Island crop a hot commodity

NANAIMO – World's largest wasabi farm sets up first greenhouses in Nanoose.

If you have a spare $160,000 kicking around you might consider investing in a cash crop taking root on Vancouver Island that’s the hottest thing since, well, California rolls.

Vancouver Island Wasabi is coaxing its first crop out of three greenhouses set up on four hectares in Nanoose.

It’s the first wasabi farm on the Island and if built out to its maximum capacity – plans call for up to 63 greenhouses on the site – will be the largest wasabi greenhouse growing site in the world.

The plants are being grown under license from Pacific Coast Wasabi, a research company with wasabi growing operations in Abbotsford.

Unlike the flavoured horse radish mixtures added as an inexpensive condiment to sushi dishes, real wasabi is a plant grows naturally in stream beds of mountain river valleys in Japan. The plant, grown for its root, which is used as a condiment that tastes like hot mustard, is a member of Brassicaceae family that includes cabbage, horseradish and mustard. The plant is also considered a remedy to alleviate symptoms of various illnesses.

The traditional method for farming wasabi involves diverting portions of freshwater streams to artificial water courses deeply shaded by tree canopies – wasabi doesn’t like a lot of light – where the plants are raised. The method is highly water intensive and any fertilizers used pollute the water.

Governments are legislating against water course diversion for agriculture and further pressure on Japanese wasabi production came in 2011 when radiation contaminated farmland when one of the Fukushima nuclear reactors overheated after the facility was struck by tsunami waves that disabled its cooling system.

Attempts to grow Wasabi under artificial conditions failed until research conducted over the last 20 years developed greenhouse farming methods that use little water and allow farmers to maintain an optimum growing environment.

“No one’s been able to grow it in a controlled, closed environment before because everyone has been using the concept that you need running water,” said Michael Naprawa, company spokesman.

Wasabi does need a fresh water supply to sustain the plants and prevent disease, but it turns out the plants aren’t fussy about wether it’s supplied by a stream or overhead sprinklers.

“We use .06 of one per cent of the water in the traditional models of hydroponics,” Naprawa said. “What we put on the plants, 99 per cent is consumed by the plants. We control exactly what the plants need at any given time. Temperate increases, dryness – we can do it.”

A separate set of overhead foggers maintain humidity levels in the greenhouses.

Wasabi likes high humidity levels in the 100 per cent range, which occur naturally where it is grown in Japan. The plants wouldn’t survive outdoors in the Island’s lower summertime humidity levels. The farm’s proximity to the ocean helps even out the temperature range year ’round.

The greenhouse watering and heating equipment is computer controlled.

“The plants like to be between 10 and 14 degrees (C) year around,” said Blake Anderson, grower. “If they can have that year ’round they’re happy.”

Wasabi also grows best under natural light, which means grow lights are unnecessary and neighbours won’t have to worry about light pollution. Anderson is installing shade cloth over the greenhouses for the summer months.

“The plants are so efficient with photosynthesis they don’t need much sunlight,” Anderson said.

The farm is growing Daruma and Mazuma wasabi, the two most commonly cultivated varieties, in three 622 square metre greenhouses and about 4,900 plants are being raised in each greenhouse.

The plants flower in tiny blue blossoms in February. The leaves and flowers are edible,  taste hot and sweet and would make part of an interesting salad. Deer don’t like them.

“Humans are the only ones that like it,” Anderson said. “No other animal does.”

Wasabi retails for about $240/kg. Each greenhouse could produce up to 1,000 kg.

“In the traditional method, it takes 18 to 24 months to grow it out,” Naprawa said. “We’re growing it out in 12 to 15 months, so we’ve cut our time by 50 to 70 per cent. That’s why it becomes commercially viable. To invest in infrastructure you need some advantages.”

A Vancouver Island site was also chosen, Naprawa said, because of its clean air, lack of industrial pollution, the climate and the fact the Island is well known, which all make the product easier to brand and promote.

Greenhouses will be added at the site as investors commit.

“$160,000 gives you the greenhouse, the license and the first crop paid for to harvest,” Naprawa said.

“That includes fertilizer, utilities, nutrients and the labour and everything to plant and harvest,” Anderson said.

Production costs drop after the first harvest.