In a metallic barn behind Bakerview EcoDairy, just south of the highway off Sumas Way, there is a burgeoning collection of machinery for growing and processing rice. The dehusker, sifter, thresher, rice grader, and specialized tractor able to work in water all bear Japanese labels. The rice combine harvester and a 17-foot industrial dryer are the latest additions. They arrived last month by ocean container. The combine is the first such machine ever imported into Canada.
This month marks Masa Shiroki’s third completed season growing sake rice in the fields of Abbotsford. The land he leases from EcoDairy is treating him well. He is expanding rapidly, and doubled his acreage for this season.
He discovered this week that his four acres have yielded about 2.7 tons of premium brown rice, more than triple the 800 kg that two acres produced last year.
“I’m extremely happy. And even that, after losing one fifth of a field by infested weeds. I would have to say it was a good year for us,” said Shiroki.
The Artisan Sake Maker will transform the grain at his Granville Island sake winery into the Fraser Valley Junmai sake. To be released sometime next spring, this will be the second batch of the rice wine that Shiroki debuted last year.
Shiroki sees the Fraser Valley as a future rice growing hub with its temperate climate and abundant cheap water. Rice is also a means to create value in underused land, he said. He encourages other farmers to try out the crop, either by producing their own rice with advice from Shiroki, and refining the product with his machines, or leasing their land to him.
“I really am hoping that we can set a precedent in the Fraser Valley in the agricultural communities to get people interested in growing rice,” he said. “The reality is, there is always some land that they (farmers) cannot use…So it just sits idle…We could come in there, even if it’s an acre, and with all these machines we have, and then start doing something, and making it more productive.”
Land that is uneven, or that floods easily, is well-suited to rice production, because Shiroki flattens the land and floods it with about four inches of water in order to grow rice. He has received calls from farmers in Vancouver and the Okanagan seeking advice on stepping into this new territory, and has surveyed land from Delta to Agassiz for its rice growing potential. Maybe one day there will be a rice-growing cooperative in the Fraser Valley, he said.
“We have all the machinery in place. We can actually confidently say that, yes, we could utilize your land, and in the meantime I would like you to learn about it, so eventually they can be on their own to grow it.”
Shiroki abandoned a government career in international trade to venture into his second life as rice farmer. As with true innovators, he is learning as he goes.
Soil, water and climate conditions are different in the Fraser Valley than any comparable place, such as California or Japan. He would like to see more agricultural research through the University of the Fraser Valley into growing rice in the area.
“We haven’t still explored the different varieties of rice that may be suited,” said Shiroki.
More knowledge would help him solve problems that creep up. For example, because Shiroki grows organic, weeds overtook about 20 per cent of the crop on his newest two-acre plot of land this year.
Shiroki is creating Fraser Valley’s newest ag industry from scratch and with a constant eye to the future. Understanding that the sake market is limited in B.C., Shiroki grew test varieties of table rice in this year’s crop and believes there is a market for B.C.-grown rice.
“Farm to mouth. 100-mile diet. Those kind of trends are happening, and it’s only increasing, as I see it,” he said. “Progressive chefs, who believe in OceanWise, who believe in eating local. They don’t mind spending more money for it.”
Shiroki also envisions opening a sake winery in Abbotsford in several years’ time, placing another destination dot on the winery trail map.
Last year, drying the rice took one month with the intermittent rains and low sunlight. This year, it will be just a few days with the newly imported industrial dryer. A planter triple the size of the current one is arriving in the winter. Most of the machines were brought in this year, and are a first for Western Canada. There is no local supplier, no mechanic. When something breaks, it is up to Shiroki to fix it.
As Shiroki looks onto Mt. Baker in the background of his four acre-farm, he is reminded of Japan’s Mt. Fuji, and why he chose Abbotsford.
“It’s just a perfect, perfect place for me to dream,” he email@example.com twitter.com/alinakonevski