Japan’s threatened fields of green

[This article was originally published on Climate Tracker]

Tea farmers in the Asian country have long enjoyed a very stable and predictable climate, but as global warming and Covid-19 upends that equilibrium, they respond with new ways to farm and sell their products.Tea farmers in the Asian country have long enjoyed a very stable and predictable climate, but as global warming and Covid-19 upends that equilibrium, they respond with new ways to farm and sell their products.

In Japan, spring is heralded as a time of new beginnings and opportunities. Tea farmers especially look forward to the spring harvest, the most exciting time of the year. But for Hiroki Aka, the love for farming lasts all year round.

“I personally feel the autumn harvest is equally important,” the tea farmer from d:matcha Kyoto shares, as we drive through the region’s winding roads. Almost 60% of the tea fields he manages are currently farmed with organic methods. “The quality of the leaves harvested in spring are heavily dependent on the way the trees are cut in autumn. Summer is the time to look out for pests, which especially love our organic tea trees. In winter, on the other hand, there is the worry of frost. It’s hard to predict, really.”

Officially recognised as one of the most beautiful villages in Japan, Wazuka is well known for its tea. Against a backdrop of rolling green mountains adorned with tall cedar trees, rows and rows of Camellia Sinensis of varying hues of green trace the outline of the landscape. The conditions and climate of the region play a pivotal role in the high quality of tea the region produces. The soil is rich with nutrients, there is an adequate amount of rainfall, and the mountainous landscape creates a balanced natural irrigation system.

Climate woes

Traditionally, weather patterns in Wazuka have been stable. Rarely were there huge variations in temperature or rainfall. Year by year, however, climate change has slowly upended this rhythm. “Winter last year was warmer than usual, and this year’s tsuyu(Japan’s rainy season) was longer than previous years,” Hiroki contemplates out loud, his tone a mixture of excitement and frustration.

Echoing this, Bernard Soubry, a DPhil Candidate in Geography and Environment at the University of Oxford, says, “climate change will affect all farmers differently because farms and the places they tend are all different. We know, though, from existing climate models, that farming conditions will generally get way more difficult to predict.” 

Soubry continues: “extreme weather events, like hurricanes or floods, will be more frequent; that can damage infrastructure and soil. Places that used to have regular rain may face long droughts or sudden downpours. Farmers will have to try to anticipate these, or roll with the punches when they come, which will make an already difficult profession far more difficult.”

The unpredictability of the weather has definitely forced Hiroki to adjust his farming management plans on a weekly basis. Managing different cultivars (cultivated varieties) translates into having to anticipate different problems or pests that may arise within each field. Furthermore, as approximately 60% of the field he manages are organic, this rules out the use of pesticides or herbicides.

“Hmm, I’m not sure,” he laments in Japanese, as he carefully chews on the young shoots he’s plucked. “I feel like last year’s harvest might taste better but then again I’m just a beginner at tea farming, so I take things as they go,” he adds.

The global pandemic has also greatly impacted the purchasing cost of tea. Over surplus orders made in anticipation of the now postponed 2020 Olympics and a significant drop in the number of tourists also meant fewer bulk orders from wholesalers.

“Supermarkets are remarkably slow to adopt IT to inform customers of what is available,” says John Ure, Director of Singapore based research company, TRPC. “An alternative is for farming cooperatives to develop their own apps and to appear on e-shopping platforms, especially if they can offer something special such as organically grown foods or free-range products that are environmentally friendly.”

A resourceful bunch

Bernard Soubry has also noticed this trend: “farmers are infinitely resourceful and deeply committed to keeping their farms going, so it’s no surprise to find organic farmers changing their practices and the way they sell in order to adapt to climate change…They’re banking on diversity and adaptability in their cultures, rather than high-tech solutions which often come with a hefty financial and intellectual property price tag.” 

Younger farmers such as Hiroki have since adopted this route of leveraging social media. Raising awareness of the difficulties farmers face has also been pivotal in gathering the necessary support needed to sustain organic farming methods. “There is definitely a growing demand for organic produce. While we may not have the paper certifications at the moment, we still want to produce organic tea using traditional methods.” Hiroki explains with pride and confidence.

As trends go, the use of social media as a source of verification has also been mirrored by consumers themselves. “When deciding on products that I buy, usually it’s word of mouth rather than certifications.” Zsan Wong, a chef based in South Australia candidly says. “This comes down to there being so many different certifications. I think the hardest part is finding the line between sustainable and organic, the two do not always go hand in hand”. 

Organic farming in times of climate change is akin to fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, but young farmers like Hiroki are still pressing forward. While there is still room for adequate policies to be enacted to assist food systems to adapt to climate change, the use of social media and technology have opened means of communication and information dissemination. All of which play equally important roles in meeting and overcoming future challenges.

Japan’s threatened fields of green - d:matcha Kyoto