WISCONSIN RAPIDS, the United States, Sept. 27 (Xinhua) -- A selection of China's most talented young athletes took a day off from their training Tuesday to learn about Wisconsin farming and state culture.
The 12 participating athletes, members of the Chinese Champions program studying at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, journeyed to the northern part of their new home state to visit cranberry and ginseng farms. While there, local farmers explained to the athletes why these crops flourished in the Wisconsin climate and were so important to the states' lifestyle.
For the Chinese champions, it was an exciting opportunity to discovery more about their fellow state residents and Wisconsin agriculture.
"Since coming to America, we think that participating in many of these kind of activities is very useful," Chinese champion swimmer Zhou Yafei told Xinhua in an exclusive interview. Zhou was bronze medalist in the 4x100 meter medley relay at the 2008 Olympic Games.
"Although studying is our first priority, greater contact and blending into the culture means understanding more about the United States. With these kind of activities we can combine China's great things and America's together, which means achieving better results."
The first stop on the learning tour was Elm Lake Cranberry Company, one of Wisconsin's many cranberry farms and located just outside the 20,000 population town of Wisconsin Rapids.
A dominant producer in the industry, Wisconsin accounts for 60 percent of the United States total cranberry harvest, or 3.96 million barrels. Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, took pleasure in inviting the Chinese champions to the farm and introducing a little more about the fruit that contributes so much to the states' revenue.
"These athletes are admired in their home country, and we wanted to share with them a unique Wisconsin industry so they can share that knowledge when they are back in China," Lochner commented on the event and its importance to the state's heritage and culture.
"It's one of the times of the year here in Wisconsin when people like to go out and see the fruit being harvested. You have the fall colors, trees will turn color, and then you have the red fruit. It's a fascinating process for people to watch, and if you're going to experience Wisconsin you should experience cranberry harvest," Lochner told Xinhua.
After listening to local farmers explain the history of cranberry harvesting, the Chinese champions themselves were given a chance to try the old-fashioned collection technique. Pulling on thigh-high rubber boots and brandishing wooden baskets, the athletes waded into the cranberry pools and competed to see who could fill a collection bin the fastest.
Chinese weightlifter Hongxia Qiu's team won two out of the three harvesting competitions, and said she enjoyed the experience very much.
"It was very exciting; I liked this activity," commented the 2006 world champion in the 53 kilogram weightlifting class. Afterwards, however, Qiu told Xinhua harvesting was actually much harder than she thought.
"I'm a little bit tired -- it' s more difficult than weightlifting!" she said laughing.
After a quick helicopter tour of the cranberry fields and goodbyes to the growers, Qiu and the sports group drove further into the Wisconsin countryside to tour Heil's Ginseng Farm.
Ginseng was a state crop of particular interest to the Chinese champions, as the plant is perhaps most famous in their motherland. Used in special Chinese soups and beverages, the ginseng root is believed by many to improve health and energy.
Ginseng Board of Wisconsin President Joe Heil introduced how the plant was grown in Wisconsin, mentioning that it was a very labor-intensive crop. Personally leading the group out to his fields, Heil explained that it took the plant three years of maturation before it could be harvested and that delay on return could prove difficult.
"It's a big investment and there is a lot of risk," Heil told Xinhua, citing monetary concerns for farmers. "Planting ginseng costs around 25,000 U.S. dollars an acre. So if something goes wrong, you stand to lose a lot more."
However, despite the challenges in growing the high-maintenance plant, Heil and others said that they were very happy with the quality of their crop, adding proudly that Wisconsin ginseng accounts for 95% of the total cultivated ginseng output of the United States.
After observing the different stages of production, the Chinese champions enthusiastically searched through a newly-harvested section of ginseng roots for the best samples to take back to their homes. As they boarded the bus back to Madison, they left with a newfound appreciation for American agriculture and deeper relationship with those who represent the state they now live in on the world market.
The Chinese champion program at the University of Madison at Wisconsin currently features 15 visiting graduate students in a master's program at Beijing Sport University. While in Wisconsin, the athletes are registered in a non-degree sports leadership seminar at the university and participate in cultural activities to both learn more about American culture and share some of their native traditions with fellow students and friends. (by Katherine Harbin)