National

'High-yield rice' replaces premium brands as costs climb at restaurants in Japan

Kyodo

Cultivation of “high-yield rice,” an affordable alternative that can be harvested in larger quantities than premium brands, is growing as Japan tries to counter the rise in ingredient costs challenging restaurant chains and producers of ready-made meals.

Increasingly viewed as a “savior” in terms of cost, this variety has caught on at large farms and is gradually penetrating the entire industry, turning heads at agricultural cooperatives across the country.

In the town of Yoro, Gifu Prefecture, bordering Nagoya on the western tip of the Nobi Plain, a yellow signboard adorned with the logo of Curry House CoCo Ichibanya stands in a rice paddy.

The Nishimino branch of JA, the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives group, is teaming up with farmers under its jurisdiction to cultivate a high-yield rice called Hoshijirushi to sell to the curry chain’s outlet there.

“The farmers feel motivated because they can anticipate income when their rice is used in the nearby outlet. And the outlet doesn’t need to search for a place to get cheap rice, so it’s a win-win for all,” said Takahiro Ito, JA Nishimino’s chief of sales.

The food service industry has struggled to maintain profits amid rising costs for ingredients and labor, causing even chains like the one run by Ichibanya Co. to raise prices for key dishes in March. The popular curry chain is now in its second year working with JA Nishimino, but the promising results prompted it to expand its transaction quantity, which stands at around 20 hectares’ worth of production.

“What people want more than fine-quality taste nowadays is a sense of good value. Herein lies the business chance,” said Mitsuo Kumakura, a 78-year-old farmer growing high-yield rice in Hanyu, Saitama Prefecture.

Rice prices have been climbing in recent years as farmers shift to soybeans, animal feed and other crops, reducing supply.

Other ingredient prices are also climbing in line with higher import and distribution costs, as the upward trend in labor costs, driven by the rapidly graying population, act as a drag on the services industry.

The Akidawara brand grown in prefectures including Niigata, Toyama and Shiga, and Moeminori, grown in Akita and Miyagi, are well-known varieties of high-yield rice, producing harvests up to 40 percent bigger than premium brands like Koshihikari and Akitakomachi.

Although they fetch 10 to 20 percent less in sales from taste quality, farmers can offset that with greater volume and actually earn more, Kumakura said.

A farmer can usually get 500 to 540 kg of Koshihikari and 650 to 700 kg of Hoshijirushi out of a 0.1-hectare paddy in suitable conditions. Kumakura, however, managed to harvest 753 kg from his field last year.

Even in Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture, where the finest Koshihikari is grown, farmers are trying to strategically increase production of high-yield rice while maintaining their usual harvests.

In June, JA’s Echigo Joetsu unit in Niigata set up a review panel to provide information on proper cultivation methods for high-yield rice to ease the concerns of farmers used to growing Koshihikari.

Given the strong payoff, cultivation has spread rapidly. Around 1,000 hectares were planted this year in areas under the cooperative’s jurisdiction, more than 10 times the amount two years ago.