This is a transcript of an email interview between the Wasabi Maestro (Michel Van Mellaerts) and Lynsey Gedye of http://aquaculture.ako.net.nz/ that was done in 2006.
Wasabi has been grown in Japan for hundreds of years. According to T. Sultana and G. Savage, of the Food Science department of Lincoln University, Christchurch, New Zealand, wasabi is now being grown in many countries in the world including New Zealand, Taiwan, Korea, Israel, Brazil, Thailand, Columbia, near Vancouver in Canada and Oregon, USA. The New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries introduced wasabi for experimental cultivation in 1982. It is widely accepted that the best wasabi is grown in running water. Water grown wasabi requires air temperatures ranging from 8 to 18oC. However, a narrower range of temperatures (12 to 15oC) is considered ideal. An air temperature of less than 8oC inhibits plant growth and at less then 5oC plant growth ceases. Other factors have an effect on the growth of wasabi and need to be considered carefully e.g stable water temperature, good nutrient status in water and well aerated, neutral or slightly acidic pH of water, high dissolved oxygen level in water and a large quantity of water flow.
Clearly, conditions not easily reproduced in a typical aquacultural environment. The requirements for the commercial production of top grade wasabi has been mastered by New Zealand Wasabi Ltd, owned and operated by Jenny and Michel Van Mellaerts in Warkworth, north of Auckland, New Zealand. Michel kindly agreed to the following interview:
Lynsey: The first question – why wasabi? It’s a pioneering crop, there are other crops well documented, and in the north of New Zealand the options are broad in terms of what crops could be grown.
Michel: That actually is a very good question. Sometimes, we ask ourselves the same thing. Initially when we bought our first lifestyle block (5 acres), it had a nashi pear orchard. However, the bottom had just fallen out of that market and the idea of working like dogs picking the pears for no return did not really appeal – little did we know: . Anyway, we started looking around for something that we could grow, hopefully wouldn’t involve a massive amount of ongoing work, and gave a decent return. Well, at least enough to pay the mortgage.
It was quite by chance we stumbled across wasabi. We had been to the beach, and on coming home one evening flicked on the television and it was at the end of a “Country Calendar” program, where they were showing a paddock of wasabi being trailed down in Canterbury [in the South Island]. They mentioned the name and that it was worth $100 a kilo. It was this that piqued our interest. After all – that was a decent return AND it was legal . We then started to try and find out about this crop. What we found was not very encouraging.
The information that was available was basically a load of rubbish. Nowhere was there a definitive guide for wasabi growing. There were descriptions of places where wasabi was being grown. This was mainly descriptions of modified streambeds in Japan with the occasional mention of soil grown product. There were a couple of wasabi “experts” in New Zealand that we dealt with at length until it became apparent that their expertise was based on what they read (same stuff as us), and a couple of visits to Japan at the ratepayers expense. However, they did have some plant material that we could purchase to carry out trials.
At that point, Jenny and I had to make a decision. Did we jump over the cliff into the unknown or did we find something easier? You have to remember that at that point in time the only successful growers that we knew of were in Japan, and they were not sharing information (they still don’t). Anyway, both being naive, we decided to try a few plants. After all, we reckoned, they were only plants and if they could grow them in the South Island, then it couldn’t be too difficult. After losing a number of crops by following the “experts” advice, we got rid of them all (the experts) and started using our own ideas. Eventually, after a few years (and lots of dead plants), we finally figured out what we need to do to produce the best water grown wasabi in the world.
On a trip to Japan to talk to people at the Wasabi growing laboratories that they have in certain areas of Japan, we were told that they had trialed growing wasabi hydroponically, and because they were unsuccessful then it obviously wasn’t possible. They also were reluctant to even give the basic growing information to us. We eventually figured this out by trial and error and listening very carefully. We found it amazing that the collection of a lot of throw away remarks that these people used to show us how clever they were crystallised into firm, accurate information.
As an engineer we decided that we would ignore all the information that we had collected to date (99% of it was misinformation and still is), and we sat down and determined what we believed we needed to do to get wasabi to grow properly. We designed and built a growing system, which today is still the basis of our success, and started growing the best wasabi in the world. We have not stopped since that time
So as you can see, the simple answer to your question is that we were too dumb to realise that wasabi could not be grown in New Zealand using hydroponic methods.
Lynsey: What experiences in your background has prepared you both for wasabi farming?
Michel: In terms of full on, dirty handed farming – nothing. I was vice president of Soil & Health New Zealand for a couple of years and had been growing vegetables organically (domestically) for 20 years or so before this venture. Apart from that, neither of us had any idea what we were getting into.
However, as entrepreneurs we excelled. We had the first privately owned CAD system in New Zealand. We used that to set up a CAD consultancy and training company. We eventually sold that when we had trained enough university staff so that they could claim to be “experts” and started pinching clients. We also brought to New Zealand the first fully integrated accounting software package that we sold countrywide. A couple of other engineering consultancy based projects were brought to fruition and sold off when the market started to flatten. I have a number of degrees in Engineering, Physics, and an MBA. All of these have been used to get to where we are today. Jenny has Ph.D. degrees in loving, encouragement, enthusiasm and determination. I think she has the best qualifications.
The wasabi project has been the longest running one for us. It is also the one that has brought the most satisfaction. Single handedly we have built and developed the New Zealand wasabi industry without any outside help or finance. We are now the biggest growers, processors, and marketers of Wasabia japonica products in the Southern Hemisphere and are now expanding into the Northern Hemisphere. We started the first commercial website in New Zealand, and were told at the time that the Internet was merely a flash in the pan. We back ourselves. Sure we have made mistakes that have cost us a lot of money, but we have learnt as we have gone along. We have cut a path through the wilderness and now others are following.
Lynsey: How did you finance the development – were the banks/investors keen, and if not, how did you manage?
Michel: We have financed this operation from our own resources. Initially, I worked as a consultant for others in the engineering field. This enabled us to plow money into this project to get it off the ground. The biggest problem was that the banks did not (and still do not understand) what wasabi is all about. The idea that a plant takes up to three years to grow to maturity and it isn’t a tree leaves them floundering.
Even now, with all our success, they have no interest in financing the company without personal guarantees. To date, we have no investors (and we haven’t looked for any), although a substantial cash injection would be nice. Most of our profits get put back into NZW research and development, with regard to all aspects of the operation – growing, processing, developing and marketing new unique products. We still are the only company that produces nutraceutical grade 100% pure water grown Wasabia japonica powder. We developed and effectively own this growing market.
Lynsey: How do you manage the workload between Jenny and yourself?
Michel: Both of us do whatever is necessary. We can both turn our hand to anything from keeping plants alive to getting orders out to clients. We work together as a team. However, most of the time I spend my time on the technical development and marketing side. Jenny normally deals with clients, getting the orders out, keeping track of stock, etc. Since neither of us like dealing with the accounts, we have bookkeeper that keeps that end of it straight.
Lynsey: How do you factor family life into the daily reality of running a farm?
Michel: Family life is the farm. All the boys have grown up with the farm. They do not remember Jenny or me doing anything else. We are and have been always at home and available for them 24/7. The kids (all 4 of them) take absolute priority over the farm or business. Jenny spends a great deal of her time ensuring that the kids get all the opportunities to develop themselves. I concentrate on the business and making enough money to keep everything going. Two of our boys are now at university. They both call home on a regular basis and tell Jenny and I what’s been going on. We are a very close-knit family and take pride in each other’s achievements.
Lynsey: How do you find any staff if you need to employ?
Michel: Employing staff is the most difficult piece of the whole operation. Finding people who haven’t left their brains at the front gate really stretches one’s patience. For that reason, most of our growers are licensees of our growing system. They have a very strong financial interest in actually making sure that things run smoothly, the plants don’t die, and there is a decent crop for harvesting at maturity. When you employ people, we found that we spent more time keeping an eye on what they were doing. The growing of wasabi is totally different to what people normally expect, and to that end breaking their bad habits becomes difficult.
Lynsey: Are there special skills required for the harvesting propagation etc?
Michel: Yes, there are. All of these skills are straightforward and learnable. Once again, it comes down to thinking about what you are doing and what do you want the end result to be. This is true throughout the growing period anyway.
Lynsey: Is the need for staff exist throughout the year or is wasabi a seasonal crop?
Michel: Apart from keeping a regular (daily) eye on the crop the planting and harvesting periods are the most staff intensive. However, after a number of crops it is possible to spread the planting and harvesting throughout the growing period. This makes having a full time (or part time) helper very likely. Some growers prefer to plant and harvest all at one time, but we prefer harvesting little and often.
Lynsey: What would be required for you to expand your business – assuming you want to, of course.
Michel: Money, of course, but mainly people who share the vision. I know that sounds a bit rah rah, but we have found that being in this business that chasing money isn’t what it is all about.
Over the years we have coined a term for the ups and downs, we call it the “Wasabi two step”. It consists of one step forward, one step back, and two to the side. We appear to be standing still, but really we are slowly crabbing our way around the dance floor.
When we first started we thought that once we figured out how to grow wasabi, then finding a market (the Japanese one sprung immediately to mind) to pay us $100 a kilo would be easy. Not true – in fact we found dealing with the Japanese to be a very unsatisfactory proposition. The importers would lie to your face and then change terms of the contract as and when it suited them. We now no longer deal with them at all.
From that point we decided to develop our own markets, or shut shop. That took a lot of time, effort and education. Finally we have some big distributors on board who also share the vision. We then came up against the price and perception problem – 99% of all “wasabi” being sold is actually coloured horseradish.
Now we had to find a different market that would appreciate our 100% pure Wasabia japonica product. This was based on a decision that we were only going to provide the very highest quality product – others could debase it if they wanted to. Now, not only did we need to identify another potential market, but we also had to educate all links in the retail chain to the benefits of using our material. This involved more investment in time, effort and money to identify and support this potential new market.
The “wasabi two step” is on-going and where we will end up we truly do not know. One thing is certain, being true to our selves and our vision is where it is at with our company.
At this time we need more growers on the ground to supply our demanding clients with our new products. Having more marketers would also help. Not necessary employees, but people who can see the big picture and the path to get there. People who can think on their feet are also essential. We regard our operation as a cooperative between growers, processors and marketers. All parts of the three-legged stool are essential to maintain balance. In this day and age it appears that this cooperation in supply and demand has vanished from the farming scene, as supermarkets now dictate price, terms and requirements to growers, so that the supermarkets can retain the lions share of the profits. We believe that the profits should be split equally as we all need each other to succeed. To this end we operate a vertically integrated company where we control all aspects of the operation from growing to retail.
Lynsey: Have you developed improved or enhanced crops, or is wasabi still something of a wild, species plant?
Michel: Every crop we select for the best plants. These plants are then cloned for the next set of plants. In this way we are continually improving the plant stock. Relying on plant from seed is almost a lesson in futility. For a start, seed germination is a really hit and miss affair. Cloning preparation is really what sorts the men from the boys. Wasabi in its natural state is a “dirty” plant in a biological sense. Getting some to the point where they can be cloned takes a lot of time and expertise. We only provide cloned plants to our license holders. We do not supply plants to other potential growers.
One of the things we have found over the years is that if you try and help someone get started in this wasabi growing without any serious financial commitment from them to making it work, then they stuff it up. It is amazing the amount of potential growers who decided once they had some plants that they didn’t need to take any notice of what we told them to do in order to grow wasabi successfully. Even supplying our licensed growers with a detailed growing manual entails hours of time ensuring that they do not take short cuts, as what we tell them to do “does not make sense”.
Lynsey: What would be the ultimate accolade or success – the ‘academy award’ for wasabi?
Michel: I don’t really know. Some people already refer to us as “Mr. & Mrs. Wasabi”. For many years (over a decade) now we have been saying that wasabi contains chemicals that kill cancer cells. Now we have independent scientific proof that this is the case. We have offered the New Zealand Health Board as much wasabi as they want for free to help their cancer patients. To date, they have refused citing the fact that the FDA have not authorised the use of wasabi in the treatment of cancer in any form. This to me is a crock, as wasabi is a food and can be consumed by anyone at any time without any problems – apart from water being excreted from the eyes .
Along those lines, we believe our ultimate accolade would be seeing 100% pure Wasabia japonica being used successfully as a medical treatment. Then we will have achieved what we set out to do in 1990 – make a difference!
Lynsey: What environmental concerns are there feeding into and out of wasabi farming?
Michel: In New Zealand we have to deal with the Resource Management Act, which basically precluding the taking and discharge of water into the environment. Because of that we have developed a growing system that does neither. In Japan, they grow wasabi in modified streambeds and/or specially built growing beds (the last of which was built over 200 years ago – and now no one knows how to build). If we wanted to do the same the expense would be astronomical and then we couldn’t be sure after spending all that time and money that the Environment Court would allow it to be used. So we decided to remove this uncertainty all together by developing a system that can be put anywhere. In the town or in the country, the effect is still the same for the environment.
Lynsey: New Zealand is a long way from anywhere – is the local market sufficient to sustain the business, and is exporting a potential (or a reality)?
Michel: The local market does not exist, either here in New Zealand or Australia. That is slowly changing in New Zealand, but the Australian quarantine rules and the way they are interpreted ensures that it is almost impossible to get clearance to import the plants into Australia. 99.9% of all our products go to USA and Europe. We ship our 100% pure Wasabia japonica powder all over the world. With the Internet distance is no longer a problem. We are only as far away from our clients as a computer screen.
Lynsey: Has there been a time when it looked really bad – what happened and how did you manage if?
Michel: Initially, when we kept killing plants we thought that this was too hard. This was especially true when we realised that the “experts” were using our money to learn how to do things. Dumping the experts was the best thing that we did.
Another time I had some trades people do some work on our facility and although they assured me that they knew what they were doing, when we ended up with 200mm of water right through the facility on Good Friday evening we realised that they lied. Running around at that period trying to talk a tanker driver into making an emergency water delivery before midnight in order to stop some exotic plants dying was interesting.
The wasabi two-step struck us even before we erected our first growing facility. We had pegged out where it was to go, and we had surveyed the property to maximise the growing areas when the wasabi growing took off (how was that for confidence). Anyway I happened to be away when the builder turned up to put the foundations in. Jenny showed him the pegs and left him to it (our kids were very small at the time). She came back after about 4 hours to find that he had pulled up the pegs and thrown them away, moved the structure foundations some 10m from where we wanted it and had dug and started pouring the foundations. Needless to say Jenny was not very pleased. Neither was I when I found out. Ultimately the builder was not pleased either, as we refused to pay him. We should have realised then that we were going to have problems with this project .
Lynsey: Not everything is all bad. What has been the funniest experience?
Michel: The funniest experience had to be when we got paid (in cash) for our first crop. For some reason Jenny went out to the farm and did some work around the water system. When she came back she didn’t have the money with her anymore. It turned out it went into the system and disintegrated. We always said that the wasabi was made of money after that.
Lynsey: Where to from here?
Michel: This is another good question to end with. We will continue growing, processing and marketing, either by ourselves or with others. We have a book full of new products that we are working on. A number of these are unique and have never been available before. The number of people working with us will also grow as our vision strikes a chord with them. In the last 15 years most wasabi growers in the world have vanished as they remained in the only market they knew – food. We never had that outlook and will continue to invent, develop and bring into our fold completely new markets that do not have any preconceived ideas. We intend to shape those markets and ideas to benefit all people within our “cooperative”, and society as a whole. As I said before – we want to make a difference!
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