The old axiom "variety is the spice of life" may be one factor driving an Edgar agent as he manages two dissimilar careers. Mike Boehm and his father, Larry, run the successful Boehm Insurance Agency and farm ginseng.
The Boehms ventured into the ginseng market in 1976. (At that time, Larry was also building a bowling alley.) Simply living in that region of Wisconsin exposed the family to the profits of growing the root. "Ninety percent of the nation's ginseng is grown in Marathon County," Mike said. The well drained granite-based soil combined with the climate of north central Wisconsin produced the sought after roots of the '70s. "Back then, ginseng buyers wanted a skinny, long root (like a carrot). Now brokers look for a shorter, chunkier root," he stated. Some of the county's families began growing ginseng 60 years ago.
"Our family used to be dairy farmers. Dairy farmers commonly make the switch to ginseng farming," Boehm said. His brother, Patrick, still oversees a dairy farm as well as joining Mike and Larry in their ginseng venture.
Cultivating ginseng is a lengthy undertaking with duties for each season. "From the time the plants emerge from the straw in spring, we're busy caring for the crop," Mike said. The Boehms erect six to eight acres of specially constructed roofs over each garden planted the previous year. These roofs mimic the forest providing 80 percent shade to the plants.
"In the summer, it's not unusual for me to spend six to eight hours on insurance and turn around and spend six to eight hours on the gardens," Mike said. Summer duties include weeding and applying herbicides and fungicides.
Fall is both a planting and harvesting time. In September, the farmers plant new gardens with seeds collected from previous year's plants. Ginseng's crimson berries contain the seeds which perpetuate the business. Mike and Larry bury the seeds in sand for a one-year stratification period. Ginseng matures in three to four years. The Boehms harvest the mature ginseng in late September or early October when the roofs come down.
After harvest, the Boehms prepare the roots for market. They
wash the crop and stack the ginseng to dry in a climate controlled building. The drying cycle lasts
10 to 14 days in the 100 degree building. The Boehms store the final product in fiber
drum barrels. Winter is a quieter time for ginseng farmers. Yet, the Boehms dedicate themselves
to constructing the roofs for the following year. Other winter duties include updating and
Myths abound about the rewards of farming the unusual herb. "Brokers come to you if you have the right root structure," Mike said. Ginseng farmers can also sell their product at an auction house. Current auction prices range from $25 to $40 per pound depending on the market. Each of the Boehms' acres will yield about 3,000 pounds. "After a $100,000 investment, a ginseng farmer can expect to turn a profit in the fifth or sixth year," Boehm said. Like all farmers, the Boehms are at the mercy of Mother Nature. One year a tornado destroyed their crop. Another drawback of ginseng farming is that once a garden is harvested, the soil will never again produce ginseng.
The word ginseng means all healing, and it is referred to as the "root of life, king of all herbs. Much of the ginseng is exported to Hong Kong," Mike said. Today the plant finds wider use in the United States. The exotic root shows up in capsules, teas, gum, soda, beer, alcoholic beverages and tinctures. "There is even a whole cookbook filled with recipes which use sliced ginseng," the younger Boehm stated.
Ginseng's medicinal uses vary depending upon where the plant is grown. The Asian variety is considered the "hot" part of the yin/yang dichotomy. An extract taken from the foreign plant's root is the source of a stimulant and supposed aphrodisiac. Extracts from the "cold" American relative are said to have a cooling effect on the body, relieve stress and lower blood pressure.
Larry and Mike are co-owners of the Boehm Insurance Agency - a family agency established in 1938. Mike earned an accounting degree from North Central Technical College in Wausau and joined the agency in 1984. He recently obtained a securities license, and the agency now offers investments. The Boehms make the agency their priority business. In fact, the agency benefits by the Boehms' ginseng-related activities. "We've written some coverage for ginseng farmers and brokers who we would not have met otherwise," Mike said. "We understand the coverage."
Mike's wife, Sally, is also in the insurance profession. She works for American Family's workers' compensation division. Sally doesn't have much time for the ginseng farm as the couple has three children under the age of five: Danielle, Derek and Mitchell who was born on November 22.
"It's hard to sit behind a desk when it's nice out, if you can be outside doing something," Mike said of his motivations for farming. "Growing ginseng is a challenge. Every year I learn a little more," he added.