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Greengrocer [Yasai-ya Hajime] Offers Produce Nurtured with Care & Passion by the Harusa (Farmers)
post : 2019.11.22 23:00
When you’re visiting various cafes and events while on Okinawa, you may come across wooden boxes filled with fresh produce that seem to sparkle under the Okinawan sun. The layout is like a market stand from a different part of the world. The name of this greengrocer we’re introducing is Yasai-ya (vegetable shop) Hajime, a vegetable shop on wheels that offers all the vegetables by weight.
The owner of the business is Gen Matsumura, who says he got involved in agriculture only after relocating to Okinawa. He first worked at a farm, working on the soil every day, and experienced all the steps from sowing the seeds to harvesting. He experienced firsthand that the same type of vegetable can taste very different simply through the methods of growing them.
The farm that he worked at was an organic farm, producing vegetables without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Because of that, though, there was much more to be done in tending the crops. He experienced the hard work and dedication that goes into growing living things, and seeing the changes in growth of the vegetables when given great care. He was charmed by everything that went with farming, the great joys in harvesting, tasting the delicious vegetables, and the hard work that went into growing them.
He also learned that these were the reasons why there were many Harusa (meaning “farmer” in the Okinawan language) who continue to grow organic vegetables. At the same time, though, he also saw many Harusa who made various high quality vegetables who were having a hard time finding routes of selling them.
“I’m the kind of person who, when faced with an issue, wants to do what I can to overcome them,” Matsumura-san says.
He began to think, rather than working to grow vegetables, he wanted to work to create a distribution channel where he can deliver the passion of the farmers that grow the vegetables. He wanted to place importance on relaying the thoughts of the growers to the consumers.
The vegetables that Matsumura-san handles are organic, grown without the use of pesticides and chemicals, and are fertilizer-free. The method of growing vegetables without the use of fertilizers allows the natural strength of the plants to shine through. Their roots grow deeper into the ground, and they have stronger life force and nutrients. They’re vegetables that your body will find to be great tasting and healthy.
“It all starts with getting the soil ready. This method of cultivation relies on the strength of nature for the vegetables to grow strong. It’s more like assisting their growth rather than us growing them. It’s like raising children,” he explains with a smile.
His words made me realize a lot of things. I have two children, and as a mother, I wish for nothing but for my children to grow into their own, with their own uniqueness and power to live in this world. As he was saying, the vegetables are given support, like water and in creating shade. But the underlying factor was that we believe in the strength of their own individual selves, just like our children. Because we know that if given the opportunity to fully shine, they will be full of life and energy…
If that’s the case, vegetables that grow in an environment where their natural strengths are brought out, they’ll be bursting with energy and they must taste delicious. What’s more, they’re grown without pesticides and fertilizers and grown with great care and love. When given the choice, those are the kinds of vegetables that I want to eat.
The natural flavors of the vegetables are simple but aromatic, and some have a zing and others have a unique sweetness. Matsumura-san says he enjoys seeing the reactions of children when they try his vegetables at various events.
“Some kids who normally would pick aside carrots and tomatoes were really enjoying them. Their moms just watched in amazement. Kids know. Children are instinctive, so they know.”
As he thought more about finding a retail route to deliver the vegetables to consumers, and how he wanted to start his own business to do so, he stumbled upon a clue. It was summer in Okinawa, a season when vegetables become less available. It was at that time he ordered organic onions that his friend grew on Awaji Island, and sold them at a farmer’s market.
“They were flying off the shelves. During the summers when onions aren’t available for harvest in Okinawa, people really wanted good, safe onions.”
Because the climate is different on Okinawa and the rest of Japan, harvest season varies even for the same type of vegetable. Local produce is abundant from the beginning of winter to the beginning of summer. On the other hand, local vegetables and their varieties dwindle in the summer months. This is almost the opposite on mainland Japan. In that case, thought Matsumura-san, I should send vegetables to the mainland in the winters and bring in vegetables in the summers. Of course, pesticide- and chemical fertilizer-free, organic vegetables.
Determined, he left his job at the farm and officially launched Yasai-ya Hajime. He added the variety of vegetables to offer the consumers one by one, through visiting farmers, one by one. At the same time, he took full advantage of his background of being originally from the Kansai area in Japan, and increased the number of businesses suppliers and clients in the same region. Now, he has developed his own distribution channels where he sends vegetables to other parts of Japan, whenever the demand is there.
Through word-of-mouth, Matsumura-san’s efforts are spreading fast, and within Okinawa, more and more food and beverage establishments are using vegetables from Yasai-ya Hajime. One of them is CAFÉ UNIZON in Ginowan City. They offer items on their menu made with Matsumura-san’s vegetables, and also sell a selection of vegetables in the shop.
Once a month, he also holds a vegetable market, offering a great lineup of various vegetables at the cafe.
Offered at the market are vegetables as well as breads baked with his vegetables. (Pan-ya Uzuki)
On these market days, the café offers a special menu made with plenty of fresh vegetables from Yasai-ya Hajime. When I went, they offered sandwiches, with garlic butter on the hard, narrow bread that contained colorful, marinated vegetables. One bite and I was hooked! The crispy vegetables enhanced the harmonious tastes of the ingredient. The potage soup that used celery as a secret ingredient was superb, too.
This is a wonderful collaboration with a very popular café that offers great menu items using seasonal vegetables, like salads in the summers and hot stews in the winters. The food is very good and highly recommended.
Matsumura-san is expanding his endeavors as he enthusiastically participates in various events and also started up an online business to sell vegetables. He is soft-spoken and despite his seemingly aloof front, he is more passionate than anybody about his desire to deliver delicious and wonderful vegetables. He’s one of those people that you can’t help but wish him all the best.
“I want to continue bridging farmers and consumers and let people know how the delicious and safe vegetables are made, and the passion and care of the farmers that go into growing them.”
Like he says, I’m sure that the circle of vegetable farmers and consumers will continue to grow bigger and bigger through Matsumura-san and his passion.