By Tyne Morgan, AgDay national reporter
Innovation is key for this Missouri farm that specializes in Japanese vegetables
Mark Frank is a teacher by trade.
"I was anything but a farmer when I was growing up," Frank said.
He ventured to Japan and taught English for 12 years. There, he fell in love, married a Japanese woman who is now his wife and started a family. His love went beyond his wife, son and daughter—he also developed a passion for farming.
"While I was in Japan I got into farming, actually, I really liked the small scale, organic, traditional farming that they did over there," Frank said. "I read some books first, then I got to know some farmers. And then decided to move back to the U.S. and it seemed like a good direction to go in."
So, when he made the trek back to the states to return home to southwest Missouri, he not only brought his family, but a box of edamame seeds. In four years, that one box has grown into 70 to 80 varieties on what his 18-acre farm.
"About 80% of it are actual varieties that we import from Japan," Frank said. We import the seeds over every year. And we're year round. We have a couple high tunnels and we use low tunnels, as well. To try and grow as much as we can 12 months out of the year."
Frank says other than the hot summers and harsh winters in southern Missouri, growing Japanese vegetables have a good fit in southwest Missouri.
"The latitude was very similar to where we were in Japan," Frank said. "So things that are daylight sensitive like edamame, tend to perform the same over here than they would over there."
And Echigo Farm continues to find new growing methods to stay green while making Japanese vegetables work in this area. So this year the family is trying no-till. And the key to no-till on the farm is straw and rice hulls.
"We mulch a bed about 12 inches deep in early spring to late winter and allow that to start breaking down the root systems underneath," he said.
It’s a natural growing method that doesn’t use any equipment, chemical fertilizers or pesticides. He says this type of farming does take more time and attention. He says building the beds from the top down takes about a year to get the soil prime for planting.
"We don't want to be gasping for air. We are beautifying it and always trying to simplify our process," Frank said.
That process and farming method helps create a unique story for Echigo Farms. And that story is what helps create a customer base with a growing hunger for their Japanese products.
"For us, quality is the most important, even more than local or even more than organic," Frank said. "When we take our stuff to the market, we don't want people to buy it just because it's local or just because it's organic. We want them to buy it because it's the best produce we can grow."
Even though Frank has stepped down from teaching in the classroom, he hasn’t lost his teachers’ touch. He fulfills that love at the local farmers’ market. For example, he says edamame broke off from conventional soybeans about 400 years ago. He says the soybean is picked while still green in color, which is about 30 days prior to conventional soybeans. And he says it’s a unique food in it as the vitamins of a vegetable, the protein of a soybean, which makes for a nutritious snack.
"We try to educate people as much as we can. You know I'm really interested in the history and the culture of the varieties," Frank said. "Not just how to eat them but the story behind them. So we put out a lot of information about that."
It’s more than just the consumers that are learning lessons through Frank. His two children are also involved every step of the way on the family farm.
"Right now we have a hen house with about 50 laying hens," he said. "They help out in the field too. And I think it's educational for them. They know all the tastes of all the different foods. And I think that's tremendously important for children."
Frank has been farming full-time for about a year and laying the ground for what he sees as a successful future for his family.
"I hope not just to survive, but I hope to thrive," Frank said.
For More Information
Watch U.S. Farm Report.