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A Thriving Kikurage Mushroom Farm in Kitanakagusuku Town

Starting with with nothing but a vision, Shuya Nakama and his family overcame incredible obstacles to found a thriving kikurage mushroom farm on abandoned land in Kitanakagusuku Town.

When Shuya Nakama decided to start growing kikurage mushrooms, he wasn’t a farmer looking for a new type of crop, nor a business-minded entrepreneur searching for a new venture. He was a father who desperately looking for a way to alleviate his young son’s severe constipation. The problem was so severe that the boy’s health and social life were severely compromised and the consequences for the family were disastrous. Nakama went to doctors, tested alternative medicines and, in his own words, he’d tried everything. Well, almost everything.

One day, having read about how kikurage powder can help with constipation, he added it to his son’s food. The unsuspecting boy consumed the mushroom powder without a struggle and, hours later, pooped like a champ. Nakama, surprised as he was delighted, had awoken to one of the main benefits of kikurage. After confirming that the kikurage power worked both well and consistently, he began to think about how to procure a consistent supply of a product that is not easy to find. The most reliable solution, it turns out, was to grow the mushrooms himself. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

Growing Organic Kikurage Mushrooms in Okinawa

Having made the decision to grow kikurage commercially, Shuya Nakama founded Kitanaka Farm. it wasn’t enough for Mr. Nakama to cultivate kikurage mushrooms in conventional, chemically intensive ways. He wanted to develop a product he could consistently feed his whole family and proudly promote to his closest friends. He wanted to sell a chemical free, all-natural product he knew would benefit families in Okinawa, mainland Japan, and possibly the rest of the world, so, he decided to go all-organic.

Kikurake mushrooms growing from plugs at Kitanaka Farm

Unfortunately, the challenges of growing organic kikurake mushrooms are significant anywhere, but the Okinawan climate adds another layer of complication. Indoor cultivation is possible, but it is very expensive and energy intensive, and the mushrooms that grow in the absence of natural light tend to be blistered and puffy. Outdoor (covered) cultivation is better, but growing mushrooms in the open air is no easy matter. Of particular concern is a particular kind of bacteria, the presence of which strongly inhibits and often halts the growth of kikurage mushrooms altogether. This bacteria thrives at 80 percent humidity and 25-26 degrees Celsius, which are optimal conditions for Kikurage.

After many failed attempts, Mr. Nakama was introduced to EM Research Organization (EMRO), a highly successful Okinawan company that sells organic biotechnology products in over 150 countries worldwide. After eight months of trials in partnership with EMRO, Nakama found that by making use of the company’s Effective Microorganisms (in the form of their signature product EM-1), he was able to suppress the growth of the offending bacteria without the use of any chemicals, thereby establishing a method that was 100% organic.

Finding Farmland in Okinawa

As anyone who has tried to source farmland in Okinawa can attest, it is very difficult to find a suitable field. Most of the arable land is already occupied and that which is not is generally overgrown. Another problem is that many landowners perished in the Battle of Okinawa, which claimed up to a quarter of the population of Okinawa at the time, and many records were destroyed in the fighting. A lot of this abandoned land remains under the stewardship of various municipalities, who are uncertain as to who rightfully owns it. Even when agricultural land goes up for sale, it is not easy for a person who is not already a farmer to access. Japanese law requires that a person who is to occupy agricultural land must already be a farmer with a certain number of ‘tsubo’ (a parcel of land approximately equal to the size of a tatami mat) under continuous management.

The land was overtaken by jungle
Inside the kikurage farm

Mr. Nakama managed to satisfy the provisions of law by presenting a top-drawer agricultural business plan (which involved pointing out that mushroom cultivation is technically considered ‘agriculture’ under Japanese law if the mushrooms are grown in ‘kinsho’ plugs instead of on logs). He also had to be prepared to shell out more than ¥3,000,000 for a set of abandoned greenhouses and invest incredible amounts of time and effort salvaging the land from the snake-infested jungle that had overtaken it.

His investment, and his efforts paid off. Mr Nakama and his family now own a relatively large chunk of land in the heart of Kitanakagusuku Village. His operation is easily accessed via paved road, serviced by power and water, and close enough to large population centers that he can expect to attract significant numbers of visitors to the events that he holds. It is also right beside Sunshine Farm, a noted EM organic farm in Okinawa. Events he has held to date have been very successful.

Value-added Kikurage Products

Selling raw kikurage mushrooms would be the simplest business model, but as any farmer knows, the margins on produce are thin. In addition to low margins, sellers of raw produce must contend with the problem of short expiry periods. As the saying goes, “sell it or smell it.” Finally, there is only so much demand for raw kikurage mushrooms in Okinawa. It is possible to ship raw mushrooms, but shipping logistics for raw produce are not simple and maintaining an appropriate cold-chain is not cheap. If Mr. Nakama wanted to scale his business beyond the size of a small local farm, he had to get creative.

Kikurage powder: easier to ship and store
Kikurage cookies for sale at the EM Shop

His solution was to turn a portion of the kikurage mushrooms his farm produces into dried, value-added products with longer shelf lives, easier shipping modalities and much higher margins. Kikurage powder, kikurage jelly powder and kikurage cookies are three of the products he and his family have developed.

Marketing a Mountain of Okinawan Mushrooms

Premium products in hand, it was time fro Shuya Nakama to find wholesale buyers. Having initially tried unsuccessfully to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with an agricultural marketing board in Chiba Prefecture, Nakama decided to focus his initial marketing efforts in Okinawa. At first, he sold his mushrooms at Happy More, a local supermarket famed for its dedicated support of local farmers and producers, and was warmly welcomed to sell at the EM Shop at Kurashi No Hakko Resort (formerly Costa Vista), but these were very low-volume contracts and he needed to move more products.

In search of a high-volume buyer, Nakama decided to approach Sukoyaka, a pharmacy with 39 stores all over Okinawa. They loved his products and immediately saw the commercial potential of mushooms which are extremely high in Vitamin D and contain the most dietary fiber of any food by weight), but what clinched the deal was Nakama’s long-term vision. His plan is to hire disabled people to work on the farm and in the factory without making use of the government programs that subsidize their wages. Sukoyaka, like Nakama, understands the confidence boost disabled persons experience as a consequence of being hired on on their own merits and actively seek to accommodate such persons by providing employment opportunities.

While both Kitanakagusuku Farm and Sukoyaka understand that the subsidy program is deeply valued in Okinawa and benefits many disabled people, along with the businesses that hire them, their shared vision allowed Nakama to develop a rapport that led to a contract for more than 1,000 kg (raw weight) of kikurage mushrooms every month, mostly in the form of pure powder and powdered jelly.

The Future of 'Kikurage Village'

Shuya Nakama’s vision doesn’t stop with mushrooms. His plan is to develop his recently purchased land in Kitanakagusuku village into a family friendly permaculture-oriented agricultural village where children from all around Okinawa can come to learn about healthy food, organic growing and sustainable farming. You can support this business by buying their products at stores or keeping an eye open for events at Kitanaka Farm on their Instagram page

Visit Kitanaka Farm

159 Higa, Kitanakagusuku,
Nakagami District, Okinawa 901-2305
https://kikurage-komachi.com

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