Who is a Wasabi Grower?
What makes a wasabi grower?
This is a question that has haunted my wife and I for many years. When we started growing in 1990 there was no information around and it was all trial and error. Now there is some information available (not all of it reliable), that makes the potential wasabi grower feel more comfortable.
The reality is that is a false sense of security.
When people become interested in growing wasabi, they assume that they just have to follow a method and do a list of things, and then they have a crop of wasabi that will be snapped up by eager customers.
Over the years we have had almost a full spectrum of wasabi growers with their own agendas for becoming wasabi farmers.
- Becoming rich and famous
- Getting a lot of money without doing much work
- Stealing our clients and market
- Computer system runs the growing operation and all they have to do is provide the money
- Unlimited demand for fresh wasabi and therefore a license to print money
- Buyers find them – no need to look for customers
A couple of weeks ago I read a book that brought this concern to the fore again, and this time we think that we ended up with the insight we needed.
The missing thing from most (95%+) of the potential growers that we have met and helped over the years was the desire and drive to produce the best wasabi plant they can.
It is our belief that this driving obsession to produce the best possible wasabi plant to sell to a customer is what makes a good wasabi grower.
When we look back at when we started we worked with the plants in the growing environment for 8 – 10 hrs. a day, 7 days a week until the plants were mature enough to harvest (approx 2 years). Then we go back to the house each night and spend another 2 – 3 hrs. trying to figure out where we were going to sell the product. That actually turned out to be more difficult than growing the plants. 🙂
Anyway, as we got better at what we were doing with growing the wasabi plants we started introducing pieces of equipment that enabled us to concentrate on what the wasabi plants needed to grow big and strong. This equipment included pH control, internal and water temperature controls and a number of automatic systems that are now standard in most greenhouse growing environments.
This did not mean that we ignored carrying out the manual checks for all these environmental parameters, what it meant was that we had a back up system that let us know if something was going wrong before we spotted it ourselves. We still manually checked and documented the temperature, pH, RH, and a whole range of other things. Why did we do this?
The reason revolved around the fact that automation is OK, but the software doesn’t think or link things together. When you are doing the measurement and notations yourself, AND inspecting and mollycoddling the wasabi plants at the same time, a pattern starts to emerge that links the wasabi plants growth and health patterns with the growing and external environment.
When talking to wasabi growers who have used our growing system (and others), one thing that became clear was the fact that the wasabi grower was spending on average 1 hour or less in the growing facility per day, and mostly Monday to Friday only. The rest of the time they relied on the automation system to run the operation.
This seems like a reasonable thing to do. After all they have spent all this money on this equipment and want to get some benefit from it. Right?
Wrong! What they found was that when they went to harvest the wasabi plants they were not as large or plentiful as they thought. A number had died and rotted in place, some were tiny, where others were large. Overall, the inconsistency in the mature wasabi plants showed the lack of care lavished on them.
When we look back at our experiences some 20 years ago, we realise that we had to do our apprenticeship in order to become a bone-fide wasabi grower.
It took us some 2½ years to finally get a saleable wasabi crop. When you look at that it worked out to approximately 10,000 hours of being in the growing facility, getting cold and wet and working all the time with the wasabi plants. This 10,000 hours of experience seems to be the minimum amount of time it takes to be good at any sort of activity. When I did my technical apprenticeship it was 10,000 hours minimum – now it is significantly less as skills are lost from the workforce. The reliance is on on-going education rather than putting in the time up front.
That can also apply to wasabi growing!
But, it still means that the new wasabi grower has to spend the maximum time possible looking at, touching and observing the wasabi plants. It can’t be obtained from books, or relying on automation and computers to do the work for them.
When you look at the worlds’ wasabi growers, the Japanese growers are families that have been growing wasabi for centuries – the knowledge required is absorbed by the children as they grow up. The Taiwanese have only been growing wasabi since the Chinese revolution and haven’t quite reached that stage yet. The Chinese grow their wasabi in the ground in enormous quantities, but purely as a commercial (cash crop) enterprise with no growing history. The rest of world is still catching up.
A wasabi grower is effectively made up of three parts. If one is missing or defective in some way (however small), then like a three-legged stool it will shake and wobble.
Firstly, it needs someone who understands the money aspect of the enterprise. Do they have or can they raise the money required to become a wasabi grower? It isn’t just a matter of throwing money at it and hoping everything will be alright. The business plan must be well constructed and stable. Have the negative aspects of failure as well as the positive aspects been calculated and accepted? What are the chances for either success or failure? What positive aspects of the proposed enterprise are in your favour, and what don’t you know?
It is this last part that is important – what don’t you know?
Secondly, you need someone who is prepared to spend their 10,000 hour apprenticeship getting wet and dirty day in, and day out, with no holidays until the first crop has matured. They need to be able to follow instructions and not be innovators. The descriptor that seems to apply to these people is “compulsive obsessives”. They need to build some or all of the growing facility themselves. If they rely on others to do this then when something goes wrong (and it will), they will not know what to do. I suppose at this point most of you are saying “We will get someone out from town to fix it”. Let me tell you a little true story about this.
It was on a Good Friday and we had the town tradesmen installing a larger water filter that week. They installed it in the main water line and it was all bolted up and put on line on the Thursday night. On the Friday morning the coupling on the filter burst and within a few minutes we had six inches (150mm) of water through the growing facility. We heard the coupling explode in the house, which was 50 metres away. We rushed out, shut down the system and discovered the problem. Because it was a holiday over Easter, there were no tradespeople available or even interested in coming out and repairing the problem. It fell to us to fix it. We did fix it and also had to arrange to get some replacement water into the system before the wasabi plants died. We also managed to do this as well by calling in some favours from the locals. If we had not built the system ourselves and had materials available on site, and known who to call, our wasabi growing enterprise would have stopped right there. You need to be able to fix things yourself and know who you can rely on in an emergency. Do not be afraid of getting your hands dirty.
Thirdly, the final leg of the three-legged stool is marketing. The wasabi grower needs to be able to sell their crop for a price that at least covers the cost of production. When you look on the Internet you can see that the retail price of fresh wasabi rhizome is high (in some cases extremely high). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that is what you are going to sell all your crop for that amount. Let me tell you, that is just not going to happen. If you get paid 20% of that price you are doing well. Expect to get paid 5 – 7% of the retail price and you are likely to be closer to the truth. There are just too many people taking a cut on the way from you to the retailer. In Japan alone there is normally up to 40 steps between the wasabi grower and the end-user, and every one of these will be taking a cut. Now, if you want to be a price taker then go with the flow and take what is being offered by a buyer. If, however you want to make the best return for all your hard work then you will need to market the crop yourself. This means that you need to be someone who at least understands marketing or is willing to learn. You also need to figure out what you going to do if you can’t find enough buyers at the right price for all of your crop – this is Plan B.
So, now we have a definition of the type of person who makes a successful wasabi grower.
- They must be a compulsive obsessive about growing the very best wasabi plant they can. Be continually inspecting checking and mollycoddling the plants.
- Understands money or where to get it and control it.
- Understands marketing and how to get the best return for the wasabi crop.
In my view, the most important attribute required is the first one. You must love the wasabi plant and be prepared to do almost anything to produce the best that you can. You will be continually learning, tweaking the system and improving your growing stock. You must eat, live and breathe wasabi. That is a wasabi grower.
Here is a short video (10 mins) that I made about who is a Wasabi Grower. You can watch it here.
Growing Wasabi is not a corporate venture.
To be a Wasabi Grower people need to have a significant amount of skin invested into the project. When it is their business, their money and their ability to provide for their families at stake then the mindset changes.
Just being a manager who gets paid irrespective of the final outcome is, we have found, a recipe for failure.
Growing Wasabi requires a person who is fully invested and committed to making it work. Even if that means they stay up all night to fix or solve a problem. Going home when your paid hours are up is not an option. You can do that when you on a wage or salary.