Diverse crops are focus on Marathon County farm

Amy Eckelberg
Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation
Joe Heil and his family have been farming for four generations and are one of 160 ginseng growers in the state.

Ginseng has been grown in Wisconsin for more than 100 years. According to the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin, the state’s growers account for 95% of the total cultivated ginseng production in the U.S.

In the heart of Marathon County, the Heil family has been farming for four generations. They are one of 160 ginseng growers in the state.

Joe Heil grew up on a dairy farm but ultimately saw the opportunity to get into ginseng. He started by planting a few acres of ginseng and over time has continued to reinvest profits to increase acreage and upgrade equipment.

Through the years, Heil Ginseng has grown to be one of the largest ginseng growers in the country. The farm grows 150,000 pounds of roots per year and processes an additional 100,000 pounds for other growers in the area.

Tarps covered the bedded ginseng plants to provide shading that mimics a wooded setting for optimal growing conditions.

The herbal crop is a root and is available in a variety of products including capsules, tea bags, tea cut and powder.

The crop got its start during World War II when the Fromm Brothers of the small town of Hamburg were the first farmers to grow cultivated ginseng to fund their fur business. The unincorporated town put Marathon County on the map as it continues to be the ‘Ginseng Capital of the World.’

Wisconsin ginseng’s largest buyer is China. Other counties also are consumers of the products making international relationships key for ginseng growers. With such an international customer base, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a challenge for ginseng growers who normally travel to maintain relationships with customers and expand their markets.

Besides ginseng, Heil Ginseng also grows other crops and has an extensive retail line of hemp products.

One of the multiple greenhouses filled with hemp plants that grow product for the Village Pharm.

“We have about 3,000 acres in other crops like corn and soybeans on the farm to rotate the fields,” said Joe. “An interesting thing about ginseng is that it can never be grown in the same spot twice. It just won’t grow.”

This phenomenon is considered replant disease. It is an issue that is poorly understood but prevents ginseng from growing on the same land even decades later because of soil-borne diseases.

However, it’s important to note that the nutrients left by a ginseng crop improve the productivity of the soil for other crops.

“We don’t find it hard to find land to rent because ginseng is a good crop rotation,” said Joe. “It’s just that you can only grow it once and you have to sign a four-year contract.”

Ginseng has a very high cost of production. Between land rent, customizable equipment and labor, input costs are large. Lower market price combined with trade and the pandemic impacts have led to an even smaller profit margin.

Joe added, “There is not a lot of room for mistakes.”

Ginseng is a multi-year crop. It’s traditionally planted in August but sits dormant and cannot be harvested until at least three years after the planting. Ginseng seed is pea-sized and needs to be grown since it’s not available in a retail setting.

Hemp plants are hung to dry for processing into CBD products.

“You can’t just go to a seed dealer and ask for ginseng seed,” said Joe. “It’s not available so we have to grow all of our own starter seed which adds another layer of risk.”

The crop is grown in a straw bed that looks like potato mounds from a distance. The ginseng garden beds need to be partly shaded so each plot has tarping over the top to mimic a wooded area. To assist with weed management in and around the ginseng gardens, the farm plants white clover.

The farm started growing hemp as another revenue source when it became eligible to be grown once again in Wisconsin.

“We grow about 160 acres of hemp,” shared Joe. “We grow some outside and some in greenhouses.”

One greenhouse can fit about 980 plants. The farm has multiple greenhouses dedicated to different types of hemp plants.

The farm sells cannabidiol (CBD) products under the name the Village Pharm. The hemp is processed at the farm. Joe shared that the farm’s largest sales come from smokable CBD.

Through the years of growing hemp, Joe has found greenhouse-grown hemp offers a much better crop for the smokable CBD products.

Much like ginseng, CBD products are toted for their health benefits. Contrary to ginseng, these products don’t have an international customer base. At least not yet.

“It takes time for customers to find trust with these products and in some places, it’s not legal to sell there yet,” said Joe.

With having labor-intensive crops, the farm uses the H2A labor program. They have been able to maintain a good labor force because of this program.

Joe examins a young ginseng plant amidst its multiple-year growing process.

In addition to being a member of the Marathon County Farm Bureau, Joe is involved with the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin, American Herbal Products Association, FFA Alumni, the Wausau Chamber of Commerce and serves his local community in a variety of other ways. He promotes research in plant health in cooperation with Michigan State University.

Learn more about Heil Ginseng by visiting heilharvest.com. Go to thevillagepharm.com to learn more about their CBD products.

This story appeared in Wisconsin Farm Bureau's Oct./Nov. Rural Route magazine