Chinese Champions Visit Cranberry and Ginseng Growers

A group of world-class Chinese athletes accustomed to competing on the international stage got a close look at two international stars of Wisconsin agriculture—cranberries and ginseng.  The student-athletes in the Chinese Champions Program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison traveled north to broaden their perspective on their host state.

“It is important for all of us to recognize and celebrate how we are interconnected around the world,” say Gilles Bousquet, UW–Madison’s dean of the Division of International Studies and vice provost for globalization.  “Having the Chinese athletes visit ginseng and cranberry producing regions of our state highlights ties between Wisconsin and China.”

The athletes visited the Elm Lake Cranberry Co., near Wisconsin Rapids, in Wood County, where they got some hands-on experience harvesting cranberries. Wearing on thigh-high rubber boots and armed with wooden baskets, they waded into the cranberry pools and competed to see who could fill a collection bin the fastest.

“It’s fun to do once, but it’s hard to imagine people doing it all the time,” Gong Ruina, world-champion badminton player, told a Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune reporter with the help of an interpreter.

The event attracted the attention of Chinese media, including the news agency Xinhua.

“Since coming to America, we think that participating in many of these kinds of activities is very useful,” Chinese champion swimmer Zhou Yafei told Xinhua. “Although studying is our first priority, greater contact and blending into the culture means understanding more about the United States. With these kinds of activities we can combine China’s great things and America’s together, which means achieving better results.”

Cranberries, which have been commercially cultivated in Wisconsin since 1860, are the state’s leading fruit crop both in terms of acreage and value, accounting for almost 85 percent of the total value of fruit production in the state. The cranberry marshes of central and northern Wisconsin cover 21,000 acres, managed by 250 growers.

Photo: Andy Manis (Used with permission)
Photo: Andy Manis (Used with permission)

Wisconsin is the nation’s top cranberry-growing state, producing 3.96 million barrels in 2010, almost 60% of the U.S. crop. The state’s cranberry industry contributes nearly $300 million annually to the state’s economy and supports approximately 3,400 jobs.  Approximately 23 percent of the crop is exported, with China as an increasingly popular destination.

The athletes also visited the Joe Heil’s ginseng farm, near Edgar, in Marathon County. Heil, president of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin, explained how the plant was grown in Wisconsin.

“It’s a big investment and there is a lot of risk,” he told Xinhua. “Planting ginseng costs around $25,000 an acre. So if something goes wrong, you stand to lose a lot more.”

Photo: Andy Manis (Used with permission)
Photo: Andy Manis (Used with permission)

After learning about the different stages of production, the Chinese champions received samples of newly-harvested ginseng roots to take back to their homes.

China is the primary market for Wisconsin Ginseng, which has the reputation for the highest quality in the world, according to the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin. American Ginseng has been cultivated in Wisconsin for more than 100 years. Today, Wisconsin Ginseng producers account for 95 percent of the total U.S. cultivated ginseng production, generating up to $20 million annually in gross income statewide.

According to Lora Klenke of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, China ranked third last year among Wisconsin export destinations, after Canada and Mexico, and is growing quickly.

Photo: Andy Manis (Used with permission)
Photo: Andy Manis (Used with permission)

UW–Madison, the state’s flagship university, attracts students from all across the United States and from more than 130 countries. The university also encourages students to go abroad as part of their academic preparation; each year, more than 2,200 students participate in 150 international programs.

The Chinese Champions Program is a unique partnership among Beijing Sports University, the China Scholarship Council and UW–Madison, designed to build relationships and open the door to further academic collaborations. The participating athletes, whose accomplishments include Olympic medals and world championships, have come to Madison for nine months to study sports leadership and experience America lifestyle.

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By Kerry Hill