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Following is the text of an article published in the Richmond News (British Columbia) newspaper on January 8, 2003:


8-Jan-2003

Farming the future's hottest new crop

By Trudi Beutel

It's the story of the botanist, the businessman and the farmer.

And if the ending's a happy one, the partnership could result in the development of a profitable new commodity for farmers who have been struggling to find something profitable to grow.

Brian Oates, Steven Archer and Bill Jones are Pacific Coast Wasabi Ltd. For the past handful of years, the trio has been monitoring an experiment underway at an east Richmond greenhouse.

The goal is to produce real wasabi which, incidentally, isn't that play-doh-like lump of green paste that comes with every order of sushi. What we westerners commonly believe to be wasabi is nothing more than an edible concoction made from ordinary horseradish, Chinese mustard and green food colouring.

Real wasabi, generally seen outside Japan in high-end restaurants, is a finely-grated root, the rhizome, of the plant known as Wasabia Japonica. Like its distant English cousin, watercress, the best wasabi is semi-aquatic and grows either near mountain streams or in their pebbly shallows.

It's never been successfully produced in a controlled environment.

Until now.

"We've tricked the plant into thinking it's still growing in a river," said Brian Oates, standing near the Westminster Highway greenhouse in which the research - still classified as "top secret" - is on going.

Oates, a UBC professor of botany, began his sideline tinkering with wasabi production in 1987. After he could routinely produce seeds, germinate and grow them in a greenhouse, Oates joined forces three years ago with Steven Archer, a businessman, who was raised by missionary parents in Japan. Archer's role was to determine what economic benefits commercially-propagated wasabi could possess.

Familiar with wasabi and its rarified status in North America, Archer was intrigued when Oates revealed to him he'd developed a way by which wasabi could be cultivated in a greenhouse setting.

"I thought it would be impossible to grow in a greenhouse so I passed it off as a ridiculous concept," Archer said.

"I eventually went ahead with the business plan and became intrigued with the project."

With the plant propagation and business plan in place, the pair needed land.

Enter Richmond farmer Bill Jones, who's now acting as the project's agrarian. Like many Richmond farmers, Jones has an abundance of land, but few growing options with which to make a profit.

With cannery crops - peas, beans and corn - having long ago disappeared from the Richmond landscape, many local farmers have turned to cranberries in an attempt to harvest profits from their agricultural land. While cranberry prices are looking good in the short-term, the long-term picture isn't as positive.

For this reason, Jones hopes farmers will eventually find some economic relief in a plant that can not only be eaten, but shows promise in the nutraceutical sectors as a fighter of osteoporosis and of tooth decay.

But for now, the project's focus is almost entirely culinary.

Armed with a traditional Japanese wasabi grater, a hand-held ceramic paddle lined with a sandpaper-like strip of sharkskin, Jones is happy to grate away while his colleagues discuss the business of wasabi.

Pulverizing the root into a gummy-green paste against the rough shark skin, Jones clearly likes his wasabi without the requisite chunk of raw fish. He's eating the roots of his labour as quickly as he can grate it.

"Taste this," he says, foisting the paddle in my direction. "You've got to taste the real thing. There's a bit of heat, and then it slowly spreads through your mouth."

Fresh wasabi's potency comes from its active enzyme, isothiocyanate. ITC, for short. The enzyme is released through the grating process, but dissipates quickly. Fresh wasabi loses its powerful punch within 15 minutes of grating. For this reason, real wasabi is always sold as a fresh product, and not packaged into tubes to which water must be added before it is ready to eat.

Funded by Agriculture Canada, and supported with Revenue Canada research-and-development tax credits, the wasabi project, it's hoped, will breathe life into the local long-suffering agricultural sector that is land rich, yet commodity poor.

"The idea here is to take land that's worth $100,000 an acre and make it productive agriculturally," said Jones, a nursery owner who's been in business in Richmond since 1972.

Wasabi been been cultivated in Japan for 1,200 years. Several Lower Mainland farmers have tried their hand at cultivating field-grown wasabi, or "oka."

That wasabi, though, differs greatly from the semi-aquatic variety, "sawa," and doesn't garner the high price gourmands worldwide are willing to pay for a chunk of rhizome not much larger than a good-sized thumb.

This past fall, Pacific Coast Wasabi went into commercial production, raising 12,000 plants for dedicated harvest alongside the 30,000 it already has under experimental cultivation. The company is experimenting with the Daruma and Mazuma varieties.

Demand for the resulting wasabi has been steady, with on-line orders coming in from as far away as Hawaii, Toronto, New York, and North Carolina.

A portion of the crop has also been made available at high-end food markets in Vancouver and is selling retail for $200 to $250 per kilogram.

"You get the idea pretty quickly that it's a high-end crop," Jones said.

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