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One Japanese town bets big on high-end organic rice

Dec 04 2018

 

The city of Hakui in Ishikawa Prefecture is using organic rice, which is grown without pesticides or fertilizers, to compete in a growing global market.

With crop prices expected to drop after the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership goes into effect at the end of this month, organic rice grown in Hakui will be exported to the United States next year with a price tag of about ¥2,000 per kilogram.

Hakui’s rice, grown in an area near the border with Toyama Prefecture, is called Mikoharamai and is well-known as the rice offered to the pope.

The city started producing it in 2010 after one of its officials listened to a lecture by an Aomori Prefecture farmer who had succeeded in harvesting organic apples. The city’s agriculture, forestry and fisheries division believes high-end organic farm products will be competitive amid the expected drop in overall prices.

There are a lot of challenges, though. Not only is the crop yield low and uneven, farmers have a rough time fending off stink bugs, aphids and other pests.

Local growers were initially skeptical, citing the downsides of organic rice.

But former municipal official Josen Takano, 63, said he was confident that it would be a success since the ecosystem formed in the paddy fields ensures the rice will be safe to eat despite low yields.

At present, the city produces an average of 40 tons of organic rice — about half the amount grown using pesticides and fertilizers — and imported organic rice is getting cheaper by the year.

“It may be difficult to make a living selling organic rice, but if nobody takes action Japan’s rice paddies will disappear,” said Masaaki Awaki, 49, from the Hakui branch of the Japan Agricultural Cooperative’s sales promotion division.

JA started a workshop in 2010 for farmers in and outside the prefecture looking to learn more about organic crops, attracting more than 500 participants.

Japanese rice is popular overseas with the value of exported rice on the rise. Organic rice grown in Hakui will hit stores next year in San Francisco.

“I hope to make Hakui the holy ground for organic crops,” Awaki said.