Traditions, family, friends, and most of all, food are “center stage” as we gather to celebrate Thanksgiving this week. We may consider the holiday “American,” but as the History Chanel.com states, “Thanksgiving falls under a category of festivals that spans cultures, continents and millennia”…and ironically, so does the food sitting on our tables. Pause a moment and think about where all the ingredients originated for our favorite pumpkin pie or mushroom and sage dressing. And what about beverages like coffee and tea? Some were grown locally, or at least in the U.S., but what about the vanilla beans, coffee or tea? As with any day of the week, our “local farm to table” is actually “global” thanks to the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of farmers far and wide who are honoring traditions and committed to preserving their farms.
Respecting the Tradition
In early October while exploring the southwestern part Japan with colleagues from Kentucky, I discovered the green tea growing region of Wazuka located in the southern part of Kyoto, a town of 4,000 with 120 green tea processing co-ops. It’s the lifeblood of the area — just like farming is for many communities in the U.S. — and supplies 40% of the high-quality green tea grown in Japan. Also, similar to the U.S., Japanese farmers are an aging population with the average age range in the mid-60s and have limited opportunities to sustain their farms within the family. Most of their children have transitioned to the cities, having no desire to continue the tea tradition.
It is this scenario that presented entrepreneur Daiki Tanaka the opportunity for a new career path. Having studied entrepreneurship at a college in Boston, Tanaka returned to Japan with a passion to move from the frenzied business world of Tokyo to a new career path that would respect his country’s culture and history. Along with his brother, an agriculture major, his wife and one other partner, Tanaka launched d:matcha with the goals of “sustaining the culture of Japanese tea farming and the environment, producing health from farm to table, and passing the passion for this culture on to a local and global audience.” Having experienced a tea picking tour with Tanaka, he is doing just that. He exhibits his respect for the Japanese tea culture by working with the local farmers to revitalize an industry threatened by Japan’s aging society. In four years, his company has expanded into 26 countries and worldwide via the web to offer matcha and other green tea varieties from this unique region.
Honoring the Generations
Three weeks following my Japan trip, I had the opportunity to visit the “mushroom capital” thanks to a tour sponsored by The Mushroom Council. Unlike the green tea farming scenario in Japan, the 100-year-old mushroom business for two operations in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, (outside of Philadelphia) now span multiple family generations. The two farms, Mother Earth Organic Mushrooms and Phillips Mushroom Farm are family affairs, with the fourth and third generations, respectively, leading innovation and long-term sustainability for the operations. With 62% of U.S. mushrooms grown in Pennsylvania, these two farms are not only viable entities within the community but also models for sustainable farming nationally.
Mother Earth began as a dairy operation in 1919, building two mushroom houses two years later. By the 1960s, the dairy was phrased out with the sole focus on mushroom production. More houses were built and the business grew with implementation of sustainability practices at the core. Now, almost a 100 years later, under fourth-generation leadership, Mother Earth is the oldest and largest organic mushroom farm in the country.
Near the same area but eight years later in 1927, William Phillips started a small mushroom growing business with an eye for innovation as he introduced the use of ice for temperature control allowing mushrooms to grow year-round — a significant breakthrough for the mushroom industry.
From producing 12 million pounds of white mushrooms annually in 1962 to over 57 million pounds of white and specialty mushrooms today, the Phillips Mushroom Farms is one of the largest mushroom producers in the country.
Common Threads Across the Continents
While there are probably significantly less matcha drinkers than mushroom consumers in the U.S., there are common threads that run through both type of farming.
- Entrepreneurial Spirit – Whether it’s a new type of farmer like Daiki Tanaka or the generation of mushroom farmers in Pennsylvania, the longevity of success lies in taking risks and adjusting business strategies to meet ever-changing consumer demands. Bringing the farm to consumers through tours, hands on experiences and new products have unlimited potential.
- Innovation – Introduction of new growing technologies for the mushroom industry has been the launchpad for Phillips and Mother Earth, allowing for new varieties, higher production yields and more sustainable practices. New technologies have also improved the tea growing process. Tea leaves can be picked quicker maintaining the quality of the product and allowing for new processing techniques. Without the investment in technology for either business, financial viability would be jeopardized.
- Knowledge of Nature – Environment and economics drive the type of crop production in any region. Tea bushes have survived in the Wazuka area for centuries due to the rolling hills, a nearby river and surrounding mountains, which all work together to create a “fog” like atmosphere that reminded me of the California wine country. The fog reduces the sunlight on the bushes, helping the leaves maintain their amino acid profile and health benefits. For mushrooms, it’s the economical nature of the business. With the long tradition of production in the area, systems are in place to allow for efficient production and transportation.
Moment of Gratitude
As seen in this tale of two continents, the quest for growing quality products sustainably is an inherent passion for those who produce our food — whether it’s in our back yard or across the world.
This week…and every day, let’s be thankful for all the hands that have planted, picked, processed and provided the food on our table. It does take a village.