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Root of the problem: Wasabi farmer breaks tough ground on Bainbridge Island
Wasabi, as most people know it, comes in the form of a green paste on the edge of our Happy Hour sushi platter.
It’s spicy, salty with a little sweet zest, but mostly straight hot.
What most people don’t know, however, is that this paste that turns up at sushi bars isn’t really wasabi. It’s typically horseradish, mustard, food coloring and water.
Real wasabi is hard to come by. Even wasabi farmers in Japan have thinned out their production.
This is what farmer, scientist and island native Cathy Chadwick is looking to change in the U.S. with Fresh Wasabi Farms.
“Horseradish has one reaction when the air hits it: hot. Boom!” Chadwick said. “But when you hit wasabi, wasabi gets that same thing, but it has an equal reaction which is a carbohydrate: sugar.”
With real wasabi, one enjoys the vegetable freshness of sweet and hot at the same time.
“The wasabi that you get at sushi bars is ketchup; not bad stuff,” Chadwick said. “But not at all like a farm-fresh tomato.”
Over the past few decades in Japan, she explained, farmers have gone out of the wasabi business because it’s too risky and difficult to grow. Also, Japanese farmers know if they stick to vegetables the government will support them no matter if they have a good growing season.
Chadwick comes from a Bainbridge family with multiple generations of farmers. But as the daughter of a diplomat, she spent much of her childhood in Asian countries, including Japan.
She returned to the U.S. in time for college where she completed her undergraduate degree at University of California-Davis in soil and water science. After another stint in Japan for two years, she then made her way to Washington State University in Pullman to complete her master’s degree in agronomy.
There, under Dr. Thomas Lumpkin in Asian crop studies, Chadwick put together a proposal for growing wasabi in the U.S.
Her graduate work gained support from the state and recognition from wholesalers in Japan.
“My intention the whole time,” Chadwick said, “was to bring to Washington state something that would make agriculture more viable.”
Washington, said Chadwick, just so happens to have the perfect climate for growing the spicy-sweet root.
She began by working in several greenhouses throughout western Washington before she brought the plant to Bainbridge Island where her grandfather spent years growing rhododendrons before her.
For the past few years she has worked to build up nutritious soil and set up shop on what was formerly the Dosono family raspberry farm.
Still, despite her upbringing and extensive background in the crop, the island has proven itself a difficult place to start a commercial farm.
Chadwick has hit wall after wall to develop her land since she began making major changes in April.
First, she was notified by the city that she needed to update her stormwater management plan to include the gravel and greenhouses being brought onto the land.
Second, considering the amount of gravel needed, she also needed to submit a grade and fill permit. Both after-the-fact permit requests would ensure her farm controlled potential erosion.
Moreover, confusion with building permits and lot coverage requirements required Chadwick’s crew to give in to several do-overs on the site.
“There’s so many laws on development, on all these things which interact with farming that we can’t possibly do,” Chadwick said.
Several years ago, Chadwick explained, she attended a farming meeting. One of her friends and
a fellow farmer stood up and asked a state representative if there was any way farmers can’t break a law.
“The guy, told the truth,” Chadwick said. “He said, no. You’re going to break a law; some law.
“I was like, ‘You can’t say that to him!’” Chadwick continued. “You have to say there’s some hope, there’s some system. We can be doing something right. We’re not going to be fighting someone all the time.”
To comply with the city’s zoning and building codes, Chadwick removed the wood paneling from her 30-by-148-square-foot greenhouses and transformed two structures into shaded nurseries. By doing that, they could then be considered temporary structures.
Also, according to the city’s zoning code, she is limited to just 10 percent lot coverage on her property. To do this, she plans to remove her household woodshed and hot house. This still puts her about 6,000 square feet past the limit.
It is a process with many hurdles, and to get through it with her business still intact she has petitioned to have the lot coverage code go before city council to be changed in the coming year.
The city’s planning director, Kathy Cook, explained that the city has their hands full for the rest of the year and has not yet scheduled when Chadwick’s code change petition will go before the council.
One unhappy neighbor, Gary Bonzon, said he has made it his new full-time job to figure out what is going on.
As a former residential contractor, he wants to make sure the new farm doesn’t become an eyesore on the back of his own property.
“I would like to see adequate buffers established; I would like to see accountability,” Bonzon said.
“If you don’t enforce it right now, then you’re rewarding the wrong kind of behavior because you’re allowing them to get permits after-the-fact,” he said.
Another concern for Bonzon was the potential environmental impacts on the neighborhood’s aquifers.
As a part-time water quality scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency, Chadwick assures, this is where her expertise comes into play.
“You don’t feed wasabi very strong nutrients, you can’t. If you do, you end up with leaves,” Chadwick explained. “I feed generally anywhere from 10 to 100 times lighter than you would, say, a tomato.”
Also, the fertilizer and bed material she uses is all WSDA certified organic.
In the era of the Dosono family’s raspberry farm, organic farming was unheard of in the preserves industry. The land was almost completely depleted. So, additionally, Chadwick’s job has also been to build the soil up with gravel-like glacial till.
When it comes to water going through the beds of organic matter and fertilizer, she has little worry.
“My houses are far away from my well and anybody’s well that the percolation into that system — I’m a soil and water scientist, so it’s not like I didn’t come to this thinking — if the percolation into the system is great enough that there’s anything left over, it’s organic,” Chadwick explained.
The nature of organic material, as opposed to chemicals, is that any living organism can eat it; plants and animals alike.
“When you have a farm next to people in a city, what my desire is for city folks … is they need to know the farmer, if he does something to his land, and if I do something to my water, I’m dead,” Chadwick said. “If I use too much of it. If I pollute it.”
Once everything settles down at the farm, Chadwick plans to have a party for the family, friends and workers that came out and helped.
She also plans to have a neighborhood party to let them know what’s been going on.
“I’m just optimistic at some point everything will slow,” she said.