PUTNAM — When Yoko Takemura established Assawaga Farm with partner Alex Carpenter, she decided to grow vegetables used in Japanese cooking because it’s different than what’s typically found in Eastern Connecticut, and it’s also a part of her own upbringing.
“I wanted to be able to eat these things and share it with folks,” Takemura said.
The two started Assawaga Farm in 2016, growing all sorts of vegetables, but emphasizing those found in Japanese cooking, on 3/4 of an acre in Putnam. The farm now offers 58 types of vegetables, and a total of 150 varieties of those vegetables, along with herbs.
To be clear, the vegetables grown at the farm aren’t always ones people are entirely unfamiliar with, such as less common varieties of eggplant or cucumber. Some of the distinctly Japanese vegetables include komatsuna, a leafy green also known as mustard spinach, and edamame, which are immature soybeans to be eaten inside or outside of the pod.
Others are associated with Japanese cooking, but aren’t native to Japan as, for example, okra originates from Africa. This applies as well to many foods seen as conventional in American cooking.
“When you grow up eating something, you assume this vegetable is from here, but when you think about it, there’s so many things that come from other countries that you don’t know about,” Takemura said.
It’s also important to understand the different ways people in different cultures might eat the same food, as it creates understanding and opens up people to new things, “not just in the space of food, but in other areas,” she said.
Becca Toms, communications coordinator for the University of Connecticut's College of Agriculture Health and Natural Resources, said people may consider growing food from their culture, as it may be hard to find in a given area, even with suitable conditions.
“If people aren’t growing that, and don’t know about it, because it's not from their culture, the folks that are going to be going out looking for that food aren’t going to have it,” she said. “(Growing these foods) is an important thing for helping culture and people’s heritage be carried on.”
Statewide, agriculture is a $4.2 billion industry responsible for 20,000 jobs, according to the Connecticut Farm Bureau.
Experimenting with different crops in CT
Some types of vegetables grown at Assawaga Farm are always sold out because of their popularity, like broccolini, but Takemura said she’s fine with that, as the farm isn’t a large farm that can grow acres and acres of something.
“You can’t get too fixated on one variety, and think it’s going to do well forever, “ she said.
Planting different varieties means, with weather conditions and diseases, that some survive and others don’t.
Italian cuisine in Colchester'Where I wanted to be': Fornarelli’s second restaurant a homecoming for co-owner
Assawaga Farm originally stuck to farmers markets in Boston, as Takemura thought the produce might not sell locally. Taking up retail sales during the pandemic, through a farm stand on Sundays, showed Takemura that local residents are interested.
“Demand for our vegetables keeps going up, and we’re hiring more and more people every year, so we can do more things with that,” she said.
Even though organic produce can have some small imperfections, customers like the freshness, she said. They note how long the produce keeps, and report liking not strictly relying on the larger food system, which the pandemic has shown to be prone to shortages, Takemura said.
Toms also said people might also be attracted to different varieties of food for health reasons.
How did Takemura get into farming?
Takemura constantly moved while she was young, she said.
“Growing up, I never really had the opportunity to visit farms and try harvesting vegetables,” she said. “I got into it late in the game, but I’m glad I did eventually.”
Her first experience in farming was the Riverbank Farm in Roxbury, getting interested in community-supported agriculture and sustainable food systems when she was in graduate school. She stayed there for three years.
Eventually, she got together with Carpenter, and started to look for a place to call their own. The two of them found raw land and built everything from the ground up, from the buildings to the septic system.
While Takemura didn't disclose how much the farm makes, she said she and Carpenter are able to hire three employees during the busy times of the year, totaling five employees.
Looking forward, Takemura said with the farm’s sixth season, she hopes to grow the employee count, giving her back more free time to enjoy the outdoors.
This article originally appeared on The Bulletin: Assawaga Farm in Putnam brings Japanese vegetables to Connecticut