It’s known as the world’s most fickle crop. With a preference for high-altitude riverbeds, wasabi plants have farmers scaling mountains and re-engineering streams, all in the name of producing the peppery sushi pairing. But they’re often thwarted when, with the slightest dip in temperature, the plants sprout tiny, unsalable stems. Now a B.C. company believes it can improve on that temperamental process by bringing the crop indoors.
Sliding open the gate of his Nanoose Bay, B.C., greenhouse, Blake Anderson reveals a sprawling carpet of emerald-green wasabi plants. “This is just the beginning,” he says. Anderson’s three-greenhouse wasabi farm is the most recent to begin growing crops for Pacific Coast Wasabi (PCW), which developed the method for producing wasabi in greenhouses—but it’s already proving to be the most successful. By adding a computer-controlled sprinkler system to PCW’s technology, Anderson has reduced wasabi’s typical two-year growing time by 38%—and he thinks he can knock another three months off of that. When PCW builds an additional 60 greenhouses on his property, the 10-acre operation will be home to more than 300,000 plants. That has Anderson speculating that, with the help of consumers’ more refined palates and a new frontier in pharmaceuticals, his acreage could soon be a $10-million operation.
More and more North American sushi lovers are waking up to the fact that the green dollop next to their dynamite roll is not, in fact, true wasabi, but rather a crude blend of horseradish and green food colouring. So, increasingly, high-end consumers and chefs alike are demanding the real thing.
“The true wasabi really has its own flavour—and it’s really, really tasty,” says Anderson.
When his 15,000 plants mature next spring, fresh wasabi roots—worth around $120 per kilogram—will be loaded daily onto trucks bound for restaurants and grocery stores across southern B.C.
However, PCW, started by former University of B.C. botanist Brian Oates, is betting it’ll find its real gold mine in pharmaceuticals. Not only can PCW fetch a higher price for its wasabi in pill form, but it can also make use of the entire plant, instead of just the root cluster. Wasabi is already credited in health-food stores for fighting allergies, cancer, even hair loss. PCW now has scientists studying the plant in hopes it can sell wasabi as a government-regulated medicinal product.
“In the biomedical markets, all projections are we can sell for double what we’re selling for in the culinary market,” says Anderson. He estimates it will take between $10 million and $16 million of investment to get to that point, and health regulations require long testing periods. But Anderson isn’t deterred by the long-term outlook. Looking over his budding crop, he says, “I’m extremely confident that it’s going to work out very, very well.”