TOMI, NAGANO PREF. – Grapes grown on Takanobu Watanabe’s farm in Tomi, Nagano Prefecture, are still chartreuse this time of the year, as the summer heat boosts the berries’ sugar content before veraison, the onset of ripening.
“It gets chilly during the night in this region. But the harsh change of temperature is what makes the grapes become sweeter,” Watanabe explained.
The 54-year-old is a rare breed of domestic farmer who is looking forward to Japan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and expanding free-trade pacts. Most of his colleagues feel threatened by the idea of having to face overseas competitors.
But Watanabe feels a change of environment and the stress of competition will ultimately bear sweet fruit, just like his grapes.
“I am in complete support of Japan joining the TPP pact,” he said.
Complex negotiations have only just begun between Japan and the TPP members, as Tokyo tries to have some say over the finalized rules that are to be concluded at the end of the year. But no industry appears more in jeopardy than Japan’s farmers, who are determined to retain tariffs on certain produce.
“The loss of agricultural production in Japan will reach ¥3.4 trillion if all tariffs are removed against the 11 countries that are members of the TPP negotiations,” the agricultural ministry said in a report released in March.
According to the ministry, many domestic farm products that are protected comprehensively by tariffs today — including wheat, butter and sugar — will disappear once cheaper foreign produce enters the country without restraint. Production of domestic rice will fall by 34 percent, tantamount to a loss of over ¥1 trillion, the ministry said.
In fact, if the TPP negotiators fail to exempt Japan’s limited farm produce, the agricultural ministry forecast that the nation’s food self-sufficiency rate, based on the amount of calories consumed, will fall from an already-small 40 percent to as low as 27 percent.
The influence of the TPP on Japan’s farming industry “will not only have a huge impact on the economy, the communities and the country’s food self-sufficiency rate,” the Japan Agricultural Cooperative, which has been very vocal when it comes to protecting its members, has said of the free-trade partnership. “It may even change our lives completely.”
Government estimates and JA doomsday predictions paint farmers into a hopeless corner, driven out of their jobs and homes once the new trade pact is agreed upon. Many reckon the TPP will bring high times for Japan’s manufacturers and hard times for agriculture.
Grape farmer Watanabe, however, sees things differently. He believes domestic farmers should welcome the new rules because of the challenge it will pose. There is no reason not to treat farming as a business, and, like manufacturers or electronics firms, any chance to boost demand should always be welcome, he said.
“With Japan facing an aging society, I see no reason why we should hesitate in jumping at the opportunity to provide our products to overseas customers,” he said. “I also feel that being overprotective of one thing only makes it weak.”
Watanabe, whose family has owned the grape farm in Nagano for generations, manages the 1.4-hectare crop along with six employees. He takes pride in what he grows, saying his clients “won’t be swayed by whatever type of grapes are imported” under the TPP.
The 20-tons of grapes harvested at his farm are grown under meticulous care. The vines are grown on a perfect blend of soil that his farm surveyed and studied for years. Each cluster is trimmed to hold exactly 40 berries for the best outcome.
Watanabe’s finest “kyoho” grapes are placed in fancy gift boxes, displayed in show windows at fruit parlors in Tokyo and sold for ¥10,000.
“I once visited a grape farm in Australia that had about 4,000 hectares. I was surprised to see grapes being thrown by hand there. I could see that they don’t share the same philosophy as we do,” Watanabe said.
Imported grapes don’t stand a chance of competing with his brand, Watanabe said. But his grapes have the potential to appeal to wealthy customers worldwide, if they are willing to shell out for the best on the market.
Watanabe is a member of JA but doesn’t rely on the organization alone to sell his products. He has a list of clients who appreciate the quality of his grapes and does business directly with them. Business is expanding. Annual sales are forecast to reach a record ¥60 million this year and surpass ¥100 million within five years.
To add more names to his client list, Watanabe said he will visit the Philippines later this year to research the market’s potential and study whether his brand of grapes can be grown in the region. The TPP will back his ambitions of expanding his business overseas, he said.
Some of Japan’s top entrepreneurs believe farmers like Watanabe could be the ones who push the agricultural sector forward.
In a proposal to the government’s industrial competitiveness council in February, Rakuten Inc. CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, Lawson Inc. President Takeshi Niinami and others said it is “crucial” that the government shift its policy toward domestic farming and stimulate growth in the industry.
The government “must endorse efforts (by farmers) to export their products,” the entrepreneurs said in a statement. They also laid out a 10-year plan for the government to boost agricultural exports, saying that if appropriate measures are taken, Japan can become a leading fruit exporter.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is also not shying away from setting bold targets for domestic farmers, saying recently that the government is ready to double the income of the agricultural sector in the next 10 years.
Grape farmer Watanabe said he couldn’t tell whether such numbers are realistic. Increasing agricultural exports has been something he has urged for years, but to little avail, he said.
But on Watanabe’s farm, his grapes are growing heavy and ready to face competition.
“I am pretty confident about what grows on my farm,” Watanabe said. “I am excited that there could be a whole new market for what I grow.”