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Taiwan's Foxconn And Wisconsin Farmers Bond Over Ginseng


An unusual alliance is shaping up between Foxconn, that global electronics giant that's building an enormous plant in Wisconsin, and some farmers in the state who grow the medical root ginseng. From member station WUWM in Milwaukee, Maayan Silver reports.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: It's autumn, and that means harvest time here at Hsu's Ginseng Farms in Wausau. General Manager Nick Sandquist is standing in front of a field of brown muddy rows with a digger machine whirring behind him.

NICK SANDQUIST: And that's plowing through the earth and plowing up the bad and the roots being laid out on top behind it. And then people will come behind and pick those roots by hand.

SILVER: The roots are white spindly chunks covered with dirt and hairy threats. Wisconsin's soil and climate is perfect for growing ginseng, and the state produces more than 90 percent of the U.S. crop. Nearly all of it is exported to Asia. It's Hsu's 400-some acres of American ginseng, along with the wider Wisconsin crop, that Foxconn Technology Group wants to invest in. The Taiwanese tech giant that likely made your cellphone is in Wisconsin to manufacture LCD screens in a huge plant south of Milwaukee. But Paul Hsu, the 75-year-old founder of Hsu's Ginseng, says the company has a personal link to ginseng which he heard about after meeting Foxconn CEO Terry Gou in China.

PAUL HSU: So every morning before he left for work, his mom would say, hey, Terry, did you drink your ginseng tea? So when he told his mom that he was coming to Wisconsin to invest, she thought that he was coming here to buy ginseng or invest in ginseng not knowing the project is much, much greater.

SILVER: Ginseng is big in China, especially for the older generations. Foxconn officials wouldn't agree to an interview but in a statement said its investment in ginseng will involve marketing, modernizing the industry and research. Paul's son Will is Hsu's current owner. He says Foxconn could bring technical innovation to lab testing and use robotics and AI to make sorting, trimming and slicing roots less labor-intensive, potentially reducing costs.

WILL HSU: What I fear most is not being relevant. If you're not relevant to the next generation of consumer or this generation of consumer, you don't have a product that consumers want.

SILVER: Steven Lewis is a China expert at the Baker Institute. He says associating with Wisconsin ginseng may help Foxconn with branding back in China.

STEVEN LEWIS: If they're getting into medicinal products, this might be a good one because Wisconsin ginseng has a very good reputation in China. It's known for being, you know, clean, good, very high quality and - like other American products that relate to things that are ingested and especially health products.

SILVER: Lewis notes that Foxconn has been accused of bad labor practices over the years, tarnishing its reputation. In fact, some in Wisconsin strongly opposed the billions of dollars in incentives and environmental rollbacks the company received to build its LCD screen plant. Connecting with the ginseng industry in Wisconsin may help the state's growers and also Foxconn in an effort to present itself as a good corporate citizen. For NPR News, I'm Maayan Silver in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF LESTER & NOWHERE & SAITO'S "BUBLE TEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.