In­no­va­tive think­ing bears fruit

The West Australian - - OPINION - Shane Wright Eco­nom­ics Ed­i­tor

The grapes are large, round, sweet and lus­cious. Clutch­ing a sin­gle stalk, the fruit are quite un­like any­thing that you might find in an Aus­tralian vine­yard or lo­cal su­per­mar­ket.

These spe­cial Ja­panese grapes are also dif­fer­ent to their Aus­tralian coun­ter­parts in an­other way — their price.

In high-end fruit stores or across some of Tokyo’s top depart­ment stores, these grapes can sell for ¥16,000 a bunch.

Or al­most $200 for about 350g of grape beauty.

Sto­ries of ex­pen­sive grapes, mel­ons or mush­rooms that cost what most fam­i­lies would spend a week on their to­tal gro­cery bill are le­gion across Ja­pan.

Not so, how­ever, those who grow them.

One of these spe­cial peo­ple is Yoshiyuki Okaki who lives near his crops just out­side the western city of Nagano.

He may be a third-gen­er­a­tion farmer but his busi­ness acu­men would be a chal­lenge to any Aus­tralian pro­ducer who might think of their Ja­panese com­peti­tors as a cos­seted bunch.

Look­ing closely at chang­ing Ja­panese taste trends, he was one of the first to take on the chal­lenge of plant­ing a new breed, called shine mus­cat, that now com­mand huge price pre­mi­ums.

He di­rectly sells his prod­uct in el­e­gantly pre­sented pack­ag­ing that would shame Aus­tralian su­per­mar­kets.

And, like any good farmer, he is look­ing ahead.

Mr Okaki was at the re­cent launch of a new type of grape that the lo­cal Nagano Pre­fec­ture re­search cen­tre had been work­ing on, and which the farmer is plan­ning to start plant­ing on his few acres.

The new va­ri­ety prom­ises to be even sweeter but, more im­por­tantly for the Ja­panese mar­ket, will of­fer a dif­fer­ent colour to the tra­di­tional green or pur­ple.

This is a man who has been grow­ing grapes since the 1970s, near­ing the end of his ca­reer be­fore pass­ing it on, de­cid­ing to make a an­other ma­jor change that will have ram­i­fi­ca­tions for years to come.

“You have to have a unique vi­sion, have to think of new strate­gies and de­vel­op­ments on the farm and how to sell our prod­uct,” he says.

Di­rectly con­nected to the ef­forts of Mr Okaki sits a group of young and smart men who are holed up in a small of­fice that could only be de­scribed as shady.

Sit­ting atop a “hard liquor” bar and with a ho­tel around the cor­ner that rents by the hour, this is the last place you’d ex­pect to find an up­start im­port-ex­port busi­ness hop­ing to sell high-end grapes and ap­ples to the world.

Sho­hei Naito, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ni­hon Agri, runs the firm with three high school class­mates — Reiji Na­gata, Ak­i­hiro Nakat­suka and Wuyang Zhou.

The four young men de­cided two years ago they could ef­fec­tively com­pete against a huge lo­cal co-op­er­a­tive by find­ing grow­ers in a north­ern part of Ja­pan and match­ing their pro­duce with ex­pand­ing tastes in South-East Asia.

That led to Mr Naito talk­ing to the Thai-based head of a busi­ness who was pre­pared, on the back of a high-qual­ity Ex­cel spread­sheet, to take a punt on the four lads from Tokyo.

A ship­ment of qual­ity grapes to Thai­land and the busi­ness was on its way with sales to Hong Kong and Tai­wan.

Mr Naito, hop­ing to source high-qual­ity ap­ples that could fill the lull in lo­cal sup­ply through the loom­ing win­ter, ac­tu­ally vis­ited Tas­ma­nia and Vic­to­ria hop­ing to find the sort of fruit de­manded by Ja­pan’s finicky cus­tomers.

He couldn’t, in­stead tak­ing some fruit from New Zealand.

He said while he al­ways had an in­ter­est in agri­cul­ture, just grow­ing a small vine­yard of grapes was not enough.

“Hav­ing an or­chard meant I could only have a small im­pact. I think do­ing this means we can af­fect a lot of peo­ple, make a real dif­fer­ence,” he said.

The ex­port na­ture of the busi­ness is also recog­ni­tion of the fact the pop­u­la­tion of Ja­pan is shrink­ing.

Fewer high priced grapes and ap­ples will be needed in com­ing years but the de­mand for such lux­ury, niche goods is grow­ing in other parts of Asia.

Be­tween the ex­pe­ri­enced Mr Okaki and the McKin­sey-trained men of Ni­hon Agri, the na­ture of Ja­panese farm­ing — and what it could teach Aus­tralian pro­duc­ers — is ev­i­dent.

While Aus­tralia rev­els in vast broad­acre crops, huge runs of live­stock and mass pro­duc­tion of good-qual­ity hor­ti­cul­ture, the Ja­panese farm­ing sec­tor has had to fo­cus on its few ad­van­tages.

With lit­tle arable land and de­mand­ing cus­tomers who ex­pect the ab­so­lute best all the time, farm­ers have looked at niche prod­ucts with high re­turns. And rather than get stuck in their ways, these farm­ers are try­ing dif­fer­ent things in a bid to keep alive some­thing they love.

In the case of Ni­hon Agri, it’s ac­tu­ally bought one small farm and is pre­pared to buy oth­ers but keep lo­cal farm­ers work­ing the soil. “There are peo­ple who love farm­ing but don’t want to fo­cus on the busi­ness side of things, so that’s some­thing we’re pre­pared to look at,” Mr Naito says.

In the case of Mr Okaki, he started with ap­ples and rice but grad­u­ally moved into grapes.

And he main­tains a deep in­ter­est in the busi­ness side of his pur­suit (he has his own web­site www.okak­i­farm.jp).

Over green tea and some of his beau­ti­ful grapes, he asks if I know of some land that might be avail­able in Aus­tralia.

His idea? Grow some of his pro­duce in Aus­tralia so it could be shipped to Ja­pan dur­ing its off-sea­son.

Aus­tralia, with a pop­u­la­tion of 25 mil­lion, has more farm­ers than Ja­pan, pop­u­la­tion 120 mil­lion.

Ja­pan’s agri­cul­tural sec­tor is tiny and get­ting smaller, while its farm­ers av­er­age age is north of 67 years.

Is­sues com­mon to Aus­tralia, such as suc­ces­sion plan­ning, ex­treme weather (a re­cent typhoon caused ma­jor prob­lems for lo­cal ap­ple grow­ers) and a so­ci­ety in­creas­ingly dis­tant from agri­cul­ture, are part and par­cel of farm­ing in Ja­pan.

But along the en­tire pro­duc­tion chain there are those who be­lieve Ja­pan has a fu­ture in sup­ply­ing fresh food to lo­cals and ex­port mar­kets.

Those ex­pen­sive grapes will not go un­eaten.

We can make a real dif­fer­ence.

Pic­ture: Shane Wright

Yoshiyuki Okaki with juicy grapes on his prop­erty near the Ja­panese city of Nagano.

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