Travelogue 2014 – J.A. Bailes

Tsugaru, Japan’s Farmland

By J.A. Bailes

When you arrive in the Aomori area, which is roughly the latitude of Massachusetts, you are in another world. A world that at one time is connected to the high tech hyper speed land that brought us micro electronics and the Prius, and at the same time is like being in a completely different country.

To say the Tsugaru region is “country side” from a guy who lives in the country side, would be unfair. However, when you fly from Tokyo to the Aomori airport, you are transported to a simpler, slower area that concentrates on agriculture. Sure, there are some tall buildings and traffic in the cities, but once you travel just a few kilometers from the city, you are surrounded by a vast food producing region that is proud of the products they provide to the rest of Japan and the world.

The over whelming crop in the area is of course, rice. The Japanese government subsidized rice production, so if you own a farm in Japan, it is in your best interest to grow at least some rice. In Aomori, and specifically the Tsugaru region, you drive past hectare after hectare of rice fields. In August, the warm breezes wash across the rice stalks creating silver wave patterns in the ocean of green.

Other crops make the Tsugaru area more famous than their rice production however. Apples are grown on massive orchards in the foothills of the surrounding mountains. Tomatoes and leeks are other large crops in the area, as well as soybeans. But one crop is famous above all others.

The Tsugaru city and Aomori prefecture melon industry is quite large. While watermelon is a large part of the melon crop for Tsugaru, Honey Dew melon is the “cash crop” for the region. As you drive through the region, past all those rice fields, you see smaller areas covered with low tent structures made of plastic and cloth. These structures protect honey dew melon plants from a host of threats like direct sun and birds.

melon picking
melon picking

The melons are grown with devoted care that reminded me of raising small animals. Each melon is regularly turned in a special cradle, keeping the fruit from direct contact with the ground. The melons are carefully watched to be sure they are harvested at the perfect time to produce fruit that has high sugar content. More on that later. These are the melons many readers may have heard about. These are the melons that you can see in Tokyo for sale around the summer festival time for upwards of $50.00. More on that later too.

While the overall land area devoted to melon production in Tsugaru pales when compared to rice production, the crop is quite lucrative. There are only about 300 farmers that currently manage land for melon production in Tsugaru. The melons fields are dotted throughout the area and appear to be much less than one might think. However the total land area in Tsugaru devoted to melon production alone is over 4,000 hectares, or just under 9,000 acres.

Getting figures for average product yield was a bit difficult, but the average revenue from these farms is about $6,000 per hectare, or about $24,000,000 annually. A tour of a local melon processing plant introduced me to how the melons are sorted and graded to separate those $50.00 melons from the melons you can find just down the aisle in Japanese grocery stores for $3.00 and $4.00.

The melons grown in this rural farmland are run through a high tech processing plant that sorts the melons based on size, weight, and skin pattern. The melons are scanned for density, much like a chicken egg, by passing past a bright light. The melons then pass through a computer controlled system that scans the skin pattern around the stem area. This scan compares the pattern to a database that over time has been developed to provide an indication of sugar content. The melons are then weighed and the three factors, the scan, skin pattern and weight, are used to grade the melons.

One of the final steps still requires a human touch, literally. All the melons pass through a gauntlet of experienced women who check each one for firmness and damage. Then the melons are sorted into groups of six and packed into boxes by computer controlled robots. The premium melons, the ones that get the highest price, are packed into specific boxes and labeled as the highest quality.

Touring the melon packing plant
Touring the melon packing plant

When we arrived at the melon plant the season was just about over, but during the peak season the plant packs and ships over 9,000 cases of melons per day. These cases are sent directly from Tsugaru to locations all over Japan and Asia. The plant we visited ships only about 20% of the Tsugaru and Aomori melon crop, so throughout the region there are about five other processing plants. The melon season winds down just in time for the apple season, and the workers who operate the melon plant migrate to the foothills to work in the apple industry picking, and grading apples, much like they do for melons during the summer. This provides in essence, full time work.