In 1990 Jenny and Michel decided that their engineering consultancy in Palmerston North, New Zealand needed to move north to Auckland in order to ensure a sufficient workload.
After a number of months searching for a house in which to raise their brood of three small boys, a property was found approximately 1 hour north of Auckland at a place called Warkworth. This property consisted of a large house, and 5 acres of land which was set up as a Nashi pear orchard. They moved in, sent one of the boys off to the local country school and promptly produced another boy. At that stage it was not anticipated that the property was to be used for anything other than a lifestyle block.
After a few months Michel and Jenny became increasingly eager to try and use the property to become more self sufficient and to work for themselves, not others. A large number of projects were looked at ranging from a nursery, flower and vegetable production and eventually raising Kunekune pigs which are a rare breed of vegetarian pig in New Zealand. The idea was that there was a requirement from lifestylers and small farmers for an animal which was able to keep the grass down by eating almost anything without being as destructive as sheep, cattle and goats. Within six months of starting on this project however, the raising of Kunekune pigs became widespread and the market vanished, almost overnight.
At this point it became apparent that if they were to earn a living from their 5 acres then they had to find something that was difficult to produce, returned a good return on their investment and was legal.
By chance, one evening returning from taking the family out to one of the 20 beaches available locally, the television was flicked on and part of the end item on rural life was seen. In this quick view, the main points obtained was that a product called Wasabi was presently being trialled in Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand and it commanded a price in the region of NZ$120.00 per kilo in Japan.
Jenny and Michel had never heard of this product but decided to research Wasabi to discover if there was a market and if so, what was the size of production. Their research showed them that there was a market for Wasabi in Japan, and that there appeared to be a world-wide shortage of it. With this minimal amount of information they decided to find out how to grow this Wasabi in a manner that enabled a good return on the time and money invested.
The information available described how farmers in Japan grew Wasabi in its native mountain streams, and that over the centuries growing beds for Wasabi had been built in these streams using rocks. As this type of production was not possible on their property it appeared that the project may have terminated right there. However, a visit to a trial being run at a trout hatchery indicated that the conditions favoured by the original Japanese farmers would be difficult to replicate in New Zealand, and other methods should be looked at.
The scientist in charge of the Wasabi research stated that he was able to devote only one day per month to Wasabi, the rest of his time being taken up with other potential food crops. Therefore, it became apparent to Jenny and Michel that if they were to make any headway at all they had to get some plants and set up trials of their own.
Plants were obtained and trials started in their front garden so that they could keep a close eye on the plants and observe any changes quickly. For the first 9 months the trials went very well, and then almost over night the whole crop died without warning. Previous to this happening there had been no mention that at some point in the growth cycle the Wasabi would start deteriorating. The growing method was rigorously evaluated and a second growing facility was added in order to compare growing methods. The second growing method was substantially different from the first which had been based on the information available, and resulted from the observations that Jenny and Michel had made on the first crop. A second crop of plants were purchased and the trials started again. Once again the Wasabi died almost at the same point in their growing cycle as before. This time though it was observed that tell tale signs in their growing behaviour indicated some sort of stress in the plants. Half of the plants were removed to another trial growing system, where the growing parameters were more controllable than previous. The transplanted plants survived, but the original plants left in the original trial died as before.
Jenny and Michel had now to make a decision to either carry on and spend more money, or to quit. Before deciding, another market research exercise was carried out. The results indicated that the original market for fresh Wasabi in the Japanese market had vanished, and the majority of restaurants and other users were using Wasabi paste and powder in preference to fresh Wasabi. More market research was commissioned to ascertain the size and shape of this paste and powder market, in order to be able make the decision to carry on or to stop.
All of the "experts" that Michel and Jenny had spoken to, both in Japan and New Zealand, said that hydroponic systems had been tried and had failed previously, and that the sensible method of growing Wasabi in New Zealand was in the ground. However, market research had shown that ground grown Wasabi produced an inferior product to that grown in water, and the demand was for high quality water grown wasabi.
More trials were started as Jenny and Michel had made a subconscious decision that they could use some sort of hydroponic system to produce high quality water grown Wasabi. They had no idea of what sort of system they would need and how it would work. As a Professional Engineer Michel felt that this problem was not insurmountable. Many trials were made using all the existing available systems, during the course of which several important discoveries were made. The biggest problem was that it was not going to be cheap to develop, all of the special equipment and the growing system would need to be designed, and if necessary patented to protect their interests.
Eventually it was decided that they believed in themselves and the product enough to proceed. They believed they had enough hard information and observations to build a growing system that would produce very high quality Wasabi in an organic manner on a commercial scale.
The growing system was designed and built by Jenny and Michel on the back part of their lifestyle block after cutting down a number of pear trees and meeting the exacting conditions of the local council placed on them in order to get a building permit. What could go wrong did go wrong. Electricians connected motors through control circuits thereby blowing fuses, power and water supplies were installed undersized, plumbing was installed incorrectly. Even the builder decided that the pegged site was in the wrong place and poured the concrete base in the wrong position. Maybe if Jenny and Michel had had any sense they would have quit, but they had a vision and were not prepared to stop now.
The initial growing system needed a large number of modifications in order to gain the optimal growing conditions for the Wasabi plants. Those modifications are ongoing as more information is obtained. The research information indicated that Wasabi flowered once per year with two growing flushes. Their growing system allowed the plant to flower three times within the first twelve months, and produce five growth flushes. In addition to this the pungency and flavour of the plant was increased.
Now that they knew that a commercially sized crop was going to be available within 18 months of planting, it was time to start processing trials. They had decided prior to building the growing system that in order to achieve a reasonable return a fully processed product had to be produced for direct sale to the public. Selling through distributors, wholesalers and retailers reduced the return to a point where it would barely cover costs and neither of them regarded that method of marketing as being very satisfactory.
Original production trials indicated that the raw product was exceedingly pungent and required that all production staff wear breathing apparatus when the processing run was carried out. These processing trials showed that two grades of Wasabi paste could be produced, the mildest one would be slightly hotter than that presently available, and also a very hot one for the connoisseurs of Wasabi.
Over the years Michel and Jenny have carried out their trials, researched every avenue that they could find to get information on Wasabi, and listened to the market place. Deep inside both of them a spark flared into life as they came to the realisation that what they were doing was right on the edge of the unknown. That spark had grown to a fire, and was destined to become a driving passion to start a new industry in New Zealand and produce the best possible product in the world.
After 19 years that passion is still there. Jenny and Michel are always thinking and talking about Wasabi, its various properties and wonders.
There were still modifications and alterations to make for a new larger growing system which would enable them to double their output without sacrificing the taste and quality of the Wasabi that they presently grow. These developments have led to a system that will allow high quality wasabi to be grown anywhere in the world.
Jenny and Michel have now grown the demand for their wasabi based products to where they cannot do all the work themselves anymore. They have tried using managers and employees to help them, but that has been unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. In May 2002 it was decided that a License system should be set up on a world-wide basis to try and meet the increasing demand. Therefore, if you have a desire to become involved with a successful growing system then contact us who will send more information. They are also looking for Master Licensees for a number of areas. The Namida® License system covers propagation, growing, processing and marketing of wasabi in all forms. The development of more products continue, as does the demand.
By February 2005 we have signed up growers in Europe and the US to provide the very best Wasabia japonica products to our growing list of clients. We have also released a Neutracutical grade of 100% Pure Namida® Wasabia japonica powder to the Nutritional and Supplement market. The first in the world.
In addition to working, thinking, dreaming (and having nightmares about) Wasabi, both Jenny and Michel have raised 4 boys, earned a living and remained relatively sane. They remain happily married and are looking forward to continuing to establish an international presence for the New Zealand Wasabi industry with the help of like minded people like you.
Michel and Jenny have now retired from active participation in the Wasabi business except for special projects. You will find others have taken up the mantle to help people use and understand the benefits of wasabi. You can contact them here.
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Last update: 23rd December 2016
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