In the belly of Missouri’s Old Order Amish country, Japanese crops are flourishing. Fuzzy, bright green edamame pods grow in clusters; Japanese cucumber vines snake over the fertile earth; anpan, a Japanese sweet roll stuffed with bean paste, bakes in the commercial kitchen.
Echigo Farm (pronounced etch-e-go) is owned by Mark Frank, a Missourian, and his wife, Kumiko Nagai, a Japanese native. They founded Echigo nearly five years ago with the mission to introduce Japanese produce to Missouri.
In that time, they’ve grown 70 varieties of Asian vegetables on their land in Seymour, Missouri, and taught classes on fermentation as well as how to traditionally cook fresh edamame.
The farm may never have existed if it weren’t for sake.
In 2001, Frank, a Southwest Missouri State University graduate (now called Missouri State University), was living in Japan when he won prefectural and regional sake-tasting competitions for his ability to taste and judge sake, which qualified him to move on to nationals. Frank had been cultivating an appreciation for sake since moving to Japan in 1997 to teach English.
To prepare for the national tasting competition, he immersed himself in the ancient brewing practice, even working at two breweries. Sake is made from fermented rice, so after seeing how breweries made it, his curiosity led him to rice paddies in Japan. Next he learned how to grow Japanese vegetables.
“I enjoy eating first,” Frank says. “Cooking comes from that, and farming from cooking. That was the natural progression.”
Japan was a palatable awakening for him.
“I first felt the joy of eating when I moved there,” he says. “What impressed me were the patterns of living, the rhythm of the seasons, the craftsmanship, the traditions, the freshness.”
Shortly after moving to Japan, he met Nagai. The two built a friendship and married two years later.
With no prior experience farming commercially, Frank was eager to share what he had learned. So in 2009, he packed up his knowledge and his family and brought them to his childhood home in the Ozarks.
Echigo is the old name of the prefecture of Niigata where Frank and Nagai met, a region in northern Japan known for its sake and edamame production. Edamame is their farm’s flagship crop, and in the summer, they haul fresh edamame to the Farmers Market of the Ozarks so customers can taste the sweet, nutty soybean at its peak. Like corn, edamame is at its best the day it’s picked.
Lane McConnell, executive director of Farmers Market of the Ozarks, says Echigo has brought a rich new tradition to the region.
“They added to the farmers’ market an expansive diversity of Japanese vegetables and fermented products, which are not common in the Ozarks,” McConnell says. “In addition, consumers are learning of new vegetables to include in their diet.”
Some of Echigo’s best-selling products include greens like komatsuna, wasabina, mizuna and bekana.
In Japan, komatsuna, sometimes labeled as Japanese mustard spinach, is often salt-pickled, but it can also be used in salads or stir-frys. Komatsuna has a mild flavor with hints of turnip and a spinachlike texture. Wasabina is a small mustard green with serrated leaves and a spicy, almost wasabilike flavor. Mizuna is a Japanese mustard green with a mild, peppery flavor similar to arugula. Bekana, a loose Japanese cabbage, is more lettucelike in flavor and texture.
When deciding what to grow, Frank plants what he likes to eat and what he thinks will adapt to the southwest Missouri climate. The greens are nurtured in unheated high tunnels from the fall through the spring. Echigo’s Asian greens salad mix, which includes the aforementioned greens, has always been one of its biggest sellers.
Japanese cucumbers, which are crunchier, more flavorful and more thin-skinned than their popular relatives, have been one of the farm's most successful summer crops. Daikon has also done well in the farm’s soil.
For some, like Mika Logan, a Japanese native who lives in Springfield, Missouri, Echigo’s products have been “a fountain in a desert” offering a familiar taste of home.
Homegrown Food and MaMa Jean’s Natural Market in Springfield also carry Echigo’s produce and fermented products. Occasionally, you’ll see the farm's kimchi featured in a special dish at a local restaurant.
Since opening the farm, Frank and Nagai have battled high costs and the challenges of introducing seeds to a different climate. The couple have found an especially limited customer base for fresh edamame. They haven’t had luck selling it to restaurants, partially because of the cost and short window to serve it.
Several factors influence the cost, but the largest is the hand harvesting and careful handling once crops are harvested. Frank says an acre of his edamame crop takes about 400 hours of hand-labor.
Although many people have embraced the farm’s products, it hasn’t proven enough to sustain the business. Recently, Frank and Nagai put the farm up for sale. They plan to continue their operation through the end of the year.
“The vegetables are not that difficult to grow in southwest Missouri, but there needs to be an accompanying food culture to support their introduction and growth,” Frank says of the impending sale.
For now, Frank and Nagai are still hard at work harvesting crops on the farm and cultivating relationships with customers.
It may seem logical to grow soybeans in Missouri since the state ranks seventh in nationwide production, but edamame is far more labor intensive.
“Edamame is a specialized soybean,” says Patrick Byers, regional horticulture specialist with the University of Missouri Extension Greene County office. “It's harvested by hand and has to be handled carefully. Machine harvesters are available but expensive. Dry soybeans have a long shelf life; edamame is fresh and perishable. It’s fairly expensive to grow.”
“We find that it’s worth the extra effort and expense to provide varieties of vegetables that people in southwest Missouri may not be familiar with; it has become a niche and one of the hallmarks of our farm’s approach,” Frank says. “There are differences in climate, but we see this as an enjoyable challenge rather than an insurmountable obstacle.”
Frank and Nagai grow edamame in the traditional method: Seeds are hand-planted in seed trays to germinate and then grow for ten days. They are then transplanted and watered with standard drip irrigation similar to what most vegetable farmers use, but drip irrigation is not common in soybean production. This is because edamame is grown more like a vegetable than a conventional row crop, Frank says.
Edamame requires moisture at two stages: when the flowers are blooming and when the small pods are filling out. If there is not enough moisture during the flowering stage, the flowers will fall off without forming pods. If there is not enough moisture during the filling-out stage, there will be many empty, half-full or misshapen pods.
Edamame requires pinpoint management of irrigation, which is why Frank and Nagai prefer drip irrigation. The crop has a four-day window for harvest. If that window closes, the amino acids combine to form protein and the sugar decreases.
In Japan, edamame is harvested and sold the same day. That’s not always possible at Echigo, so the goal is to get it to consumers within two days. “Time is of the essence,” Frank says. “Sugar decreases by 50 percent within 24 hours. It’s impossible to maintain the level of freshness.”
Two acres of the 18-acre farm are dedicated to all crops, with ¼ acre dedicated to edamame. While some varieties are being adapted to the climate of the Ozarks, Frank and Nagai import their seeds from Japan.
Over the years, they’ve dabbled with 18 varieties of edamame trying to find the best match. Now, they focus on three: early- and middle-stage varieties that are light and sweet and have late harvests, which can be picked through October. The variety is not as popular, as it has more oil and less sugar, but it’s creamier and richer.
Nagai says the traditional method of preparing edamame starts with rubbing salt all over the edamame pods to remove the fuzzy fibers and to enhance the green color of the pod. Next, water is heavily salted and edamame is then boiled for four minutes. The pods must be removed and quickly cooled but cannot be dunked in an ice water bath because, Frank explains, that would defeat the salting process.
Frank and Nagai quickly spread the still-warm edamame out on the kitchen table and cool it with Japanese fans. Then, edamame is salted once more and refrigerated for a couple of hours before it's ready to eat.
Frank and Nagai met at a party in Japan in 1997 and decided to exchange English and Japanese lessons. Their friendship budded into romance. They married in 1999 and moved to Shibata, a city surrounded by agricultural regions where Frank studied traditional farming and fermentation practices. He started a school garden at the local college growing crops like moroheiya, a highly nutritious sticky green that thrives in the heat of summer, and he also taught students how to brew sake.
When Frank mentioned moving to the Ozarks, Nagai was shocked, as neither of them had much experience in farming.
“We were going to buy a house in Japan,” Nagai says. “He said, ‘[Missouri is] a good place to raise a family.’”
They have two children: a son, Kouta, 11, and daughter, Momoko, 8. During their first year in Missouri, they lived with Frank’s parents in Nixa while searching for land to buy.
When an 18-acre farm in Seymour (about 40 miles away from Nixa) came up for sale, they purchased it from an Amish family. Frank and Nagai had to completely renovate the house, including adding electricity, wiring and plumbing.
Over the years, they’ve added two high tunnels to extend their growing season. Last year, they opened a commercial kitchen in a 20-by-20-foot building that the previous owner used for meat processing.
“He had a butchering business and processed meat using professional equipment powered completely by two draft horses and a complex system of pulleys,” Frank says. “It was quite a thing to see in operation.”
In the kitchen, Frank and Nagai produce miso, which is made from soybeans, koji (a malted rice) and sea salt. Miso is a staple in Japanese cooking used in marinades, seasoning, sauces and, of course, soup.
While miso traditionally takes six to twelve months to ferment, Frank and Nagai have found a way to speed up the process using heating pads to raise the temperature. Their miso takes about two months to produce.
Anpan, a sweet roll filled with red-bean paste, is one of their best-selling products, and they also make kimchi. The four most popular varieties are: long cut, which includes long-cut napa cabbage brined in a shrimp-anchovy sauce; vegetarian, with the seafood sauce replaced with shiitake mushroom broth; daikon, cubed daikon with the same seasoning as the long-cut kimchi; and white kimchi, which is made without red pepper and has a milder flavor. Echigo’s version is vegetarian and includes napa cabbage, dates and apples.
Their fermented products have been successful, and the couple would like to continue making those after selling the farm. Frank has a degree in literature and hopes to write about fermentation and continue to teach people how to make fermented foods.
Although they don’t expect whoever purchases the farm to carry on the traditions they’ve established, the land will likely appeal to someone with a similar vision. The drip-irrigation system used for edamame is desirable for many crops, as it conserves water, and the new commercial kitchen adds value to the property.
They describe their time on the farm as rewarding. The couple loves interacting with customers at the farmers’ market. Nagai says it's her one opportunity to socialize each week. Teaching people about farming and food production is especially meaningful to Frank. They agree that the customers are what they’ll miss the most.
Frank notes that there are an increasing number of vendors introducing Asian produce to the region; he suspects the trend and growing interest will likely continue. The couple has mixed emotions about moving on — they’ve been mulling over the decision for more than a year.
“I want more economic stability for my family,” Frank says. “It’s been a challenge, but it’s been rewarding.”
Echigo Farm, Seymour, Missouri, 417.849.4000, facebook.com/echigo-farm.
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