LONDON — Britain’s first organic Japanese vegetable farm is flourishing as consumers in the United Kingdom become more health conscious and adventurous in their tastes.
For the last few years, Robin and Ikuko Williams have been organically growing a range of Japanese vegetables for restaurants as well as individual customers.
They started out with their 1,000 sq. meter garden, but increasing demand has seen them expand to two more plots totaling 27 hectares in east Sussex in the south of England.
Williams, 51, had always dreamed of working on the land and quit his job in information technology to set up the company Nama Yasai (Fresh Vegetables) in 2004.
He believed demand would increase for homegrown organic Japanese produce because most of the East Asian vegetables in Britain are shipped in from overseas and lack freshness.
His wife, Ikuko, however, was skeptical. She wondered whether many of the vegetables would really thrive in the notoriously fickle English weather.
Williams admits the climate is not ideal because Britain has wetter winters and drier summers than East Asia, but they learned to work with the weather while building a growing and loyal customer base.
They supply a wide range of vegetables to local restaurants, farmers markets and also deliver boxes of vegetables to families in the southeast, including many Japanese expatriates.
He said their most popular vegetables are “daikon” (Japanese radish), “edamame” (green soybean), “kabocha” (a winter squash), Japanese peppers, eggplants and “shiso” (Japanese spearmint) leaves.
“Everyone seems very happy with the taste. Since we started, the business has doubled,” he said.
“The problem we have sometimes is with the appearance of the vegetables. Customers who buy vegetables in the supermarket are unaware that they can come in all different sizes and colors.
“It’s exciting times for us and we have a lot of new developments. But it can be a very difficult business to be in because you’re vulnerable to pests and diseases. The natural balance has to be right because we don’t use any pesticides or herbicides. And this year we have only had a few centimeters of rain, which have left the crops under some stress.”
Despite the vegetables coming in a wide array of shapes and sizes, and being more expensive than cheap imports, the company has been able to attract customers with its guarantee of freshness.
The Williams are able to deliver the produce within hours of harvest so the nutritional value is retained. This is often lowered if the vegetables are transported from the other side of the world.
Ikuko advises on the kind of crops they should grow and about 90 percent of the seeds come from Japan.
The Gifu Prefecture native said, “It was Robin’s idea to set up the business, but I didn’t think the vegetables would grow in this climate. I wasn’t keen, but he persuaded me and we are happy doing it.
“Every time I go back to Japan we try and source seeds because there are more varieties and better quality than in Britain.”
Ikuko, who met Williams while studying in Brighton, had a career in international development before joining her husband in the business. She now juggles her work with looking after their young child.
“I quite like doing physical work and always helped my parents grow things in Japan . . . so what I’m doing now is not too strange for me,” she said.
Although Japanese food is becoming increasingly popular, few people try to cultivate Japanese vegetables in their gardens. Ikuko said, however, that she knows of several people who are growing “mizuna” (a peppery leaf) in their vegetable patches. And some farms have specialized in providing certain East Asian crops, such as edamame, for big supermarkets.
In the future, the couple hopes to harvest fruit — they have planted several “yuzu” (citrus) trees and they want to refine their vegetable growing techniques to improve quality.
They would also like to hear from any agricultural students in Japan who might want to try their hand working on the farm while staying with them and getting an opportunity to see British life.