In chilly Hokkaido, farmer uses hot spring to grow mangoes

by

Kyodo

In the cold, snowy town of Teshikaga, Hokkaido, Mitsumune Murata was contemplating how to make use of a plot of land with a hot spring when he came up with a unique idea: mangoes.

Murata is a big fan of onsen (spas), but did not feel like constructing a hot springs facility as there already were many in the neighborhood’s Mashu Onsen area. So he decided to use that thermal energy to heat greenhouses instead.

Perhaps because the tropical fruit was too far removed from the common image of wintry Hokkaido, friends he consulted were all skeptical of his plan and said the business would not work. The negative responses just made him more determined to give it a try.

“Since everyone is saying this is (unfeasible), I thought it would be rather interesting if I actually succeed in making it happen,” the 63-year-old president of Farm People, a local agricultural production corporation, recalled.

Heat from hot water running through underground pipes keeps the greenhouses at around 25 degrees during the day. Even at night when the outside temperature drops to minus 25, it remains a toasty 20 degrees inside. And thanks to the spa water, costs are much lower than using fuel-fed heaters, Murata said.

After establishing his company in September 2011, Murata consulted experienced mango farmers from Miyazaki and Kagoshima prefectures, two of Japan’s main producers of the fruit. Two years later, in 2013, the farm harvested its first batch of mangoes under the brand name Gokkan Kanjuku Mango — Mashuko no Yuhi (roughly translated as Fully Ripened Mango from the Severe Cold — Sunset at Lake Mashu).

The fruit has bright, dense orange flesh, and a fair sugar content.

In Japan, mangoes are usually harvested from spring through summer, with growers in the southwestern prefectures of Miyazaki, Kagoshima and Okinawa producing 95 percent of the domestic crop, the agriculture ministry said.

But Murata’s mangoes hit the market between November and March, making them a novel and popular purchase during the traditional oseibo gift-giving season in December.

The farm expects to ship about 20,000 mangoes this season. “We aim to increase the shipment to 80,000 in three years,” Murata said.

Murata also shared a little secret — he had actually never eaten a mango before he conceived the idea of growing the fruit himself. Now, all he tastes is sweet success.