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