Innovative thinking bears fruit
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.
Yoshiyuki Okaki with juicy grapes on his property near the Japanese city of Nagano.