We finished two great weeks of volunteering at Minami-Alps, joined in our daily tasks by 3 Frenchies, an Australian and Singaporeans. From the breathtaking view of Mount Fuji to Typhoon 19, including days of weeding, we didn’t get bored! As a review, we wanted to know a little more about the activity of the orchard and its current issues with its manager, our host, Kazu.
What is the history of the orchard ? What were the milestones? The dates? When did you start to work in this place and to manage it ?
History ? I don’t know. Maybe some thousands and thousands years.
In Japan, it’s opposite to United States. We were always here. Our parents, grandparents, great great parents, always were here.
So it’s a family farm. Your parents had this farm and they already had peaches, apples…?
No. Talking about the fruit growing in Japan as a mainstream, the fruit growing started in mostly 1960s. Some people still doing before that. It was 70, 80, 90 years ago. But as a mainstream, fruit growing started in mostly in 1960s.Before, people weren’t growing fruits, they were growing rice and then mulberry trees. Mulberry trees to feed the silk worms. But what happened was in 1974. China and Japan got that official diplomacy. And then Chinese ships started to go in Japan and trade. That forced Japanese farmers to stop growing silk worms. So mostly they changed activities in the 70s and 80s. People have started to grow more and more fruits and also Japanese have started eating fruits. They liked it. But then in late 80s while people were growing lots of fruits the price went down. That was international, in many country. Then we were forced to start fruit picking, like a leisure business.
Before that you were selling to the market ?
Yes. From farmer to local market, local market to delivery company, delivery company to major market, then middle one and then finally supermarket. So many, many, many, many people included. Even though your customer buy one apple or peach like 200 ¥ benefit will be maybe just 30 or 50 ¥. And then out of that, many things are excluded. So real benefil will be very little. Now clients come over and then pick. So no middlemen at all. Just us and the customers only.
How is evolving farming and agriculture in Japan? Some people are old now, do you have young people that you can teach to ?
In the 70s / 80s still okay at that time, but in 90s a bubble collapsed in Japan, then people I mean, farmers are getting older and older. Now the average age for fruit farmers or any farmer in Japan is 70 years old. We are encouraging young generation to do that. That’s why, as you can see on our farm many young people come over, they’re learning from us. They’re helping. But we helping them, too. But as a national natural tendency. This is a very rare case.
People are staying in Tokyo or in other big cities ?
People in Tokyo, or big cities like Tokyo, they want to get out of a city. You know, they don’t like city life. Because today they get the stress out of a city, right? Concrete jungle. Narrow space. Things are expensive. And then water and air are not clean. They want to have more green, more space. But the reality is difficult. Even though they dream about moving into the countryside, it’s not that easy. They need to find a job, a fast income. But still some people really want to move to the countryside and then want to start farming, they come over to us, we try to give help to them.
What about climate factors such as typhoons ? How is impacting global warming ? Do you see a difference from some years?
Yes, I give you an example : cherries. Growing cherry is getting very, very difficult. 30 years ago, if I categorize into 5 categories like super good harvest (5), good harvest (4), so so harvest (3), bad harvest (2), very bad harvest (1), maybe bad harvest or very bad harvest used to be maybe one time every five or seven years before. But nowadays one time every two years. I’ve heard from other people, for example, from Australia, they said the same thing. And I’m not talking about typhoon.
Is it about soil quality?
Temperature. As for growing fruit, the most important month is April because April is flower blooming : cherries, apples, plumbs, peaches, pears, whatever you know. We do cross pollination in Japan. In other countries they just use a box of bees. Besides the use of box of bees, Japanese farmers do manually pollination and they do that work in April. And the temperature of April is up compared with 20, 30 years ago. For growing cherry, the temperature for pollination has to be 15 to 20°C. Over 23/25°C, even though you work hard, you pollinate, it cannot get success.
Why don’t you “use” bees?
No, we’re using bees. We’re using bees! But they fly away some kilometers. So if you have a farm here, if you put a box of bees, thousands of bees, you are not guaranteed that they are working for you farm. Whereas for humans, we have a memory so we can remember which branch we pollinate.
But isn’t it long and hard work ?
Yes it is. But Japanese are hard workers.
And about the typhoon itself ? Do you have insurance?
Two years ago 80% of apples were damaged. This year the same. Last year about 1000 pears dropped. And many trees broken. This year also many damages, not just apples. We have insurance but it does not cover except if you get more serious damage.
Can you tell us more about the fertilizers and pesticides ? Do you use it and why ?
Basically, in order to grow fruit, you need to use pesticides. It’s impossible to grow fruit without the use of a pesticide. But you cannot choose any kind of pesticides, Japan is very, very strict. For example if one farm is growing peaches and neighbour growing apple : they check randomly. If one pesticide for apple and not supposed to be used on peach is detected at the market, they all reject.
Also for growing the Japanese fruits in most of the cases like peaches, nectarines, plumbs, apples, pears, grapes, we cover them when they are tiny. Which means that in high percentages pesticides are also blocked. That’s a difference between Japanese fruits and other countries. To be precise, tastier, high quality, sweeter and then also safer.
What about organic farming? Would you like to have a certification?
As I say, for growing fruits, it’s impossible to grow fruit without the use of pesticide. Vegetables, it depends on. Potatoes, carrots or onions, many over them you can grow without the use of pesticide. Except cabbages or Chinese cabbages or letuce.
How do you see the future of your activity? Do you plan to expand ? What about volunteers ?
You know, I think that this is the maximum size for us, as long as we do family business. We family are maybe five people plus 5 or 7 workers. So maybe 10-12 all year round. Plus June to September, on Saturday. Sunday, we hire maybe five or six more. Which means 15-17 in total.
For weeding volunteers help. Weeding and mowing are the basic work, whatever you grow. People come from all over the world, France but even Russia, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Scandinavian countries. Many, many Asian countries. China. Malaysia. Singapore. Taiwan. Hong Kong. Thailand. Australia. New Zealand. Many, many, many. I receive a request for a stay out of roughly 3000 people in a year, I accept maybe a hundred and fifty to two hundred. That’s the maximum.
How will you prepare to typhoons next years ?
This is usual now. We cannot stop, this kind of disaster will occur every year. Which means we have to think for the possibility of damages on September. October. Because of typhoon, maybe we shouldn’t do apple anymore. Very difficult because every time you spend a lot of money and a lot of time. And then damages.
Maybe persimmon is easier ?
As you know, we are doing fruit picking as a business. People come over and they enjoy it. So for this kind of business, there is a ranking : which fruit is a more popular, which are less popular. This trend, though, is changing. 30 years ago, apple picking was very popular, now it’s anymore. So we have to catch this change of trend. And then relatively, as you might have noticed, the customers are young generations. 20s or 30s, maybe 40s. I would say 70-80% young generation. So we have to see what fruit picking they are seeking. Now cherry picking strawberry picking most popular, grape picking peach picking next. Pears, apples, down.
If you are visiting Yamanashi province and would like to help Kazu in his activities: https://www.helpx.net/host.asp?hostid=24462