Monday, June 17, 2013

Samurai Farmers

Yosuke Okuba at the United Nations University Farmers Market.
Two weeks ago I met Satoshi Umezawa at the United Nations University Farmers Market, bought some beets, and found inspiration. Moments later, drawn to his table by the citrus for sale there, I met the representative of another grower with another amazing story to tell.

Yosuke Okuba comes each week to sell fruit from his family orchard in Ehime, a western prefecture of Shikouku Island. Famous for its pilgrimage route as well as its many orchards, I remember marvelling during our WWOOF experience there not just at the sandy soil, but at the hillsides draped with orchards. Everywhere we looked there was citrus - mountains dripped with the orange fruit while the roadside stands bulged with fruit. Set against the bright blue sky of those January days and the ocean's deep blue of those January days it was a magical landscape.

Yosuke's family started farming there at the end of the Edo Period (1603 - 1868). Like all samurai they found themselves looking at a penniless future when the civil war ended and the old system was abolished. "They sold all their swords, bought land and became farmers," he said as we talked. "In the early years they grew potatoes and vegetables, but at the end of Showa Period (1926 - 1989) they began to grow citrus."  It was a lucrative new market full of opportunity. The Okuba's planted their mountainsides in citrus, keeping only enough fields in rice and vegetables to supply themselves.

At some point, though, his parents decided to step away from Japan Agriculture (JA). It was a risky decision as, especially in rural areas in those days, JA was a farmers primary connection to larger markets, to supplies, to experts in the field, to information about market trends.

"My parents," he told me, "would work all day and then drive their fruit to cities near and far to sell it." They pushed and peddled on their own so they could farm their way and probably receive more of the profit, too. He told stories of neighbors asking what his parents were doing, where they were going. He was six or seven then. He didn't really answer both out of youthful ignorance and a sense of needing to protect his family's interests.

Their efforts, it would seem, paid off. While the Okuba's don't do any on-line sales, they have no trouble moving their fruit and juice. All sales are word of mouth. "Our customers do the selling for us," he said. "They like our fruit and juice so much that they tell their friends. We only receive phone calls." His brother, looking young and hip on the brochure Yosuke hands me with my fruit, farms with his parents and helps other young farmers get established. People now come to ask how Yosuke's parents managed to find customers and his parents are glad to help them discover ways to keep their land in production. "We want to be able to do something for others," he said.

2 comments:

Rosanna said...

h, I would love to taste some of that citrus juice! Great post!

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

It was such good juice. I have seriously never tasted anything quite like it before. I can see why his customers rave about it to their friends!