Growing apples in Aomori, Japan
Apple cultivation has such a long and storied history in the Aomori Prefecture that it has become part of the landscape.
The orchards and trees belong to Aomori as much as the Japan Sea and the Pacific Ocean that surround it. And the characteristics of its apples - the texture, taste, color and appearance - have been equally shaped and refined for more than one hundred years. That history continues to lives on through the work of apple farmers like Makoto Nagamine. Together with BASF external relations manager Manabu Itoh and members of the BASF Japan team, we visit Nagamine-san’s family orchard in the Aomori Prefecture, which sits on the North side of Japan’s Honshū Island.
Nagamine-san, now together with his son Yoshitaka, has grown apples for more than 38 years on this family orchard. As the Head of the Aomori Apple Grower Association, Nagamine-san manages his apple business by the motto, “A bigger apple is better business.” Nagamine-san and his fellow apple growers are tasked with maintaining this region’s reputation for both the quantity as well as the quality of its produce. The Aomori Prefecture produces approximately 50 million tons of apples per year, which accounts for a little over half of Japan’s annual apple harvest. Aomori is also the proverbial home to the Fuji variety of apples.
The Fuji apples in Nagamine-san’s orchard are individually hand-wrapped in protective bags, so that they achieve just the right color, sweetness and crispy texture and the farmer can delay maturity of the apples. As we walk through the orchard, these two professionals explain the process known as “bagged cultivation.” It requires intensive labor, time and attention to detail. It starts about 35 days after flowering, when the apples are about 3cm in diameter, Nagamine-san and his team wrap each apple in a layer of wax paper surrounded by a layer of normal paper. Then about four weeks before harvest, they remove the first paper layer, and then about a week later the wax paper layer comes off. “This helps avoid sun damage and prepares the apples to get their color during the last few weeks of ripening,” Nagamine-san explains. “We then lay foil on the ground to provide light from underneath the apple. This complements and rounds out the light from above.”
Nagamine-san also works with BASF to test new products and mixtures, the latest being the fungicide Naria. Nagamine-san provides feedback about what he sees in his orchards, especially how the products are working. Itoh-san emphasizes this collaborative approach. “Collaborations like this help me also to guide my younger colleagues in business,” Nagamine-san says. “Thirty years ago, we were only focused on Japan. Japanese growers produced food for consumers in their local regions, and the market felt rather closed.” But now, he concludes, Japanese agriculture has been influenced by a host of international developments.
Growers here have encountered competition from other markets in Asia Pacific, including India and China. So they have had to diversify their operations and also devise new strategies to compete on the regional and international market.
For his apple harvest, Nagamine-san uses two different distribution channels. First, he markets his Fuji apples directly to consumers. “It’s a difficult job,” he says, “because their first comment is always about the taste. Is it too sweet? Is the texture too hard or too soft? Finding the right balance is challenging.” Second, Nagamine-san markets his Jonagold variety apples through a wholesaler, where the key is to manage the timing as well as the coloring and appearance. Meeting so many different market demands requires precision and timing, which the Aomori apple growers have perfected down to the last centimeter and color tone. It’s only through the passion and continued dedication of experienced professionals like Nagamine-san that this tradition will live on in the orchards of Japan’s Aomori Prefecture.