By Trish Weatherall
Published in the North Island Eagle newspaper April 7, 2017
With more than 30,000 plants growing in eight green houses, Malcolm Island Growers is the largest wasabi farm in North America.
Wasabi, the spicy condiment served with sushi, comes from a wasabi plant rhizome (the root-like part of the plant that actually grows above ground), and is one of the most difficult plants in the world to cultivate.
Traditionally grown in Japanese mountain streams, authentic sawa (water grown) wasabi is a relatively new crop in North America. The West Coast climate, with its mild winter and cool summers, provides perfect growing conditions for the herbaceous perennial.
Sointula residents Andrew Cole and Kyla Lee were searching for a profitable use for their Malcolm Island property, when they stumbled on wasabi farming.
“We love Sointula and we were looking for something to do here,” said Lee. “I was researching business opportunities and came across wasabi farming on the internet. I thought it was a unique and potentially prosperous venture.”
They connected with wasabi expert Dr. Brian Oates, founder of Pacific Coast Wasabi (PCW) in Vancouver, and set up a half-acre of greenhouse space in 2012, using locally-sourced gravel from Port McNeill’s Orca Sand and Gravel. Oates, previously a UBC botanist, has been researching wasabi for decades, and has developed trade secrets about the growing process, which he shares only with affiliated growers of Pacific Coast Wasabi.
Due to Japan’s dense population, the 2011 Tsunami, radiation from Fukushima, and the popularity of sushi world-wide, there is currently a world-wide wasabi shortage.
Lee points out that most of the ‘wasabi’ commercially available or served in restaurants is actually a combination of horseradish, mustard seed powder, and dye to achieve the recognized bright-green colour. Check the ingredients on store-bought wasabi and you are likely to find only 1% actual wasabi, she says. True wasabi is a light green rhizome that is ground fresh into a paste using a special ceramic grater (traditionally sharkskin graters are used), and must be consumed within 20-30 minutes before it loses its flavour and bite. Real wasabi rhizomes retail for about $200 per kilogram.
In 2014, with support from Community Futures, they expanded to a full acre, or 44,000 square feet of greenhouse space, and on average harvest between 30-50 kilograms per week. They ship the fresh product directly to Pacific Coast Wasabi which handles the sales and marketing.
Lee and Cole manage the day-to-day operations, but hire employees as needed to assist with things like harvesting or helping to install the shade cloth to protect the plants from the longer days of sunlight beginning in March.
Lee says the plant takes up to 18 months to maturity, but they don’t harvest it all at once.
“Ideally, to serve the culinary market, the product needs to be available year-round,” she said. “What we don’t harvest, the rhizomes just get bigger. So we are able to produce fresh rhizomes all year. It’s a nice luxury to have.”
The stem or ‘petiole’, leaves, and flowers also have culinary use as a flavourful garnish. But wasabi’s unique properties also contain bio-medicinal and nutraceutical uses says Lee, and she is excited about the potential for health and nutrition-related wasabi products.
“It’s kind of like the newest ‘super-food’, shown to be effective against a multitude of ailments, including cancer cell growth, seasonal allergies, and eczema. It is difficult to eat fresh wasabi on a daily basis. Consuming wasabi in pill form gives the consumer all the health benefits they desire and also gives us an opportunity to create a product with some shelf life.”
According to the PCW web site, wasabi produces a suite of biomedically active molecules called isothiocyanates. These compounds have been suggested to assist healthy living as antibiotics, anti-cancer agents, anti-inflammation agents and anticoagulants. PCW is already selling freeze-dried wasabi capsules as a dietary supplement on its web site, and Malcolm Island Growers has recently purchased their own freeze dryer. Together with PCW, Lee says Malcolm Island Growers is working on culinary and nutraceutical wasabi products, and has a web site currently in development.
Interest in Malcolm Island Growers and its unique crop is increasing. In February, North Island MLA Claire Trevena provided a statement to the House of Commons about this little-known and unique enterprise in Mount Waddington region. This September, CBC’s Radio-Canada will feature a segment on Malcolm Island Growers’ wasabi on Canadian celebrity chef Ricardo Larrivée’s cooking program.