Auto parts manufacturer adds mushrooms to lineup（自動車部品製造会社、キクラゲ生産に注目）
An auto parts manufacturer has been attracting many consumers with its domestically produced wood ear mushrooms -- a production actually born from a lighthearted place.
Sakuma Sangyo, located in the town of Kagamiishi, Fukushima Prefecture, has poured the same amount of passion into the cultivation of wood ear as it does in manufacturing auto parts.
The company this year started full-scale cultivation of the mushrooms in a hothouse. With production control that earned respect in the mushroom industry, the company aims to make wood ear mushroom the town's specialty.
In a hothouse at 25 C and 90% humidity, 3,500 fungus beds are lined up to grow wood ear.
"This place is comfortable for wood ear, but we all sweat a lot," said Kazuo Sakuma, 50, who is in charge of cultivation.
The company is already expanding sales channels from the local rest area Machi-no-Eki Kankan Terasu to Michi-no-Eki roadway rest stations, retail stores and inns in the prefecture.
The firm also handles post-harvest processing, and sells fresh, dried, powdered and candied wood ear. Some are used as a return gift under the furusato nozei system, a tax-deductible donation program.
"Wood ear is usually grown as an off-season crop, and the number of fungus beds is about 500 to 1,000 at most in general. We're said to be a big seller," Sakuma said. Even mushroom producing companies are surprised at the volume, he stated.
When Sakuma Sangyo started the production of wood ear, the firm got strange looks. The idea of doing something other than manufacturing auto parts came from light discussions about finding use for a building that had been vacant for several years.
One idea was to raise crocodiles and ostriches to sell low-calorie, high-protein meat, but that idea was soon abandoned due to difficulties in conducting trials.
Then, Sakuma purchased a kit for growing wood ear from the internet, which had been one of the suggestions made by a staff member. Sakuma cultivated the mushroom in his bathroom at home, and "was able to produce surprisingly delicious wood ear," he said.
This playful spirit among the firm's employees has led to the present-day Sakuma Sangyo.
According to Sakuma, more than 90% of wood ear is imported and domestic production is rare. Wood ear is rich in nutrients and is believed to help lower blood sugar and blood pressure, and relieve constipation.
In May last year, he began cultivating the mushroom in the empty building with 300 fungus beds, hoping that it would fit in with the health-conscious society. He also turned to a wood ear producer in the prefecture for advice.
The company's steady promotion efforts have been successful. It has gained many fans -- with some saying they came all the way to the firm's location to purchase its wood ear.
As the firm's main business operations are totally different from its mushroom production, some people have called the company and asked in a puzzled tone of voice whether it really grows mushrooms, Sakuma said.
"Just because we have a different product, it doesn't change the way I think about my work," he said. "Unlike manufacturing work, we get a direct response from consumers when it comes to agricultural products. It's an irreplaceable joy."
（ Translated by The Japan News ）
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