Strawberry fields forever

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Strawberry fields forever

In March 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit Yamamoto-cho, Miyagi prefecture. The 10-meter (33-foot) waves swept away buildings and houses and left 40 percent of the village underwater. Six hundred and thirty-six residents - 4 percent of the population of 16,711 - lost their lives, and 9,000 were left without homes. The bodies were dug up and buried together. The survivors had to worry about making ends meet, as most of the farms, fields, factories and stores were devastated. People left the town one after another. About 4,000 have left, and now that five years have passed, 12,566 people are left.

I visited Yamamoto-cho recently, and the scars of the tsunami could easily be seen. Houses were empty and fields were deserted, and some people still live in temporary housing. Five years went by fast, but the wounds remained unhealed. Until the Tohoku earthquake, Yamamoto-cho was known as the major producer of strawberries in Japan. But 95 percent of the fields growing strawberries were swept away by the waves, and farmers were in despair.

When there seemed to be no hope, a venture businessman with no experience in farming came to the rescue. Hiroki Iwasa, 38, closed his IT business in Tokyo and returned to his hometown. He went around and asked people, “What do we need to revive the village?” But he could not find the answer easily. One day, about six months later, he changed the question and soon found a solution. When he asked, “What did we take pride in?” people said, “Strawberries.”

In January 2012, agricultural production company GRA was founded. Iwasa used his management strategies and IT know-how from his start-up and set up an advanced model of strawberry farming. In order to produce high-quality fruit, he focused on the climate control systems in greenhouses. He did not rely on the experiences and instincts of farmers when setting the temperature, humidity and duration of sunshine. Instead, he got advice from master farmers and collected data to create a computer control program. Workers carry a smartphone and control the cultivation environment.

Red strawberries were growing in the 1-meter-tall cultivation shelves. They are 1.5 to two times sweeter and have vivid colors, labeled as Migaki Ichigo, or glossy strawberries, each berry is sold for 1,000 yen ($9) at department stores in Tokyo. The case features a diamond logo, marketing them as “edible jewels.” The company is building brewing facilities to produce strawberry liquor, wine and apple liquor. Domestic and international farmers and tourists are coming to tour Ichigo World, a year-round farming facility.

On Feb. 26, GRA CEO Iwasa visited a high school in Iwate prefecture, another region struck by the tsunami. “Instead of looking for reasons that it cannot be done, challenge first,” he said. “The very first step can move people and money.” He also expressed a plan to add 10,000 jobs in 10 years. The hope from strawberries brought about a revival and is leading to the future.

The author is the Tokyo correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 8, Page 30


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