The Secret Behind Japan’s Wintry Strawberries

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MINOH, Japan — Strawberry shortcake. Strawberry mochi. Strawberries à la mode.

These whitethorn dependable similar summertime delights. But successful Japan, the strawberry harvest peaks successful wintertime — a chilly play of picture-perfect berries, the astir immaculate ones selling for hundreds of dollars apiece to beryllium fixed arsenic peculiar gifts.

Japan’s strawberries travel with an biology toll. To recreate an artificial outpouring successful the wintertime months, farmers turn their out-of-season delicacies successful immense greenhouses heated with giant, gas-guzzling heaters.

“We’ve travel to a constituent wherever galore radical deliberation it’s earthy to person strawberries successful winter,” said Satoko Yoshimura, a strawberry husbandman successful Minoh, Japan, conscionable extracurricular Osaka, who until past play burned kerosene to vigor her greenhouse each wintertime long, erstwhile temperatures tin dip good bellow freezing.

But arsenic she kept filling up her heater’s vessel with fuel, she said, she started to think: “What are we doing?”

Fruits and veggies are grown successful greenhouses each implicit the world, of course. The Japan strawberry manufacture has carried it to specified an extreme, however, that astir farmers person stopped increasing strawberries during the acold little lucrative warmer months, the existent increasing season. Instead, successful summertime Japan imports overmuch of its strawberry supply.

It’s an illustration of however modern expectations of caller nutrient twelvemonth circular tin necessitate astonishing amounts of energy, contributing to a warming clime successful instrumentality for having strawberries (or tomatoes oregon cucumbers) adjacent erstwhile temperatures are plunging.

Up until respective decades ago, Japan’s strawberry play started successful the outpouring and ran into aboriginal summer. But the Japanese marketplace has traditionally placed a precocious worth connected first-of-the-season oregon “hatsumono” produce, from tuna to rice and tea. A harvest claiming the hatsumono mantle tin bring galore times mean prices, and adjacent snags fevered media coverage.


A pistillate   successful  a burgundy overgarment   carries an orangish  integrative  handbasket  portion    walking betwixt  rows of strawberry plants successful  a greenhouse.
Satoko Yoshimura harvesting her strawberries. She has developed techniques to bounds the request for kerosene heating.Credit...Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times


The country extracurricular a Tokyo effect store recently.Credit...Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

As the country’s user system took off, the hatsumono contention spilled implicit into strawberries. Farms started to vie to bring their strawberries to marketplace earlier and earlier successful the year. “Peak strawberry play went from April to March to February to January, and yet deed Christmas,” said Daisuke Miyazaki, main enforcement astatine Ichigo Tech, a Tokyo-based strawberry consulting firm.

Now, strawberries are a large Christmas staple successful Japan, adorning Christmas cakes sold crossed the state each December. Some farmers person started to vessel first-of-the-season strawberries successful November, Mr. Miyazaki said. (Recently, 1 representation cleanable Japanese-branded strawberry, Oishii (which means “delicious”), has go TikTok-famous, but it is grown by a U.S. institution successful New Jersey.)

Japan’s plaything toward cultivating strawberries successful freezing upwind has made strawberry farming importantly much vigor intensive. According to analyses of greenhouse state emissions associated with assorted nutrient successful Japan, the emissions footprint of strawberries is astir 8 times that of grapes, and much than 10 times that of mandarin oranges.

“It each comes down to heating,” said Naoki Yoshikawa, a researcher successful biology sciences astatine the University of Shiga Prefecture successful occidental Japan, who led the nutrient emissions study. “And we looked astatine each aspects, including transport, oregon what it takes to nutrient fertilizer — adjacent then, heating had the biggest footprint.”

Examples similar these complicate the thought of eating local, namely the thought embraced by immoderate environmentally conscious shoppers of buying nutrient that was produced comparatively adjacent by, successful portion to chopped down connected the substance and contamination associated with shipping.

In general, though, proscription of nutrient has little of a clime interaction than the mode successful which it is produced, said Shelie Miller, a prof astatine the University of Michigan who focuses connected climate, nutrient and sustainability. One survey found, for example, that tomatoes grown locally successful heated greenhouses successful the Britain had a higher c footprint compared to tomatoes grown successful Spain (outdoors, and in-season), and shipped to British supermarkets.


With oregon without chocolate.Credit...Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times


Strawberries connected a stick.Credit...Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

Climate-controlled greenhouses tin person benefits: They tin necessitate little onshore and little pesticide use, and they tin nutrient higher yields. But the bottommost line, Professor Miller said, is that “it’s perfect if you tin devour some in-season, and locally, truthful your nutrient is produced without having to adhd large vigor expenditures.”

In Japan, the vigor required to turn strawberries successful wintertime hasn’t proven to beryllium conscionable a clime burden. It has besides made strawberry cultivation expensive, peculiarly arsenic substance costs person risen, hurting farmers’ bottommost lines.

Research and improvement of berry varieties, arsenic good arsenic elaborate branding, has helped alleviate immoderate of those pressures by helping farmers fetch higher prices. Strawberry varieties successful Japan are sold with whimsical names like Beni Hoppe (“red cheeks”), Koinoka (“scent of love”), Bijin Hime (“beautiful princess.”) Along with different pricey effect similar watermelons, they are often fixed arsenic gifts.

Tochigi, a prefecture northbound of Tokyo that produces much strawberries than immoderate different successful Japan, has been moving to tackle some clime and outgo challenges with a caller assortment of strawberry it is calling Tochiaika, a shortened mentation of the phrase, “Tochigi’s beloved fruit.”

Seven years successful the making by cultivation researchers astatine Tochigi’s Strawberry Research Institute, the caller assortment is larger, much resistant to disease, and produces a higher output from the aforesaid inputs, making increasing them much vigor efficient.

Tochiaika strawberries besides person firmer skin, cutting down connected the fig of strawberries that get damaged during transit, thereby reducing nutrient waste, which besides has climate consequences. In the United States, wherever strawberries are grown mostly successful warmer climates successful California and Florida, strawberry buyers discard an estimated one-third of the crop, partially due to the fact that of however fragile they are.

And alternatively of heaters, immoderate farmers successful Tochigi usage thing called a “water curtain,” a trickle of h2o that envelopes the extracurricular of greenhouses, keeping temperatures wrong constant, though that requires entree to ample groundwater. “Farmers tin prevention connected substance costs, and assistance combat planetary warming,” said Takayuki Matsumoto, a subordinate of the squad that helped make the Tochiaika strawberry. “That’s the ideal.”


Takayuki Matsumoto astatine the strawberry probe institute, wherever helium works.Credit...Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times


Tochiaika strawberries astatine the probe institute.Credit...Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

There are different efforts afoot. Researchers successful the northeastern metropolis of Sendai have been exploring ways to harness star powerfulness to support the somesthesia wrong strawberry greenhouses warm.

Ms. Yoshimura, the strawberry husbandman successful Minoh, worked successful farming a decennary earlier deciding she wanted to bash distant with her elephantine concern heater successful the wintertime of 2021.

A young parent of one, with different connected the way, she had spent overmuch of the lockdown days of the pandemic speechmaking up connected clime change. A bid of devastating floods successful 2018 that wrecked the herb spot astatine the workplace she runs with her hubby besides awakened her to the dangers of a warming planet. “I realized I needed to alteration the mode I farmed, for the involvement of my kids,” she said.

But successful mountainous Minoh, temperatures tin dip to beneath 20 degrees Fahrenheit, oregon astir minus 7 Celsius, levels astatine which strawberry plants would usually spell dormant. So she delved into cultivation studies to effort to find different mode to vessel her strawberries retired during the lucrative wintertime months, portion not utilizing fossil substance heating.

She work that strawberries consciousness temperatures via a portion of the works known arsenic the crown, oregon the abbreviated thickened stem astatine the plant’s base. If she could usage groundwater, which mostly stays astatine a changeless temperature, to support the crown from freezing temperatures, she wouldn’t person to trust connected concern heating, she surmised.

Ms. Yoshimura fitted her strawberry beds with a elemental irrigation system. For other insulation astatine night, she covered her strawberries with plastic.

She stresses that her cultivation methods are a enactment successful progress. But aft her berries survived a acold drawback successful December, she took her concern heater, which had remained connected standby astatine 1 country of her greenhouse, and sold it.

Now, she’s moving to summation section designation for her “unheated” strawberries.  “It would beryllium nice,” she said, “if we could conscionable marque strawberries erstwhile it’s earthy to.”

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