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ICAL 2014: Days 8-10 in Japan
Editor’s Note: The International Collegiate Agricultural Leadership (I-CAL) program travels overseas to learn about global agriculture and international marketing. The group of 12 Collegiate FFA members departed the U.S. on May 20 for a 10-day tour of Japan where they engaged U.S. Embassy officials and government leaders; toured feed mills, animal markets, small farms and livestock operations; and toured food processing plants, among other activities. ICAL 2014 is made possible through support from The Grains Foundation.
Day 8 – Albert’s farm
Today we had the opportunity to visit a rice farmer named Albert.
Albert showed us a friend’s rice farm that is located on a mountain side. Planting in the mountains requires terrace paddies – or multiple flooded fields built in step on a hillside that requires water to filter down from other fields. Terrace paddy farming is high risk because farmers depend upon other fields out of their control for irrigation. The limited space on the terrace makes planting and harvesting with equipment near impossible. The price of rice is continuing to drop here, making it more difficult to make it ones only source of income. However, rice from the mountains often tastes better because of the cold water used from the mountains.
Albert’s farm consists of approximately ten acres surrounded by many houses on flat land. Planting and harvesting his rice takes about one month each. In the area where Albert is located, the average size farm ranges from two to three acres. However in other places in Japan, the average is about 100 acres.
Two of Albert’s rice paddies will go towards the production of the popular Japanese drink sake. Albert chooses to market and sell his own product without the help of a cooperative. If he chose to sell to the cooperative he said it would be much more difficult to break even.
When asked about land prices, Albert mentioned that the land cost has lowered over the years, making it less tempting to sell his land than the temptation of high prices 10 years ago.
We were able to meet Albert’s wife as well who had been an English teacher at the local school for over 30 years. She gifted us a walnut sponge cake to enjoy after our lunch.
Following the rice paddy visit, we stopped at a World Heritage Site and viewed original Japanese housing with a bountiful landscape of lilly pad fields, rice paddies, and coy fish ponds. The crew had a fun time learning about Japanese traditions and values.
Day 9 – Yokota mushrooms
We departed from Takayama early this morning heading back to Tokyo, but on the way we had an awesome visit with Shiitake Brothers Mushroom Farm near Nagoya.
Mr. Chihiro Yokota gave us the grand tour of his operation and his family owned store. The farm is own by Chihiro and his two brothers. The operation was started by their parents in 1947 and continues to flourish. Today it is one of the top five largest shiitake mushroom farms in the country.
First we entered one of his 20 greenhouses where mushroom cultivars are grown on triangular formations of oak logs. Why triangular formations? It’s simple: the triangles provide more strength, giving them more ability to withstand Japan’s common earthquakes.
“Shii,” meaning chestnut, is the name of these mushrooms because they were originally grown on chestnut logs. However, oaks have thicker bark and allow fewer but larger mushrooms to penetrate.
Shiitake mushrooms may also be grown in beds; however, the Shiitake Brothers prefer the log method. Ninety percent of Japan’s mushrooms are grown in beds with only ten percent being grown like they are on this particular operation. Beds are easier to create, and mass production of mushrooms is made simpler, which makes mushrooms produced in this manner much cheaper for consumers. Log cultivated mushrooms are sold at a price some 30 percent higher than their counterparts
The Yokota family prefers log cultivation because they can produce their harvests using no chemicals at all. For this reason many believe the mushrooms are not only more healthy, but tastier. Even though they are grown in this manner they cannot be sold as organic because mushrooms are considered forestry products rather than agricultural products and are marketed outside the realm of organic.
The germination method in use at the mushroom farm was probably the most interesting part of the I-CAL team’s visit. Logs are placed in a holder and mechanically banged against a wall to replicate the sensation of thunder in the mountains. They are then soaked in water to replicate rain that follows thunder. It is believed that mushrooms produce more heavily during such conditions as a survival mechanism. The producer said this is a very primitive technique, but it is a very important one to his production.
Harvest is done twice a day by hand, and each log can be used eight times over a one-year period. On average each year, they harvest 50 metric tons of fresh mushrooms and an additional 1,500 kilograms of dried mushrooms. Between uses, the log is rested for 40 days in a greenhouse at 25 degrees Celsius, which mimics the mountain environment.
After leaving the farm, we hopped on a bullet train and headed back to Tokyo for our final night in Japan. We ate a traditional shabu-shabu meal, which is thinly sliced meats and vegetables cooked in hot broth. We concluded the night making lasting memories partaking in a favorite Japanese pastime: karaoke.
Day 10 – Yamada, soybeans & goodbye
During our final tour day in Japan, the group visited The Yamada Foods Company. Yamada is a soybean processing plant that imports 40 percent of its beans from the U.S.
With 3 locations in Japan, the company employs over 500 people to help produce products such as soy milk, soy yogurt, tofu, and the famous Japanese favorite: natto. In fact, natto is so popular that it covers approximately 92 percent of Yamada Food’s sales.
Natto was invented more than 900 years ago. After a family conflict war, an army asked local farmers to give them something to eat on their way back. The farmers gave boiled soybeans in straw bags. With the straw bags being carried on the horses back, Natto was born.
Natto has a sticky, slimy, and odorous smell, however many seem to enjoy the product just as Americans might enjoy sauerkraut. After becoming popular, sales declined briefly because of beef and milk promotion in Japan. In 2012, however, the sales increased over 10 percent because of a marketing campaign about the nutritious health benefits through a television program. This product includes nutrients such as vitamin K2, B6, B12, K2, and lecithin. Many who eat this product care deeply about their health or the health of the baby in an expecting mother. With this health campaign, Yamada Foods hopes to expand their market and export even larger quantities to their current importers including the U.S., China, Europe and Korea.
At the end of the tour, we were given several samples of natto. Some of us loved it instantly. Others felt that it was an acquired taste. All in all, it was incredible to see the growth of Yamada Foods through third generation family members running the company up to the fourth largest soybean processing plant in Japan. Also, it was interesting to see the different types of soybean consumption in Japan where the United States supplies most of the product.
After our last tour in Japan, it was time for goodbyes as well as as some reflection upon the trip. Not only did we reach our goals and expectations of the I-CAL program as whole, but we fell in love with the Japanese culture, customs, and pride of their agriculture. At our debriefing session in the airport, the team completed a SWOT (strengths,weaknesses,opportunities, and threats) analysis. We all agreed that it was an honor to participate in this once in a lifetime experience to travel overseas to one of the most beautiful countries and learn about international agriculture. Not only did we expand our knowledge of global marketing, trade, and production, but we made long lasting memories and relationships that will always be remembered.