OITA – Oita Prefecture’s shiitake farmers, who have struggled for years amid a flood of low-priced imports from China, are enjoying an unexpected change in fortunes as demand for domestically grown food surges.
The prefecture, which boasts of being the largest producer of dried shiitake in Japan, is benefiting from consumer concerns about the safety of food products from abroad, particularly China.
“Ordinary consumers are opting for domestic shiitake and steering clear of Chinese products due to a series of scandals involving Chinese-made food products last year,” said Eiji Kugumiya, who advises a farmers’ cooperative, referring to incidents in which Japanese people fell ill after eating tainted imports.
Mushroom growers in the prefecture were given welcome news by Oita’s shiitake agricultural cooperative in December, when it was confirmed that the average bidding price in 2008 reached ¥4,859 per kg.
Although the price was lower than the ¥6,812 recorded in the heady days of 1983, it was a considerable improvement on the prices of around ¥2,000 recorded in the second half of the 1980s as imports of Chinese mushrooms surged.
Oita Prefecture accounted for around a quarter of the 16,000 tons of shiitake mushrooms produced in the country when output peaked in 1984.
In 2007, the latest year for which data are available, domestic production had fallen to about 3,500 tons, of which Oita contributed about 1,300 tons.
Imports of Chinese mushrooms exceeded 9,000 tons in 1997 but dropped to around 7,000 tons in 2007. Most of the imports are supplied to businesses, according to Oita cooperative adviser Kugumiya.
The Oita shiitake co-op has about 4,000 members, a decline of about 2,600 from 25 years ago, and the average age of members is 68.
Kugumiya said he wants to lower the average age by encouraging baby boomers and companies to take part in shiitake cultivation.
“We have a good opportunity to expand production and improve the quality of shiitake because high prices have returned,” he said.
Akio Isogai of Saiki, Oita Prefecture, said the number of shiitake growers in the prefecture dropped because mushroom cultivation was considered no longer economically viable.
“There used to be about 30 households growing shiitake in our district, but the number has declined to five,” said Isogai, who has grown shiitake for 40 years. “Most of them quit during the three years (when prices were extremely low).”
Iwate Prefecture, which competes with Oita in the cultivation of quality shiitake, has also lost growers.
“The number of shiitake growers has fallen from a peak of around 3,400 to about 2,000,” an official in the forestry promotion division of the prefectural government said.
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