Bad medicine: Trump trade wars undermine Wisconsin ginseng exports

By: - August 6, 2019 7:52 am

Besides the impact it’s had on much larger commodity crops like soybeans and corn, the Trump administration’s escalating trade war with China is hurting a Wisconsin export for which Wisconsin has come to virtually dominate American production.

Wisconsin ginseng growers say their business has been hurt by retaliatory tariffs China — their primary market — has imposed in response to President Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods.

Wisconsin annually raises about 1 million pounds of ginseng and typically exports about 85% of its production of the plant, which is hugely popular in traditional Chinese medicine, according to Bob Kaldunski, president of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin and a grower of the exotic plant for more than 38 years. China and other Asian countries are among the principal markets for the crop.

Now, tariffs that the U.S. has imposed on Chinese goods coming to the U.S. have prompted Chinese retaliation aimed at choking off U.S. exports to that country. Where China historically imposed a 7.5% tariff — later raised to 10% — on ginseng imported from the U.S., “now we’re at a 32.5% tariff,” Kaldunski said Monday. He estimated that exports are down about 80%.

“We’re a casualty of this trade war,” he said. Referring to U.S. officials, he added, “We just want them to be sure to understand that we have no other market, and because we have no other [trade] actions we can take, we’re being hurt.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin visited Kaldunski’s farm Monday to highlight the impact the trade war was having on Wisconsin’s ginseng growers, who produce up to 6% of the world’s ginseng.

Baldwin Tammy

“Last month, Trump came to Wisconsin and said our farmers were ‘over the hump,’” Baldwin said in a statement Monday. “He claimed China will immediately buy ‘a tremendous amount of food and ag product.’ Neither of those claims have proven true. Instead of escalating his trade war, Trump should deliver a better trade deal.”

Short of that, however, Kaldunski said Wisconsin ginseng growers are looking to a partial source of relief: getting domestically grown, cultivated ginseng certified as being in compliance with international agreements. Those pacts restrict travelers from bringing endangered species of plants and animals across borders. 

Ginseng grown in the wild is one such endangered species, but cultivated ginseng is not. Certification would allow tourists who purchase cultivated ginseng while visiting the U.S. to take it home with them. That could boost business with domestic customers as well, he said, “but even without that we would see another 100,000 to 150,000 pounds” in sales to the visiting tourist market.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.