How Paul Hsu’s Desire to Help Sprouted an International Business Deeply Rooted in Marathon County

CORRECTION NOTICE: This story was updated 5/22/2018 to reflect the fact that Hsu’s Ginseng sells approximately 200,000 pounds of ginseng a year.

Written by Katie Rosenberg

Paul Hsu was destined to help people. He was child 10 of 14, born into a large family in a tiny fishing village in the Pescadores Islands off the coast of Taiwan. His grandfather was a fisherman. His father was a farmer and a county worker. After attending college in Taiwan and working for Taiwan Christian Services for a bit, Hsu yearned to further his education. He recalls:

“I applied for scholarships to come here [the United States]. I got a lot of admissions but did not have money to come here to study. But after the third year, I finally got a scholarship from the University of Denver in 1969.”

Hsu set off earn his masters degree in social work. Once in Denver, his life’s path became clearer. After a year of studies, his fiancée Sharon moved to Colorado from Taiwan so they could get married and start their lives together.

“My wife and I were married in the chapel on the campus. That was built in the 1700s in downtown Denver, and the city developers didn’t have anywhere to put it. So, they removed it one stone by one stone and rebuilt it on the campus.”

But challenges were in store… Hsu needed to find a way to finish school while supporting his new family.

“I did not have enough money for my second year. They wanted me to bring $1,800 for schooling.”

Hsu had a plan:

“One day, I saw on the bulletin board that they were recruiting masters of social workers and they would give stipends to study and then come to work for the state — and there were many states at that time. So, I looked it over — at least 10 or 12 of them.”

Hsu knew that his life’s journey depended on getting the scholarship and stipend, so he strategically applied to three programs:

“I applied for Alaska. I thought, ‘Nobody goes there; I will get it!’ Then, the place I really wanted to go was Oregon. California wasn’t recruiting; otherwise, I would have applied to go there. But I thought, ‘Oh hey, Oregon would not be bad.’ So, I applied for Oregon. I also applied for Wisconsin. I said, ‘Middle of the country; probably very few people come here.’ So, I applied for all three states because they gave you a stipend — all the tuition, plus $250 living allowance per month. That was a good deal!”

His work spoke for itself, and Hsu was accepted into ALL THREE programs. But before he could even celebrate his move to Oregon, he got a letter from the State saying the Legislature had not passed their budget, so they would not be able to sign him on.

Oregon’s loss was Wisconsin’s gain.

After graduating, Hsu and his wife moved to the Midwest. For over 3 years, he worked for the Wisconsin division of Health and Social Services at the branch office in Fond du Lac. Hsu served seven counties working to help kids.

“We would be like their parents, putting them in foster homes, treatment homes, or institutions, for kids who were committed to the State.”

Eventually, his farming background boomeranged back.

“I think it was 1972 when a colleague of mine said that there were people who are growing ginseng around Wausau. I said, ‘What’s ginseng?’ I’ve heard of it, but I have never seen it. I’ve never eaten it. But I knew Korean ginseng. I knew it was very expensive stuff. I asked for the news report, and he brought me a small article from Mother Earth News talking about people growing ginseng in Marathon County.”

Hsu wrote a letter to the State Department of Agriculture asking for the names of the ginseng growers. At the time, only a handful of people, mostly family farmers, were growing ginseng, yet the representative for the Ag Department wrote back and gave him 12 names. Hsu made up his mind to take a road trip.

“My area went up to Coloma and that’s not too far, so I drove up. Out of those 12 names, I visited about 4 or 5 of them.”

During his farm visits, helping people was still on his mind.

“I thought of my mother, having 14 kids in the family. She was in poor health. I knew she was sick. She had digestion problems, weakness, diabetes, arthritis, and many other health problems. Before I left, she was not quite 60 but kind of sickly. So, I sent some ginseng home.”

He heard back from his father that the ginseng was helping his mother, almost magically:

“The ginseng you sent for Mom, you would not believe that, her color changed. She is kind of pinkish now, not really sickly, and her diabetic condition was lightened. She didn’t have arthritis anymore. She could eat two or three bowls of rice a meal instead of hardly one.

Hsu was astounded.

“There I was, at 30 years old, with such a magic cure. I told my dad and brother that I would send some more home. So, I did.”

That’s when Hsu’s entrepreneurial spirit took root…

When he went home to visit his family, his friends urged him to open a Chinese grocery store or restaurant. But Hsu had other ideas.

One day, when he was bouncing his ideas off of his wife Sharon, she told him to follow his passion.

“I was talking to my wife about ginseng — and she thought probably that I talked too much about that. She said, ‘Hey! If you are interested in that, why don’t you go ahead and do whatever it is that you are interested in? I just got my registered nursing license. So, I can work and support our family in case you fail.’ And wow! That helped a lot.”

Hsu worked hard to support his family and pursue ginseng. By day, he worked as a social worker helping children. By night, he was moonlighting in the ginseng industry, doing the retail and selling it to friends and family members by mail order. He even set up an 800 number. Hsu would buy the roots whole from local farmers and then trim it in his basement.

In 1976, the Hsus welcomed their first son, Will. After that, the Hsus moved to Marathon County so that Paul could be closer to the ginseng and Sharon could work at Wausau Hospital. That’s when a conversation at church illuminated the path for him once again.

“I went to the Presbyterian church for about a year. One Sunday, after the service ended, one of the elders said, ‘Paul! I heard that you moved up here to do ginseng. Do you need any funding?’ That was a godsend! Really a godsend!”  

Hsu showed up to the bank the next day and left with a loan so he could buy his own farm.

“I went over there and he helped me fill out the statements and assets and all of that. Net assets, not much! But he gave me a loan of $36,000 — more than my net worth!”

The Hsus bought their first farm in 1978 out on County Highway W. That’s when things started to get real.

Paul Hsu at his Marathon County farm. (Photo courtesy of Hsu’s Ginseng.)

“I had to know how to do things. I really didn’t know much. I bought a used tractor. I rented a tractor first, before I bought one. So, I did almost everything myself. The process was very hard. It’s a long-term investment. People would say to me, ‘You work so hard! Why do you want to do this?’ I think it takes a foolish person to do ginseng. It’s a long-term investment. Capital intensive. Labor intensive. And the market is risky. From an investment standpoint, it’s not that good.”

But Hsu made it work. Now with a few dozen employees, Hsu’s Ginseng sells approximately 200,000 pounds of ginseng a year — That’s a big economic impact.

Paul Hsu under the ginseng shades on his Marathon County farm.
(Photo courtesy of Hsu’s Ginseng.)

“Every year, there’s around $150 million brought into the three-county area, in cash. You know they say for every one dollar you put into the community, it generates seven. That’s almost $1 billion. That’s a lot of money. For one item.”

The Hsus use terms usually reserved for foodies to describe ginseng. Will Hsu, now Vice President of Hsu’s Ginseng, says that Wisconsin ginseng, especially ginseng grown in the nutrient-rich soils of Marathon County, has a certain terroir that makes it so desirable. According to Will:

“It’s only in the last 15 years that consumers have been able to research the different growing areas. That’s why we use a lot of the terminology that the wine industry uses— because people recognize that the techniques and the growing conditions aren’t the same. You’re more so talking about it because of the soil. Ginseng is a root vegetable, so the soil actually acquires that taste — more so than I think even fruit because it’s in the dirt. And it’s a multi-year crop. And once you harvest, you never go back to that soil ever again.”

Will and Paul Hsu in one of the Hsu’s Ginseng fields in Marathon County.
(Photo courtesy of Hsu’s Ginseng.)

Over four decades, there have been market ups and downs, booms and busts for other North American ginseng farms, a devastating 2010 spring snowstorm that decimated the crops, the advent of the World Trade Organization, and trade and tariff policies that shaped the international economic landscape. Hsu’s Ginseng has been a player.

Hsu has traveled to China with almost every Wisconsin governor since Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus. His mission is to help leaders understand the impact of international business on Wisconsin.

Hsu family (Sharon, Paul, and Will) with Governor Scott Walker. (Photo courtesy of Hsu’s Ginseng.)

Now, as President Trump’s administration grapples with trade policies that include mounting tariffs for businesses in both the United States and China, Paul and Will are reflecting on the industry and the politics that brought us here. Will notes that this is not a new phenomenon. It’s just a new expression of a familiar play:

“For China, they know that it’s a product that their citizens consume. So, it is a product that they can go after. It’s directly imported from the U.S. — consumers know that. It’s marketed that way. It’s a brand name. American ginseng is no different than a Ford or a GMC. You know, we used to have these trade wars over cars.”

Paul says that the Chinese response to the U.S. tariffs was targeted to make a big statement.

“Unfortunately, this is a very small industry, talking about the import to China. They did that on purpose. It’s peanuts! But it’s so famous. When they hit you, the bang is a bigger bang.”

The day that we talked, Paul noted that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was heading to China to help negotiate a new trade deal. Hsu is advocating for a diplomatic resolution that will help growers in Marathon County.

“This industry is dependent on exports, so international trade is very important for us. Not fighting in the trade war is best for us. Trump did have a point. We cannot only import. But there should be a better way: diplomacy.”

Will and Paul Hsu at the first annual International Ginseng Festival in Wausau. (Photo courtesy of Hsu’s Ginseng.)

Despite the heightened political atmosphere, the Hsus know — because their customers tell them — that ginseng grown in Central Wisconsin is an important part of life for their customers. According to Will:

“We have the tradition, history, and heritage of growing here. The taste of ginseng grown in Central Wisconsin tastes different than ginseng grown in in China or Canada. That’s why people still want ginseng from Marathon County.”

Hsu’s website advises readers: “Enrich your capabilities. Balance your well-being. Thrive for the best.” Hsu and his family have clearly taken that message to heart.

Katie Rosenberg - County Board Supervisor District No. 1Katie Rosenberg

Marathon County Board Supervisor |  District 1

Katie Rosenberg is a Marathon County Board Supervisor representing District 1. She is passionate about engaging the community and is active on social media and in organizing neighborhood constituent meetings with her Wausau City Council counterpart, Alderperson Pat Peckham. In her free time, you can find Katie enjoying the outdoors with her husband on bike, on roller skates, and in trail shoes. She also enjoys attending all manner of political events, traveling the world, and cooking up a mean vegetarian soup.  Email Katie Rosenberg  

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