GUTIAN, China – Farmers in this mountainous area in the eastern Chinese coastal province of Fujian know they have one big advantage over many other mountain-locked farmers — humid air and an annual temperature of 18 degrees.
With that kind of climate, they know what to grow and grow well: shiitake mushrooms, and plenty of them.
High-quality, moderately priced fresh shiitake have made their way to Japan via Shanghai over the years and have provided a lucrative source of income for poor farmers in the region.
But many farmers who are in the red now face an additional, unexpected woe — Japan’s decision to curb shiitake imports.
The mushrooms are grown cheaply in Gutian in simple vinyl greenhouses. They become an increasing source of cash from October to April when rice and other crops cannot be cultivated here, some 700 meters above sea level.
As more and more farmers turned to shiitake, the market saturation has caused prices to crumble this season.
At present, 1 kg of the delicious fungi that is particularly favored in Japanese cuisine fetches a mere 2 yuan, or just 30 yen — less than half last year’s prices.
“We’re already in the red and can’t possibly go on if prices keep falling,” said one Gutian shiitake grower.
Another shiitake farmer, Yuan Shenxing, 31, said his income this year is about 70 percent what he has spent on his mushroom-growing business.
“If prices keep falling, we will be in trouble,” he said, visibly bewildered about what he might do to change the situation.
A third shiitake grower, Zheng Yidong, 50, said he started growing mushrooms in Gutian last year after being laid off from a state-run fertilizer plant. He and a friend invested 50,000 yuan in the venture.
“This year, we are making just half the money we sank into the business,” Zheng said, blaming the falling prices for his woes.
Zheng said he plans to cut production next year, but Japan’s decision to curb imports — effective from April 23 for 200 days — is likely to torpedo Zheng’s plans.
Many shiitake growers in Gutian, a four-hour drive from Fujian’s capital Fuzhou, said they were unaware of Japan’s decision to curb imports, which has emerged as a source of trade friction between China and Japan.
Tokyo contends that soaring imports of Chinese-grown shiitake — along with stone leeks and rushes, which are used to make tatami mats — hurt Japanese farmers. It thus decided to impose the import curb under the “safeguard” mechanism of trade rules sanctioned by the World Trade Organization.
China has strongly protested the Japanese decision, and shiitake dealers are nonplussed about the measure.
“Those who are familiar with the situation in China must have known that production would have to be cut next year,” a Chinese dealer said.
“I can’t understand why (Japan) imposed the safeguard at this time.”
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