• Kyodo

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Aomori Prefecture produces about 70 percent of all garlic cultivated in Japan and boasts a staggering market share. But it is faced with a rise in production costs and an offensive from low-priced imports.

Garlic production thrives in the village of Temmabayashi, population 9,000, near the city of Aomori. But growers there, such as Teruo Tashima, 52, are worried about their future.

“There will be no garlic producers in the village if the present situation continues,” he said.

Aomori farmers first began growing garlic in line with a government policy to cut back on the amount of land devoted to rice to check a surplus of the grain.

Farmers in Temmabayashi began growing “mild garlic” on land converted from paddies and put the cloves on sale in 1992. They were a hit with consumers, who learned the garlic tasted the same as other varieties but produced less odor after being eaten.

Sales hit 55 million yen the first year and ballooned to 714 million yen in 1999. The product gained a significant foothold in Tokyo and other major consumer areas. It also became the key source of the village’s income.

Sales of a garlic variety from other parts of the prefecture remain sluggish as market prices have plunged to the 500 yen range per kilogram — below the break-even level of 600 yen. Mild garlic has maintained a 1,000 yen per kilogram level.

But Tashima and other garlic growers in the village are not well off.

“As consumers increasingly become health-oriented,” he said, “we are being asked to grow chemical-free and bug-free vegetables. That means more manpower and a high cost of production.”

Prices may climb, but profit margins are slim, he said.

Meanwhile, imports of low-priced Chinese garlic have risen. Officials said shipments from China amount to about 30,000 tons a year, far more than the amount produced in Japan. Prices of Chinese garlic are about one-eighth of their domestic competition.

Last year, 180 hectares of land in Temmabayashi was used to grow garlic, down more than 40 percent from the peak period due to the aging of the village’s population and imports.

Sales in that year totaled about 850 million yen, compared with about 1.2 billion yen in 1994.

“We are not afraid of Chinese garlic because the quality of our garlic is different,” an agricultural cooperative official said.

But Tashima disagrees, saying the village was in a panic around 1992 when imports of Chinese garlic surged.

“We cannot see the future,” Tashima said. “We are in an extremely severe situation. Another sharp rise in imported Chinese garlic will put an end to garlic farmers in the village.”

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