The Secret Behind Japan’s Wintry Strawberries


MINOH, Japan — Strawberry shortcake. Strawberry mochi. Strawberries à la mode.

These might sound like summertime delights. However in Japan, the strawberry crop peaks in wintertime — a cold season of picture-perfect berries, probably the most immaculate ones promoting for a whole lot of {dollars} apiece to be given as particular presents.

Japan’s strawberries include an environmental toll. To recreate a synthetic spring within the winter months, farmers develop their out-of-season delicacies in enormous greenhouses heated with big, gas-guzzling heaters.

“We’ve come to some extent the place many individuals assume it’s pure to have strawberries in winter,” mentioned Satoko Yoshimura, a strawberry farmer in Minoh, Japan, simply outdoors Osaka, who till final season burned kerosene to warmth her greenhouse all winter lengthy, when temperatures can dip effectively bellow freezing.

However as she stored filling up her heater’s tank with gas, she mentioned, she began to assume: “What are we doing?”

Fruits and veggies are grown in greenhouses everywhere in the world, in fact. The Japan strawberry trade has carried it to such an excessive, nonetheless, that the majority farmers have stopped rising strawberries throughout the far much less profitable hotter months, the precise rising season. As an alternative, in summertime Japan imports a lot of its strawberry provide.

It’s an instance of how trendy expectations of recent produce yr spherical can require stunning quantities of power, contributing to a warming local weather in return for having strawberries (or tomatoes or cucumbers) even when temperatures are plunging.

Up till a number of a long time in the past, Japan’s strawberry season began within the spring and bumped into early summer time. However the Japanese market has historically positioned a excessive worth on first-of-the-season or “hatsumono” produce, from tuna to rice and tea. A crop claiming the hatsumono mantle can convey many instances regular costs, and even snags fevered media protection.

Because the nation’s shopper economic system took off, the hatsumono race spilled over into strawberries. Farms began to compete to convey their strawberries to market earlier and earlier within the yr. “Peak strawberry season went from April to March to February to January, and eventually hit Christmas,” mentioned Daisuke Miyazaki, chief government at Ichigo Tech, a Tokyo-based strawberry consulting agency.

Now, strawberries are a serious Christmas staple in Japan, adorning Christmas desserts offered throughout the nation all December. Some farmers have began to ship first-of-the-season strawberries in November, Mr. Miyazaki mentioned. (Lately, one image excellent Japanese-branded strawberry, Oishii (which suggests “scrumptious”), has turn out to be TikTok-famous however it’s grown by a U.S. firm in New Jersey.)

Japan’s swing towards cultivating strawberries in freezing climate has made strawberry farming considerably extra power intensive. In response to analyses of greenhouse fuel emissions related to varied produce in Japan, the emissions footprint of strawberries is roughly eight instances that of grapes, and greater than 10 instances that of mandarin oranges.

“All of it comes right down to heating,” mentioned Naoki Yoshikawa, a researcher in environmental sciences on the College of Shiga Prefecture in western Japan, who led the produce emissions examine. “And we checked out all points, together with transport, or what it takes to supply fertilizer — even then, heating had the largest footprint.”

Examples like these complicate the concept of consuming native, specifically the concept embraced by some environmentally acutely aware customers of shopping for meals that was produced comparatively shut by, partly to chop down on the gas and air pollution related to delivery.

Basically, although, transportation of meals has much less of a local weather affect than the best way wherein it’s produced, mentioned Shelie Miller, a professor on the College of Michigan who focuses on local weather, meals and sustainability. One examine discovered, for instance, that tomatoes grown regionally in heated greenhouses within the Britain had a larger carbon footprint in comparison with tomatoes grown in Spain (outdoor, and in-season), and shipped to British supermarkets.

Local weather-controlled greenhouses can have advantages: They’ll require much less land and fewer pesticide use, they usually can produce larger yields. However the backside line, Professor Miller mentioned, is that “it’s superb for those who can eat each in-season, and regionally, so your meals is produced with out having so as to add main power expenditures.”

In Japan, the power required to develop strawberries in winter hasn’t confirmed to be only a local weather burden. It has additionally made strawberry cultivation costly, significantly as gas prices have risen, hurting farmers’ backside traces.

Analysis and improvement of berry varieties, in addition to elaborate branding, has helped alleviate a few of these pressures by serving to farmers fetch larger costs. Strawberry varieties in Japan are offered with whimsical names like Beni Hoppe (“purple cheeks”), Koinoka (“scent of affection”), Bijin Hime (“stunning princess.”) Together with different dear fruit like watermelons, they are sometimes given as presents.

Tochigi, a prefecture north of Tokyo that produces extra strawberries than some other in Japan, has been working to sort out each local weather and price challenges with a brand new number of strawberry it’s calling Tochiaika, a shortened model of the phrase, “Tochigi’s beloved fruit.”

Seven years within the making by agricultural researchers at Tochigi’s Strawberry Analysis Institute, the brand new selection is bigger, extra proof against illness, and produces a better yield from the identical inputs, making rising them extra power environment friendly.

Tochiaika strawberries even have firmer pores and skin, reducing down on the variety of strawberries that get broken throughout transit, thereby decreasing meals waste, which additionally has  local weather penalties. In the USA, the place strawberries are grown principally in hotter climates in California and Florida, strawberry patrons discard an estimated one-third of the crop, partly due to how fragile they’re.

And as a substitute of heaters, some farmers in Tochigi use one thing referred to as a “water curtain,” a trickle of water that envelopes the skin of greenhouses, conserving temperatures inside fixed, although that requires entry to ample groundwater. “Farmers can save on gas prices, and assist battle world warming,” mentioned Takayuki Matsumoto, a member of the staff that helped develop the Tochiaika strawberry. “That’s the best.”

There are different efforts afoot. Researchers within the northeastern metropolis of Sendai have been exploring methods to harness solar energy to maintain the temperature inside strawberry greenhouses heat.

Ms. Yoshimura, the strawberry farmer in Minoh, labored in farming a decade earlier than deciding she needed to put off her big industrial heater within the winter of 2021.

A younger mom of 1, with one other on the best way, she had spent a lot of the lockdown days of the pandemic studying up on local weather change. A sequence of devastating floods in 2018 that wrecked the tomato patch on the farm she runs along with her husband additionally woke up her to the risks of a warming planet. “I spotted I wanted to alter the best way I farmed, for the sake of my children,” she mentioned.

However in mountainous Minoh, temperatures can dip to under 20 levels Fahrenheit, or about minus 7 Celsius, ranges at which strawberry vegetation would usually go dormant. So she delved into agricultural research to attempt to discover one other option to ship her strawberries out throughout the profitable winter months, whereas not utilizing fossil gas heating.

She learn that strawberries sense temperatures through part of the plant often called the crown, or the quick thickened stem on the plant’s base. If she may use groundwater, which typically stays at a relentless temperature, to guard the crown from freezing temperatures, she wouldn’t must depend on industrial heating, she surmised.

Ms. Yoshimura fitted her strawberry beds with a easy irrigation system. For further insulation at night time, she coated her strawberries with plastic.

She stresses that her cultivation strategies are a piece in progress. However after her berries survived a chilly snap in December, she took her industrial heater, which had remained on standby at one nook of her greenhouse, and offered it.

Now, she’s working to achieve native recognition for her “unheated” strawberries.  “It will be good,” she mentioned, “if we may simply make strawberries when it’s pure to.”

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