The Van Trump Report

What You Might Not Know About Wasabi, One of the Most Profitable and Difficult Crops in the World

If you’re a fan of Japanese food, you are likely familiar with the spicy green paste served alongside sushi that most everyone just calls “wasabi.” The tasty condiment gets its name from Wasabia japonica, aka Japanese horseradish. However, 95% of the so-called wasabi being served in sushi restaurants has absolutely no Japanese horseradish in it, relying instead on a mixture of plain horseradish and mustard, both of which are in the same plant family as wasabi. The substitution is almost entirely due to the cost. You can pick up a pound of standard horseradish root for just a few dollars but the same amount of wasabi can run upwards of $150. So why is this gnarly root so expensive?  

The answer comes down to wasabi being one of the most difficult plants in the world to grow, particularly at a commercial scale. There are Japanese farms that have perfected its cultivation over the course of literally thousands of years, passing this knowledge down through generations. In fact, it’s rare to see real wasabi outside of Japan. Originally known as “wild ginger”, it grows exclusive on the rocky banks of cold, freshwater rivers. Even in Japan where it grows naturally, however, the plant is crazy fickle.

It takes on average about 18 months for wasabi to reach maturity. During that time, the plants demand exacting conditions that include the presence of constantly running water, heavy shade, and a temperature range of only 46 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Think of fern-covered hills snaked with cool mountain springs and you have the perfect wasabi environment. If this sounds like a tough environment to duplicate and then grow into a commercial operation, you would be correct! Many have tried and most have failed.    

In the U.S., the Pacific Northwest is one area that has near-ideal conditions for wasabi cultivation. One of North America’s foremost experts is Dr. Brian Oates, a former marine botany researcher who now operates Pacific Coast Wasabi, one of only a handful of commercial wasabi farms in the country. He got started on a whim when someone asked him if he knew how wasabi could be grown in the U.S. A lot of experimentation (and failures) later, he discovered it is possible to grow wasabi here, “just not the same way the Japanese do.”

Pacific Coast grows all their wasabi in greenhouses but those are about the only details the company provides. They typically don’t even allow visitors in order to safeguard both their top-secret cultivation methods as well as the location of their extremely valuable crop, which some call “green gold.” Oates explains that he hasn’t even patented the technique, “because if we patented it we would have to tell everyone how we do it. It’s the same model that the guys at Coca Cola use. Have as few people as possible know the recipe.”

Oregon Coast Wasabi is a little more transparent. They grow around 20,000 plants in nine greenhouses. They cultivate “water grown” semi-aquatic wasabi utilizing a stream that runs behind their farm. Like Pacific Coast, they also use greenhouses, where they’ve disclosed that the plants are grown in shallow gravel and are irrigated from above. They actually acquired the method from Dr. Oates, who at one time licensed it to potential growers for $70,000. This franchise-like model helped to open nine other farms across the country, mostly in the Pacific Northwest but also in New York state…although the exact locations are top secret! Learn more about Pacific Coast Wasabi HERE.

In California, Jeff Roller and Tim Hall, two former electricians run commercial wasabi operation Half Moon Bay Wasabi. And they don’t seem to be as worried about their hard-earned trade secrets. Check out their operation and an interview sharing some of their trials and successes HERE.

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