At his Niconicoyasai farms in the Central Highlands province of Dac Lac, Shiokawa Minoru, a 30-year-old Japanese environmental engineer, grows “smiling vegetables”: organic and healthy produce that has increasingly gained consumers’ trust.
Minoru, while walking barefoot around his over-2,500m2 vegetable farm in Buon Ma Thuot, put an herb into his mouth without washing it. He asked tourists to do the same, ensuring that it would be absolutely fine to do so.
The tourists, who were mostly office workers and business people, quickly went from hesitation to joy once they tasted the leaves.
All of the vegetables in Minoru’s fields show no sign of fertilizer or insecticide use. As a result, the plants in his farms don’t look as lush as those in conventional farms, as the leaves are wormy and the carrots and potatoes aren’t equal in size.
“Of course, our productivity can’t be as high as that of farms which use chemicals, but what’s important to us is that our products are delicious and safe,” Minoru stressed.
To the tourists’ delight, all the of the freshly picked veggies were then prepared into a delectable meal.
“At supermarkets in Ho Chi Minh City, as I can’t read the Vietnamese instructions and ingredients on the packaging, I’m quite concerned that these products may contain harmful chemicals. I feel safer here,” shared Miyako, a Japanese housewife.
According to Minoru, after painstaking care, it takes some four months to harvest cabbage, while vegetables in conventional farms can be harvested in half a month. Rice husks and coffee used to make organic fertilizer must also be composted for six months.
Minoru’s quality, healthy products thus fetch much higher prices than others on the local market, with a set of five kinds of vegetables costing VND140,000-200,000 (up to US$10).
Despite the high prices, his products sell like hot cakes and are always in high demand. Some 50-100kg of vegetables is carried to HCMC each day, with home delivery offered. Many Japanese supermarket chains and convenience stores place regular bulk orders with Minoru’s farms.
His farms welcome one group of tourists from HCMC on average each month and the visitors are delighted to learn about the vegetables farming process and relish his delectable vegetable dishes.
Hard-earned success Minoru’s current success is the fruit of his earlier repeated failures.
Nine years ago, the young man came to Vietnam to teach Japanese to those taking part in one of Japan’s non-profit projects on organic agriculture in Dac Lac province.
A number of local youths were also selected to study organic agriculture in Japan. However, when they returned to Vietnam after five years, they couldn’t apply their learned techniques as farmers didn’t trust them. Several of them returned to conventional techniques and the Japanese experts from the project, with the exception of Minoru, went back to Japan.
“I strongly believe that if I can succeed with the organic vegetable growing model, local farmers will soon gain confidence in and adopt it. I’ve tried to make Vietnamese consumers smile every time they enjoy our safe veggies, instead of doubling in pain from eating those containing toxic chemicals,” Minoru explained his farms’ name, Niconicoyasai, which means “smiling veggies”.
In 2011, the young environmental science engineer rented a 1,000m2 plot of land amidst the desolated forests of the Central Highlands with all of his savings, amounting to VND125 million (US$5,900). He then summoned local youths trained in Japan and together they embarked on his current organic vegetable project.
The group encountered countless difficulties at the outset, including the slowing growth and mass withering of the vegetables. They once raised a flock of 1,000 chickens and used their excrement as natural fertilizers. Despite their proper care, over 70% of the flock died.
After one year learning from trial and error and consulting with Japanese experts, Minoru and his partners proudly offered their first harvest for sale in HCMC. After being declined by many restaurant owners, they finally inked a deal to sell their products at a festival held by Overland Club, a 100% foreign-owned Japanese company which has operated in Vietnam since 2001.
“We earned only some VND60,000 ($3) that day, but Minoru and I were elated, though we spent VND2 million in travelling and accommodation fees,” Vo Mai Hao, Minoru’s first partner recalled.
The trip earned them a much bigger reward: they found their regular clients, Japanese families living in HCMC, particularly those with young children, whose priority is consuming safe, fresh veggies.
Minoru himself delivered the veggies to his clients’ homes and made only as much money as his employees.
From the success of his first organic vegetables farm, Minoru has opened three other similar farms in Buon Ma Thuot. The farmers taking part in the project are aged 17 to 35, and all are willing to take on new challenges.
“I used to use insecticides on my veggies beds, and I had constant headaches. When we learned about organic veggies from Minoru, we were set on adopting the techniques, though we suffered heavy losses in our first year,” shared farmer Cu Chinh Huy.
Huy added that things have been considerably better now. He and his wife earn some VND8-10 million a month from selling their veggies.
“We manage to sell our stuff at good prices though those in local markets may drop at times. However, the production and inspection process are stringent. The company inspectors get samples of soil and water once a month. They look closely at the beds and even the leaves, and are ready to wipe out the whole bed if it fails to meet their standards,” Huy’s wife added.
Minoru also teaches his techniques to more than 100 ethnic kids at the Teresa care home, hoping they will adopt the techniques in their own farms when they grow up.
In accordance with Japan’s rigorous standards of clean vegetable farms, littering is strictly forbidden in all of Minoru’s farms. One daily routine is for all staff members, including the director, to tend to the farms and pick up waste. All of their veggies are cleaned with green tea before being packed, instead of being dipped in ozone as they are at non-organic farms.
“90% of our current clientele is Japanese people living in Vietnam. Considering our high prices, Vietnamese consumers are still reluctant to buy our products, though the Vietnamese segment has recently risen slightly. We’re planning to boost our productivity so we can offer more reasonable prices, but we can’t grow them on a large scale to ensure high quality,” said Pilot Bya, the company’s sales manager in HCMC.
Clients in HCMC can phone 01689 32 8008 to place orders with Niconicoyasai. Home delivery can be made within less than one day.