Wasabia japonica – a grower’s story part II

image from www.daiowasabi.co.jp << Wasabi japonica – a grower’s story part 1 << The second part of the inteview with Michel Van Mellaerts from New Zealand Wasabi Ltd continues:

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.

Part three continues…>>

Disclaimer: I have no association with New Zealand Wasabi Ltd.

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