How Apples Make Us Think About The Environment and Consumerism

A fruit that cultivates a message

Apples changing color (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

An emphasis on taste rather than looks

The apple: along with the mandarin orange, a fruit that has been a familiar favorite of the Japanese people from long ago. Yet, despite its ubiquitous presence, there are perhaps few that have ever experienced the taste of a ripe apple, picked directly from the tree. The apples found in supermarkets are often harvested before they are fully ripe, reflecting the need to take into account the time required for transportation and lining them up on the shelves for customers.

Fruit of "Blumleys Seedling" (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The town of Iizuna in Nagano Prefecture’s north is home to the Yamashita Fruit Garden. Taking a single bite out of one of their freshly picked apples leaves you astounded at the juiciness and stunning fragrance. “There’s really nothing like an apple just off the tree when it’s water content is at its highest,” declares CEO Eri Yamashita.

Ms. Eri Yamashita, representative of Yamashita Fruit farm (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Yamashita family od Yamashita Fruits Farm (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Yamashita has quite an unusual resume. After working as a system engineer, she married into this farming family in 2011. In 2013, her career path took a major turn when she took over the management of the farm. Part of her initiation into agriculture came in the form of a year spent in France working on a farm and familiarizing herself on organic growing methods as part of the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) network. Having no prior knowledge of apple growing before her marriage, Yamashita’s face lights up when she talks of her learning experience: “The more you know about apple growing, the more fun it gets!”

Apple farms (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Apple trees are dotted around the vast orchard, their red and yellowy-green fruit like ornaments amongst the lush green leaves. Bagging of apples as they ripen on the trees, so often seen elsewhere, is not practiced on this farm. “We put more of an emphasis on taste, rather than appearance. We’ve been growing apples without bagging for over 30 years now. People tend to think that fruit is fully ripe once it turns red, but that is not the case with apples. When the base of the apple has broadened out and you can see the color of the flesh — that’s the sign of them being ripe,” explains Yamashita. Fruit even on the same tree will all have differing ripening conditions, so they are checked and harvested one by one.

Harvest of apples (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“There is a technique where reflective film is rolled out on the ground beneath the apple trees to promote color development on the underside of the fruit, but this can lead to you missing the signs for when the fruit is fully ripe and because the sunlight is blocked from reaching the soil, it makes it unsuitable for the microorganisms, so it is something we do not use here. It’s a technique born of a consumption structure where things that look nice sell. It’s my belief that fruit will grow to be more delicious if we help it along simply by leveraging the power of the sun and the soil.”

Harvest of apples (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Clean and safe cultivation: a place for play with peace of mind

The Yamashita Fruit Garden’s apple grove is full of naturally occurring flowers such as white clover and plantain. Yamashita explains that this is thanks to the avoidance of herbicides. For over 40 years, it has been the farm’s policy to focus on clean and safe cultivation, aiming to use the minimum amount of agricultural chemicals, reducing the volume used by 60%.

“I often take my children out among the trees. They will dig about in the dirt, sometimes putting it in their mouth — as kids will do! There is of course the desire to deliver clean and safe fruit to those who will be eating what we grow, but at the same time, we are aware that the place we live should also be safe. One of the problems of using agrochemicals is the effect they have on us, the farmers who deploy them. I don’t want my kids to be playing in a place that’s been sprayed with herbicides. I think the previous generations who have run this farm also had the same feeling towards chemicals, which is why herbicides have not been used here for a very long time.”

Apple farms (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

With the gradual aging of society, the number of people giving up the apple growing business has been rising in recent years. While at first glance it seems regrettable that the amount of unused farmland will increase, Yamashita says that by changing your perspective, this development does offer new possibilities.

“One of the problems with organic farming is dealing with what is called ‘drift’, where pesticides float on the wind onto surrounding farms. The denser the farmland, the higher the risk for organic farms. However, by leasing and tending nearby vacant farmland, you can create an environment where organic cultivation is easier. In fact, determining how the surrounding land is used is an important factor in protecting the whole region and one of our future challenges. “

Harvest of apples "Blumleys Seedling" (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Experimental attempts to preserve the cultivation of many varieties

The Bramley’s Seedling, said to be the ‘king of cooking apples’. The Kosaka, originally from China and the earliest apple grown in Japan. The Moon Rouge, with its yellow skin, but red flesh. After just a short stroll into the orchard, Yamashita is reeling off name after name of the various trees we pass as she gives a guided tour. Around 40 varieties can be found on the farm, she notes. At any given time between mid-August and the end of November, there will be several varieties that are ripe for harvest.

Kousaka apples (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

"Maypole" apples (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“Part of the reason for growing so many varieties is to preserve them for the future. But, there is also such a richness in all their ‘personalities’ — they are just interesting to grow! Because apple trees can be grafted together, when they are in season you can see one half of a tree with red apples and the other half with green. We have a few varieties that are rarely grown elsewhere; you could say it’s almost like an ‘apple museum’.”

"Neo-constructive cultivation" apple famrs (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“Do you want to see a new way that we are growing apples?” Yamashita guides the way to a row of thin, directly upright trees planted at regular intervals. These are trees being grown in what is known as a tall spindle planting system, widely used in the Tyrol region of Italy and one actively being promoted by Nagano Prefecture. The thin branches and limited root system means the trees are more susceptible to the cold, so there is a disadvantage in terms of robustness. However, this cultivation method has the advantage of ensuring the trees are uniformly bathed in sunlight, resulting in more easily obtained quality of the fruit. Yamashita also points out the higher work-efficiency afforded by the tall spindle system makes it a particularly effective growing method for an aging population engaged in agriculture.

"Neo-constructive cultivation" apple famrs (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“If you use the traditional way of growing, you will probably be able to harvest your first fruit anywhere between five to ten years after you plant. However, with this method, you can harvest from the third year, making it a better choice in terms of speed and it is also suited to trying out new varieties. There would be a risk if we switched completely to this way of growing; we are trying to strike a balance between both methods. I think that experimenting with new things is necessary for continuing the growing of apples.”

Outside Cafe Den No Jo (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

A hope that apples can spark a consciousness

The enthusiasm for growing apples passed down through the generations on the Yamashita Fruit Garden and the desire to ensure clean and safe production perhaps arise from the fresh eyes of someone who married into this farming family not that long ago. Eri Yamashita has started on various projects that she hopes will convey these things to as many people as possible.

Inside Cafe Den No Jo (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

One of those projects is the café she opened in 2017, Café Dennojoe, named after the family head whose name has been passed down through the generations. The walls inside the 70-year old building the café occupies are decorated with vibrant wallpaper designed by the iconic William Morris. Many come from far away prefectures to this elegant space for an exquisite menu that could only be found at an apple farm, one that features handmade apple pie containing in-season apples, sweets made from many kinds of fruit, and apple juice squeezed from the different varieties grown at the farm.

Cafe Den No Jo apple pie and seasonal apple juice (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Original apple products (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Another project has been the renovation of an old storehouse in the middle of the orchard to create the ‘Storehouse Inn Henpe-sanchi’ (literally, ‘Henpe-san’s place’), an accommodation facility that limits bookings to one group per night. Guests can fully enjoy the experience of being on an apple farm, taking part in farm activities or soaking in a traditional wood-fired hot tub!

Ms. Eri Yamashita, representative of Yamashita farm (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Yamashita says the idea was to have people not only experience the delicious taste of fresh apples, but to immerse them in the environment in which they are grown.

“People don’t usually get the opportunity to visit a farm. I think that if you know the kind of place where your apples are grown, perhaps the act of ‘buying’ will change and you will put more importance into choosing the right foods to eat. That was the idea behind the creation of the café: I hoped that the experience of eating freshly picked, delicious apples would be a good opportunity to promote that kind of awareness. Through apples, I want to convey the importance of nature and raise consciousness about our consumer behavior. "

Apple harvest (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Apples (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The experience of biting into a juicy, delicious apple and the chance to visit the working farm on which it is grown: if this can germinate a little awareness and interest in what we eat and a rethinking of our consumption behavior, the ways in which agriculture is approached in Japan may change in future.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:

Yamashita Fruit Garden

Photos: Yuka Uesawa
Text: Orika Uchiumi
Edit: Saori Hayashida

Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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