Chie Nishimura plans to change the world, one jar at a time.
In 2016 she founded Farm Canning, a small food business in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, where she turns “unsellable” organic vegetables into beautiful edibles that support organic farmers and reduce food waste.
“My vision is to spread sustainable food in Japan and support sustainable producers,” Nishimura says. “If I create some new system for those farmers, it also means customers get organic food more easily and at a lower price.”
Born in Tokyo, Nishimura first tasted organic food as a high school exchange student in Germany where her host mother, a vegetarian, worked at a small natural food store.
“I came from a very typical (Japanese) family,” Nishimura says, “so I didn’t know anything about organic food or ecological living. This was a real turning point in my life.”
After graduating from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Nishimura managed an organic cafe in Tokyo. During her search for organic farmers and producers to supply it, she learned about Japan’s food system and the challenges organic farmers faced. One of these is what Nishimura calls “ugly vegetables.”
“In Japan, we have strict standards. For example, when you see a cucumber in the supermarket, they are all straight. If it curves more than 1.6 centimeters, it is not considered Rank A, which is what most supermarkets want, so they won’t accept it. Because the organic way is very natural, farmers have many odd-shaped vegetables they cannot sell. It’s crazy. It’s still delicious.”
Although on-farm waste is not officially tracked, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, the difference between vegetables harvested and the amount ultimately shipped to supermarkets, food processors and as feed in 2018 was 334,000 tons. Some of that difference includes personal consumption, but it’s estimated that much of the disparity is just tilled back into the ground.
It wasn’t until Nishimura moved to Hayama in 2014 that an idea to use these vegetables formed. Friends recommended she visit Chikara Ito’s Paradise Field at nearby Mori to Hatake no Gakko (Forest and Farm School), and she soon began helping out in exchange for his organic vegetables.
“We talked about how to make the farm a place for people to produce or find something. We didn’t want them to just pick vegetables and leave,” Nishimura says. “I also wanted a way for the farm to be part of visitors’ daily lives.”
She hit on the idea of canning when she spotted a cookbook on a trip to California. The jars were beautiful, and the ingredients unique. It seemed a perfect fit.
“I thought we could also put memories of the farm in the jar, and people could take it home,” Nishimura says. “Then, every time they opened a jar, they would remember the time with friends, if it was a hard day, the conversation around the table.”
Participants commit to meeting once a month for a year. During the first meeting, they decide what to grow, spending the remaining months planting, tending and canning the resulting harvest. While students get to take home fresh vegetables, they also learn how to utilize the less attractive ones.
In 2017, Nishimura began purchasing ugly vegetables from other organic farmers and canning them herself in 100-jar batches with her own recipes. She sells the resulting jars of Veggie Bagna (a vegetarian version of the Italian bagna cauda hot garlic and anchovy dip) and Aona Shigoto (a relish made with garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil), among other seasonal options, online and at regional groceries and farmers markets.
Currently, she partners with 18 organic farmers and, earlier this year, added catering services to her workload. Between canning and catering Nishimura uses about 1,000 kilograms of ugly vegetables per year, though she hopes to triple that amount in 2020.
While Nishimura won’t say business is booming, Farm Canning supports two full-time staff and four part-time employees. Classes are full, and draw people from Tokyo and Yokohama, as well as Saitama, Chiba and Yamanashi prefectures.
Nishimura also sees Farm Canning as a pivot point for students and customers, not unlike her time in Germany.
“If you come to the party and eat our catered food from castoff vegetables and it’s delicious, maybe you will find a new viewpoint,” she says. “If you come to the school, you can feel a part of nature. If you buy our jars, you can feel the farmers behind the jars. We celebrate life.”
For more information, visit www.farmcanning.com. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food and restaurant industries.