Dwindling apple growers see opportunities in hard cider

Kyodo

Apple growers are increasingly going into the cider business, often with government assistance aimed at revitalizing regional economies that are grappling with the prospect of aging and dwindling populations, especially among farmers.

As is the case in many agricultural areas in the country, the graying of orchardists is an acute problem in Aomori Prefecture, the nation’s largest apple-growing region.

The scarcity of manpower to harvest apples is compounded by the crop’s susceptibility to adverse weather conditions, such as typhoons, resulting in income volatility, according to an official of the regional agricultural cooperative known as JA Zen-Noh Aomori.

To improve the lot of apple producers in the region and to boost the earning power of those the business, the city of Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture has forged a business-government partnership over the past several years to develop the economic potential of hard cider, an alcoholic drink made from fermented apples.

Cider tasting events have proven popular among tourists, according to the municipal government.

Shoji Tamura, the 59-year-old head of Tamura Farm, an apple-processing company in Hirosaki, has been making cider from fruit grown in his own orchard, and his apple sparkling wine went on to win a prize at the International Cider Fair in Frankfurt, Germany, last year.

In Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, apple growers are similarly facing an uncertain future as a retiring generation of farmers struggles to find successors. Small-scale farmers are now trying their hand at making cider from their apples, taking advantage of agricultural deregulation in 2016.

Orchardists “will be more willing to produce apples if making cider leads to a greater income,” a city official said. “We hope that eventually, people will move into this area (to grow apples) and settle permanently.”

Iizuna in Nagano Prefecture has been helping producers do everything from growing apples to harvesting their crops and selling apple products in cooperation with local firms. Companies in Toyama and Kyoto prefectures are also actively involved in cider production in partnerships with producers.

“In recent years sweet alcoholic drinks have been favored over beer. The quality (of hard cider) is likely to get better in many areas,” predicted Tsukasa Ono, general manager of the Cider Master Association of Japan, a group comprising restaurant operators and apple farmers.