Canadian wasabi farmer taps a hungry market - even in Japan

Without doing any marketing, grower of hard-to-cultivate plant attracts attention worldwide

Wasabi grown by Pacific Coast Wasabi Ltd. of British Columbia, Canada.

When Brian Oates was a student at the University of British Columbia in 1987, a friend in the movie industry approached him with an unusual question: Do you think you can grow wasabi in the Pacific Northwest?
“I guess they did a lot of wining and dining at sushi bars, and he got it in his head, ‘Hey, why are we eating all this imitation stuff?’” Oates said.
With sushi becoming increasingly popular, Oates agreed there might be a market for wasabi to replace the dyed green horseradish that most restaurants pass off as the real thing.
Real wasabi has a more refined flavour, Oates explains. It can be very hot, but with a sweetness. So, he went to the library and researched whether it was possible to cultivate on the West Coast of B.C. what many consider to be the hardest plant on earth to grow.
It turns out that it is possible. Today his methods are the trade secrets behind Vancouver-based Pacific Coast Wasabi Ltd., and he keeps them in a safety deposit box at the bank.
Before he could start growing, however, he had to find the seeds. Every time he thought he was close he was disappointed. So he visited the Japan External Trade Organization in Vancouver, which gave him an address for a wasabi company in Japan.
“That company is called Kinjirushi, and they somehow liked the idea and they sent me seeds,” said Oates. “The first batch was all dead, so I contacted them again and they sent me two more batches that were just perfect. And that’s what got it started.”
Today, the company operates as a franchise, with four farms in B.C., three in Washington state and one in New York. The contract growers get the plants and the method, and Pacific Coast Wasabi handles all the sales. The company’s biggest international market is the United States, but Oates usually avoids the hassle of international shipping by filling U.S. orders through his suppliers south of the border. The product sells wholesale for $180 to $300 a kilogram.
Demand for wasabi, however, is growing outside North America, too. The company’s first international customer was a small restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa. What that demonstrates is “how little production there is in the world,” said Oates.
The South African business found Pacific Coast Wasabi on the Internet. “We put this little website up and that’s really what has attracted everybody: growers, investors and customers,” said Oates.
PCW does not actively market because it lacks the capacity to keep up with demand. But that is about to change as it ramps up to fulfill two growing areas of its business: exports to Japan and biomedical applications.
Recently, a Japanese company reached out to Oates. In Japan, demand is going up and production is going down due to weather-related damage and increases in the cost of farming. “It is a huge opportunity for us,” said Oates, “but also a huge opportunity for them.”
The situation is not unlike when, in the mid-1990s, Japan started importing rice to meet its commitments to the World Trade Organization, Oates explained.
“Everybody said, ‘The market is going to hate this stuff and nobody’s going to eat it.’ Well, they were completely wrong and the Japanese buying public devoured rice from California,” said Oates. “So can we repeat that story? Well, we will know shortly.”
The company farms between four and five acres now and Oates reckons it will need 30 to supply the Japanese market and to expand into the biomedical field.
Beyond its culinary use, wasabi has a plethora of medicinal applications. “Our blue sky is the biomedical, and we’ve now formed a new company called Wasabia Inc.,” said Oates. “That is the company that’s going to capture the real headlines.”
Wasabi is used as an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory, and to ease symptoms of allergies, eczema and asthma. It is also purported to prevent cancer, bone calcification and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Wasabi is beginning to look like the next “superfood,” Oates says. Pacific Coast Wasabi’s website sales went crazy after Mehmet Oz, also known as Dr. Oz, mentioned the plant on his television show.
On one hand, Oates does not want to be associated with a fad that is here today and gone tomorrow, but that possibility is not something he’s too worried about.
“The Japanese have been growing wasabi for 1,100 years,” said Oates, “so it’s not going to go away.”

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