For nearly 30 years, Brian Oates has devoted himself body and soul to one purpose: establishing the first commercial wasabi-producing farm in the United States.
Many have tried to grow this type of Japanese horseradish in the United States itself and in Canada. However, almost all have failed.
The reason is simple: wasabi is described by most experts as the most difficult plant in the world to grow commercially.
What motivates Oates, and his Pacific Coast Wasabi (PCW) company, beyond his stubbornness?
In addition to being difficult to grow, wasabi is one of the most lucrative plants on the planet, priced at up to $160 a kilo wholesale.
«This is almost like gold…and you expect to charge a lot for gold. Well, we expect to charge a lot for wasabi,» says Oates.
the real wasabi
The first thing to know about wasabi -o wasabia japonicaits scientific name – is that you have probably never really tried it.
Is it that green paste that restaurants put next to pink ginger on the sushi plate? No, that’s probably a mix of mustard, horseradish, and food coloring.
In fact, sometimes only 5% of the wasabi served in Japanese restaurants around the world comes from the stem or root of the plant.
how to make wasabi
The methods for eating wasabi differ significantly from those that come in powder form, particularly if the plant is fresh.
In its most traditional preparation, the root is placed on a grater made of shark skin attached to a wooden paddle. Using a clockwise circular motion, press the root against the grater until a paste forms.
The spiciness, clearly less strong than imitation wasabi, but just as intense, lasts only 10-15 minutes, so you only need to prepare the amount that you will eat.
Nobu Oichi has been buying wasabi produced by Oates since the beginning and selling it to customers at his Zen Japanese restaurant in downtown Vancouver, Canada.
«We offer the customer the grater with the wasabi, so they can enjoy the experience of making it,» says Oichi.
«Once you taste real wasabi, you don’t want to go back to that anymore.»
Wasabi was initially used by the Japanese many centuries ago to prevent diseases: history tells that in its beginnings it was not used for its spicy flavor, but to put it on raw fish in order to prevent poisoning or stomach diseases.
But because wasabi grows in a different way than other crops, it has been grown mostly by the Japanese for their own market.
«It’s a water-loving plant, but it shouldn’t grow completely submerged like lilies or something like that,» explains Professor Carol Miles, of Washington State University’s department of horticulture.
«In general, the water runs over the crop, so it grows in a kind of waterbed, and that’s not very common in the United States.»
In addition to the unique characteristics of growing it, another difficulty is having access to seeds or root sections that can make the plant grow.
«Access to this material has been the bottleneck of the operation,» commented Professor Miles.
Oates said that he first became interested in wasabi cultivation in 1987, but it took him six years to gain access to good seeds.
For years, he grew in greenhouses at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, where he worked, but constantly encountered obstacles.
If exposed to high humidity, the capricious wasabi can die. The wrong mix of nutrients can also kill you.
And then, there is also the problem of size.
«There seems to be an agreement in agriculture that if you keep your crop small it’s fine, but when they get big all these edges that they didn’t have before suddenly appear,» Oates said.
In his experience, wasabi tends to get sick when planted on a large scale.
However, after working with UBC students, Oates developed a method – now a trade secret – that allows wasabi to be grown on an industrial scale without dying of disease.
After navigating the growing woes, Oates found a common problem for every entrepreneur, be it a farm or a tech business: where to find financing.
“There was no one who wanted to take the risk of investing in something as unknown as wasabi,” he explained.
That forced him to adopt a model currently used by PWC, which is frequently the franchise model.
PWC’s first commercial farm began in 2012, and currently has nine (four in British Columbia, four in Washington state, and one in New York).
The farmers paid $70,000 for a license from Oates, which allows them to use the secret method of growing wasabi in greenhouses.
On average, each farm needs $700,000 per acre of wasabi to get started.
Added to that wasabi takes more than a year to mature, so farmers have to be patient.
«The window is open»
In three greenhouses perched atop a mountain, Blake Anderson has what many considered for years to be the impossible: a successful and commercially viable wasabi farm.
«This one was so big I had to find a shovel to get it out of the ground,» Anderson said, proudly displaying a gigantic root.
«We’re going to need a whole football team to get the next crop out,» joked Oates, who went to harvest some of Anderson’s crops to send to his network of distributors, and from there to restaurants that will buy the wasabi for as much as $308 a kilo. .
Anderson, who was previously a truck driver, said he was drawn to the challenge of growing wasabi.
«We’ve learned the hard way, but we’re getting good at this,» he says, with two years of experience behind him. Proof of his success is the 200 gram root that he held in his hand.
Although PCW initially struggled to meet demand — it had to hold orders until crops mature — Oates thinks the business can grow from 10 acres of wasabi now to 20-30 in the next few years. .
«We are in a different era. We can make that happen and shutdown is no longer a risk that we are concerned about,» Oates concluded.
«The opportunity is here, the window is open, and our job is to grow.»
Potential Health Benefits
Now that the culinary side of the business is on its own, Oates and his colleague, Albert Agro, are hopeful of expanding into pharmaceuticals.
Agro, who is the CEO and president of Wasabia, the pharmaceutical side of the business, excluded that studies have shown that wasabi extracts may have health benefits, due to its antibacterial properties, to calm stomach upsets and its ability to reduce the wrinkles.
The problem, as with most plant-based medicines, is producing wasabi consistently in order to be able to make a product. There are efforts in New Zealand and China, and some wasabi supplements can be found online.
Wasabia plans to start medical trials by the end of the year in Malaysia, but Agro says the company takes a longer-term view, waiting for enough data to support a pharmaceutical product.