Despite being told by many organisations that ginseng doesn't grow in Australia, Fred Hosemans persevered with his dream inspired by an article in an American magazine. Now he and his partner, Charlene, are able to offer Australian-grown ginseng commercially.
Ten years ago, when collecting his latest copy of Earth Garden, Fred bought a copy of an American magazine, Mother Earth News, because there was an article in it that had really grabbed his attention.
Fred was a maintenance fitter in a factory then, living with his children on a quarter-acre block in Cockatoo, east of Melbourne. He had built their house after losing the previous one in the Ash Wednesday bush fires, but he was starting to feel 'closed-in' as more people moved into the area. He wanted more space and a new challenge.
The article that had interested him so much was called 'Growing organic ginseng - $75,000 per acre', and it was this that offered him the challenge he was looking for.
Soon Fred was seeking information from Botanical Gardens, the Department of Agriculture, Burnley Horticultural College and other such places. He kept getting the same answer, "Ginseng won't grow in Australia".
Fred was not convinced.
He studied an atlas, comparing Victorian latitudes with those of North America where ginseng grows. He looked at the temperature and rainfall conditions and became more and more optimistic that he should "give it a go!"
Undeterred by the Australian agriculturalists, Fred wrote to the author of the original article, W,. Scott Persons. He told Fred that there were no known growers in the southern hemisphere, but agreed that it could be possible.
FIRST POUND OF SEED
So Fred bought his first pound of seed and with some basic planting instructions from Scott, planted his first six beds of ginseng on the eight acres he had bought at Gembrook, a few kilometres from Cockatoo.
When Fred and I married seven years ago, his second planting of seed (two lb) was growing and another lot was ready to plant. We moved into a shed on the land and so the ginseng received more attention. We realised that the plants needed more shade than the gum trees were providing.
Fred had dug the first quarter of an acre of beds with spade, mattock and axe. Even though most of the first plants weren't looking too good, he persevered. Fred got his copy of Scott Person's book American Ginseng - Green Gold in 1987, and it became his bible. But the Australian conditions were just too different and the plants still struggled. Trial and error, patience and optimism, plus a good old streak of stubbornness, kept Fred going when others might have thrown it all away.
Until a couple of years ago, the question "How's your ginseng growing Fred?" was often asked by many of Fred's family and friends, but usually it sounded patronising and definitely sceptical. However, most admired the fact that Fred was also building a mudbrick house and was the local chimney sweep in his spare time. Workmates often made as many jokes about 'Fred the Ginseng Grower' as they did about 'Fred the Footscray Supporter' when his team was not scoring too well. Of the ginseng, his answer was, "It'll be ready in another year or so". And this became as standard as "Another three months" if they asked when our house would be finished.
After a few years, they stopped asking about the house and accepted that we would probably live in the shed forever.
PRAISE AND APPLAUSE
Today, not only are the friends and family less vocal on all accounts (especially since Footscray has been much higher on the league ladder), but are proudly applauding Fred's efforts and singing his praises as he teaches and encourages others to take up his same dream and become ginseng growers. He can now show you just over an acre of ginseng doing well.
Scott Persons has even asked for a chapter on growing ginseng in Australia as part of a revision of American Ginseng - Green Gold. Our local naturopath, after begging for the past four years, will soon buy the first, fully-matured, Australian-grown ginseng roots being offered for sale.
We moved into the unfinished house over a year ago and, since I work at home now, together we have accomplished a lot towards finishing the house - the "another three months" is fast becoming a reality. I am sure other mudbrick builders understand the trials of living in a shed while the house is built and dealing with all the other things on the property that need to be done. Fred is the patient one and I am learning how to be. We are both lovers of the Earth and Nature, and often take time out to feed and talk to the birds, Brigitta the goat and Bonnie the dog - along with planning where the geese and chooks will fit in. We have also had time to get the vegie garden started. So now it's time for my once-sceptical friends to be a little envious of my peaceful life and hanker for a day in the hills.
The ginseng we grow is Panax quinquefolium, which is a native of North America but closely related to the Asian form, Panax ginseng. We have run seminars and information booths at various field days, and now there are about 70 new starter 'growers' in areas from southern Queensland through to Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. Our aim is to establish a growers' association and eventually join the export market. American growers sell about 95 percent of their annual crop to Asian countries.
Australia currently imports over 8,000 kg of ginseng a year for use in pharmaceutical and naturopathic preparations. However, our local naturopath tells us that the quality of what comes in is unknown and generally expensive. In order to supply this local demand and extend into the export market, many more growers in Australia are needed. To help new growers get established, we are importing American seed in bulk and also selling some of our Australian-grown seedlings.
Ginseng is a deciduous, perennial, 'sun-shy' plant whose natural growing environment is under trees in forests; it's dormant during winter. Under cultivated growing conditions, it needs plenty of shade. Soil needs to be on the acid side - between 5.5 pH and 7.0 pH. Ginseng is being grown in soil varying from sandy to heavy loam; in its natural environment it enjoys nitrogen-poor soil.
On a sloping block, an easterly/southerly aspect is best - to avoid the hot afternoon sun. If your block lies on a different axis, you may need to provide more shade. Ginseng requires cold stimulation and is not troubled by frost or snow.
A humid or tropical climate, such as that around Darwin, Cairns or the northern coastal areas, would not be suitable. Ginseng does not use much water, but it grows best where soil is moist without being too wet. Land at the bottom of hills or subject to flooding wouldn't do.
Ginseng is an ideal crop for small properties. The current return on an acre of ginseng is from $100,000 to $300,000. Therefore, a small-scale landholder only has to plant and harvest a quarter-acre each year to reap a fair reward. The initial set-up cost per quarter-acre is approximately $10,000 with more than half that being for imported seed and the other large expense being for shadecloth (which will last at least three crops).
Once the grower has established adequate seed-producing beds for their own use, this set-up cost becomes negligible compared to the results.
Growing ginseng is not a 'get-rich-quick' scheme. Roots take at least four years to reach marketable size if grown slowly in natural conditions, but these are more valuable than roots matured in forced growing conditions. Organically-grown roots bring an even greater return.
Fred's vision is that of a sign on the outskirts of our village that says, 'Welcome to Gembrook - The Ginseng Capital of Australia'.
I think that vision is getting closer.
DATE: November 1994
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