ISHINOMAKI, MIYAGI PREF. – The scene of olive trees bearing green and black fruit in November is growing familiar to residents of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a city that often sees temperatures drop to below zero in the winter months.
“When I heard the olive growing plan, I wondered if we could do it successfully in such a cold area like this,” Shoetsu Chiba, 70, said of the farming endeavor, which was launched to help local people rebuild their lives after the devastation of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
When the harvest season arrives, dozens of residents join people from the local agricultural production corporation Minori, led by Chiba, to pick the fruit.
Japan’s growing consumption of olive oil, owing to its health benefits and culinary versatility, has prompted more municipalities and companies to venture into olive cultivation. Among them, Ishinomaki is regarded as the northern limit for olive production in Japan.
Although Ishinomaki does not have a Mediterranean climate typically considered suitable for growing olives, production has been increasing steadily.
Major olive producing countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy have a warm climate with low rainfall and mild winters, and they can harvest a few million tons or more annually.
In Japan, only 374 tons were produced in 2016, according to the agriculture ministry’s latest available data. Kagawa Prefecture accounted for 358 tons alone, thanks to relatively mild weather in the region and because it is home to Shodoshima, an island famed for its olive-growing history stretching back more than a century.
Japan imported about 58,000 tons of olive oil last year, nearly double from 10 years earlier, according to government trade statistics.
Before deciding to back the initiative to tap into that growing market, Ishinomaki officials say they considered many factors.
“We chose olives because the trees are relatively easy to take care of, stay good for over 100 years, and on top of that, it’s a symbol of peace,” said Tomoyuki Hino, chief of the city’s agriculture and forestry section.
Local people came up with the idea of growing olives when discussing ways to utilize residential areas inundated by the tsunami, Hino said. Cultivation started in 2014 after Arai Olive Co., an olive production firm on Shodoshima, accepted the city’s request for technical cooperation.
The number of olive trees in Ishinomaki has increased from 30 in the first year to 1,665, They are being tended by four agricultural corporations, including Minori, in groves entrusted by the city.
Chiba said that Minori, which engages mainly in rice production, has planted more than 1,300 olive trees so far.
The 2011 tsunami washed away Chiba’s home from where it had stood near a river and the Pacific Ocean, and devastated 4 of his 5 hectares of rice paddies.
Chiba did not give up farming, but many elderly farmers around him did and entrusted their paddies to him. After Chiba established the Minori corporation in April 2013 to manage the fields, the municipal government sounded him out on joining the olive growing plan the following year.
“At first, I was doubtful,” Chiba recalled. He began to believe the project would work in 2015 when he learned that the city’s initial 30 olive trees survived the first winter.
This fall, about 100 kilograms of olives were harvested across the city, increasing from 83.6 kg last year but falling far short of the initially estimated 500 kg due to damage from Typhoon Hagibis, which struck in October and left over 90 people dead as it moved across Japan.
Even so, Ishinomaki’s olive farmers had something to cheer about this year.
The city’s first olive oil production facility, featuring an Italian-made oil press, was completed in November. Farmers can now conduct the entire process of production within the city.
“Long-distance shipping of fresh-picked olives lowers the oil quality. Having an oil press near the groves is essential to produce high-quality oil,” said Nobumasa Arai, 60, CEO of Arai Olive.
“I’m full of emotion as we have finally completed literal ‘Made in Ishinomaki’ olive oil,” Arai said as he tasted freshly squeezed oil at the brand-new facility.
All of the oil extracted in November will be used to conduct focus surveys as the city prepares to start sales next year directly to general customers and through department stores.
Ishinomaki’s wares will have to stand out among a growing number of other homegrown olive oil products as more farms in warmer western Japan turn to olive cultivation in response to the growth in demand.
Of Japan’s 47 prefectures, only two were growing olives in 2006. That number had grown to 14 by 2016, including prefectures with a relatively cold climate such as Fukushima and Gunma.
Olive trees have become a popular choice to utilize abandoned farmland, according to Hideaki Shibata, chief researcher at the Shozu Olive Research Institute of the Kagawa Prefectural Agricultural Experiment Station.
Despite the spread of olive farms, the amounts harvested in 13 prefectures except for Kagawa have seen only meager increases. Government data from 2016 show that a total of 221 hectares in those 13 prefectures was devoted to growing olives, accounting for more than a half of the 423 hectares with olive trees across the country, but produced only 16 tons of the fruit.
Shibata said newcomers typically deal with young trees that tend to have small yields. Some struggle to increase production due to their lack of experience and because they try to grow in an unsuitable climate.
Now that Ishinomaki farmers have overcome the difficulty of growing olives in a cold climate, Chiba believes success will depend on how well they pitch their products and whether they can build a strong brand.
“For example, it might be good to serve visitors local products, like sliced raw sea bream, with our olive oil. That may become a main tourist attraction, which would mean I can contribute to my hometown by growing olives,” Chiba said.