish trays on the table, broiled walleye on the menu) and hiked Rib Mountain.
But the trip also had a business purpose: Foxconn last summer agreed to help central Wisconsin ginseng growers reach new markets in Asia, where the root is popular as a health supplement.
Now, Foxconn is buying Wisconsin ginseng for its Hong Seng branded products, and growers are looking to the giant company as a potential source of technology that could revolutionize a small, “insular industry,” said Will Hsu, president of Hsu’s Ginseng Enterprises Inc. of rural Wausau.
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“It’s very rare that you get a company of Foxconn’s size that approaches our industry,” Hsu said, “because we are peanuts. ... The fertilizer and chemical guys barely bat an eye at us.”
How small is the ginseng business? For perspective, consider that Wisconsin is easily the biggest ginseng grower in the U.S., commands a premium price for its products and exports almost everything it grows.
Last year, the value of those exports totaled $30.4 million. The value of Wisconsin milk production, meanwhile, was nearly $5.5 billion, or about 180 times as large.
Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou spoke about how an order from a Midwest company 44 years ago helped start his company. WisconsinEye
But Foxconn sees opportunity in ginseng. Last summer, the company agreed with the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin to help growers here open more markets in Asia.
Foxconn has begun marketing ginseng products — supplied by Hsu’s Ginseng Enterprises — under the Hong Seng brand.
Further, Gou himself, and his family, use ginseng, Hsu said.
“Particularly, Terry’s mom has been a consumer of ginseng for a long time,” Hsu said.
So last weekend, Gou paid a visit to Wausau and to the ginseng farm and business that Hsu’s father, Paul, started in the early 1970s.
Hsu said Gou spent two to three hours at the operation, which is on Highway W about 5 miles north of downtown Wausau. Gou dug up ginseng with Hsu’s father — himself a native of Taiwan — looked over barrels of the root, which sometimes has a human-like look, and was particularly interested in how the product grows, Hsu said.
Hsu said Gou sees the opportunity for economic expansion, investment and technological improvement in ginseng production.
“We’re still using harvesters from 50 years ago,” Hsu said of the industry.
He said Foxconn could help apply technology to processing and has “rapid screening pesticide platforms” that could be used to test ginseng in the fields for purity.
One area where Gou may not be much help: the U.S.-China trade situation. Responding to President Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum imports, China in April slapped tariffs on a variety of American products, including a 15 percent duty on ginseng.
Ginseng is harvested once a year, usually in September, and most of the larger Wisconsin growers already had shipped their ginseng before the tariff took effect, Hsu said.
But China is the state’s largest ginseng market, and if the tariff stays in place, it will add to the cost of what is already a premium product. Meanwhile, Hsu said, the tariff bolsters the position of growers in southeastern Ontario, who have become increasingly strong rivals.
“It really helps Canada,” he said.
So a little sales boost for Wisconsin from Taiwan probably is welcome.