When you raise a glass of champagne, sparkling wine or whatever fine bubbly at the end of the week, spare a thought for Masa Shiroki’s New Year plans.

The Vancouver-based entrepreneur has been working for a few years to elevate the ranks of Japanese-style sake, brewing it in small batches from a Granville Island shop, and trying to get it on high-end shelves and tables.

This year, in a bid to qualify for a significantly better tax rebate, and in response to consumers wanting to buy more locally sourced products, the owner of Artisan Sake Maker started growing sake rice here in B.C. instead of importing the premium ingredient from Japan.

It wasn’t exactly fields of lush green-terraced paddies, but on tiny plots in select B.C. locales, it was the beginning of an experiment that Shiroki plans to expand in 2010.

Because his business is classified as a commercial winery, Shiroki’s sake doesn’t qualify for as large a tax rebate as it would if it were a so-called “land-based winery,” as per Liquor Control and Licensing Branch rules. The B.C. government agency issues licences for making and selling liquor.

“That’s how all of this [rice growing] got started,” said Shiroki.

If his business could qualify as a land-based winery, “Our bottom line would change quite dramatically,” he said. “From a business perspective, it nets us quite a bit. Currently, we sell it to [the LCLB] and they mark it up 117 per cent.”

To be a land-based winery, “you have to have a minimum of two acres, either owned or leased. In order to get the tax advantage, you need to use 100 per cent ingredients made locally,” said Shiroki. “The difference is enormous. The land-based wineries benefit by not having to sell with as high a mark-up.”

And so, starting two years ago, Shiroki, a former government bureaucrat who oversaw the province’s Japan desk during the heyday of B.C. trade with Japan in the 1990s, started tapping his old contacts.

As he puts it, this isn’t a story about official memorandums of intent or any formal commercial exchange.

Basically, he started talking to “a government-funded organization [in Japan] where they teach farmers there how to grow certain rice and how to maximize yields. They knew my plans and were interested in helping by supporting us with information and advice.”

Indeed, when it online blackjack strategy card comes Online Blackjack to growing rice, that most political of staples, there are “hundreds of scientists working to improve the capability of crops. It used to be that it was impossible to grow rice in Japan, the more north you go, but now they can do that and there are over 30 varieties … I started to think that there must be somewhere in B.C. where we can adopt Japanese rice growth,” said Shiroki.

He gathered Environment Canada stats about temperature changes and rainfall amounts in different parts of B.C. and compared it to data from his contact in Japan. “I started to see some interesting matches, where we could do this,” he said. “Kamloops, Ashcroft, Agassiz, Lillooet and Chilliwack all came up.”

In May, Shiroki and his wife, Yukiko, planted their first crops of rice, getting right into the fields themselves, but also enlisting farmers to help them. All in all, the couple made more than 10 trips back and forth from Vancouver to various five-by-10 metre plots in Kamloops, Ashcroft and Agassiz to tend to their seedlings. Four months later, when it came to harvesting the rice, the Kamloops crop had been destroyed by birds, but the ones in Ashcroft and Agassiz showed promise.

Next year, the plan is to get a larger plot of land, “a hectare, which is 2.5 acres, and to produce five tons of rice, which is required to support our operation right now. It’s not much. We only produce 1,000 cases a year, but we would be sustainable,” said Shiroki, adding that he would be open to producing more too.

Shiroki is eyeing Agassiz or somewhere else in the Fraser Valley as his top pick because it is relatively close to Vancouver. He will start to meet farmers there in January and, in February, he plans to go back to Japan to finalize arrangements for buying agricultural machinery used for rice planting.

“When it was five-by-10 metres, it was easy to do ourselves by hand, but if it’s a hectare, we need machinery. Some investment will be needed, but it will be worth it.”

Aside from gunning for the tax advantage, said Shiroki, “the other thing is that, increasingly, people want more regional products, to see the faces of who is making what they consume. Sustainability is important. It’s a big theme everywhere.”

jlee-young@vancouversun.com

[via Vancouver Sun]