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Corporate staff become new strawberry farmers! A new challenge in which all the usual thinking was thrown off.
Regional revitalization is a major issue that should be solved.
By continuing to explore for solutions as a corporation that creates social value, we are continuing to discover new opportunities in agriculture. We will open up pathways for the future of regions with a new project model in which staff move on-farm and engage in production.
At Hitachi Capital Group we have long been providing financial services such as leasing and loans to agricultural business operators to meet business conditions and customers’ needs. But today, agriculture in Japan is confronted with issues such as decreased profitability, and a lack of manpower to take over the reins from our aging producers. It will also continue to be forced to respond to trade liberalization and to strengthen the global competitiveness of its agricultural produce.
To support agriculture as it grapples with these issues, we believe we need not only to provide financial services, but to join with agricultural business operators in new business model initiatives, and address our minds to the future of agriculture. Accordingly, Hitachi Capital Group has identified “food” as a “a field to foster” and has developed an appealing agricultural model to create new opportunities, with Hitachi Triple Win, our food and agricultural projects division leading the way, as we aim to attract the participation of a large number of agricultural business operators.
So, first, to gain an understanding of what happens on the ground in agriculture, we decided to get involved in farming itself and engage in an actual agricultural project ourselves. Staff who had been working at computer screens in the Tokyo office until the day before took on the challenge of an agricultural production and sales project on land they didn’t know. At first glance it might look like a foolhardy undertaking. But if the agricultural model had appeal, regional industry would have a broader range of opportunities, and jobs would be created. In addition, we were convinced that by agriculture linking up with commerce and tourism, the project could contribute to regional revitalization.
In the first stage of this project, we have been developing a strawberry production and sales project in Yomitan, Okinawa. The Hitachi Triple Win employees who proposed the project plan and has been involved in everything from securing the farmland to production and sales gives some more detail about the project.
Hitachi Triple Win Corp.
What do we grow and where?! As we groped around for answers, we came across a variety of heat-tolerant strawberry (“Shindai bs8-9”, developed by Shinshu University) and arrived at a decision to grow it in Okinawa.
First, the reasons we chose strawberries are that you grow them in greenhouses (a form of agriculture using built facilities) so the risks from weather conditions are lower, making it easier to give the project a more stable footing; also, strawberries have high added value, and they’re a popular farm product, so they could be expected to be profitable. Another benefit is that they have lots of potential, they offer easy 6th sector industrialization in the form of horticultural tourism and processed foods like sweets that make use of strawberries.
We also took into account that they would be easy to sell to overseas countries. Japanese agricultural products are highly rated overseas, and strawberries in particular are popular in Asia, so if we could get brand recognition, we could ensure profits.
Strawberries are generally thought to be heat intolerant, so a lot of people asked why we chose Okinawa. The reason is that Okinawa is well suited for strawberry shipping and sales. We investigated various potential growing locations, with the advantage of a heat-tolerant strawberry and the potentialities of the project in mind. That’s when we discovered that while lots of people in Okinawa like strawberries, they are shipped from Honshu for consumption. And then we got the idea that if we could provide fresh, delicious tasting strawberries grown in Okinawa, the project would be sustainable, and that if Okinawa-brand strawberries were to become a sightseeing asset it might entice sightseers from both Japan and the rest of the world.
What’s more, if we were to export them and if they were to be shipped through Naha Airport, an international logistics hub, we could ship them more quickly to the major countries in Asia where strawberries are popular, so we could ship them from the farm 1 day earlier if they were grown in Okinawa. After our various investigations, we arrived at the answer that Okinawa was the most suitable location.
Although we could see the project model, it did of course take some time before we could bed down the production system. Because the project wasn’t spearheaded by government, for example by utilizing a special agriculture zone, and we were starting the project from the ground up, we explained our concept to the Okinawan prefectural government, got introductions to local governments, and went from there. We visited a number of the local governments listed as potentials and explained our project, but there were a lot of circumspect opinions about a private enterprise from outside the area getting involved in agriculture, and discussions didn’t progress as well as we thought.
Then Yomitan Village opened the door for us. Yomitan has a lot of land and we secured a large block of farmland where we could build the greenhouses we needed to grow the strawberries. What’s more, if our project model proved successful, there was scope for people from the local community to get involved, so it was perfectly suited as the foundation for developing brand strawberries. Plus, the positive approach to economic development in Yomitan was in line with our desire to contribute to regional creation.
However, it was the first time for Yomitan Village to issue a permit for agricultural land acquisition by a corporation from outside the local area, and naturally they could not simply hand over valuable farmland to us, a company with no track record in agriculture. So, we went back and forth to the village office, the prefectural office, the local community halls, and so on, every detail being explained to us, carefully clearing the requirements.
It was our first time to be involved in such an endeavor, and we didn’t know our left from our right, but in the end, we were entrusted with the farmland as a result of our commitment to handling things seriously and conscientiously. And when we introduced ourselves to the agricultural business operators who would be in the area around the farmland, we didn’t just go ahead and contact them ourselves, we asked for introductions by talking with the Yomitan Village Office and other local people, we handled things conscientiously, taking extra care not to dispense with polite formalities.
If we didn’t have the technology that would enable us to utilize the farmland appropriately, or if we didn’t have the capacity to manage it sustainably, we might cause harm to the local community. So, we signed a business agreement with Aglis Co., Ltd., a company with a wealth of experience in cultivating strawberries, and we put in place a system for obtaining production technology advice. Based on that, we think continuing to convey our desire to contribute to the local community eventually led to gaining the trust of everyone in the local community.
Strawberry production in Yomitan is now starting to get on track. After the first harvest in May 2017, we ran a presentation on commercialization in December, and decided on the brand name Berry Moon. We received some very good feedback from a local pastry chef about the essential elements of the flavor of these strawberries: “they taste good fresh and there would be some other benefits from processing them”, “the sweetness and acidity levels are fine and the taste leaves a lasting impression”. We are making progress in discussions about business deals with local hotels and sweet businesses, etc. Our strawberries have also been chosen as the gift from Yomitan Village to tax payers as part of the "furusato nozei" tax scheme. We am relieved that the project has gotten off to a satisfactory start.
We feel it’s primarily due to the support of everyone in the local community that we, with no experience or track record, have succeeded in producing a new local agricultural product in this way. Apparently when we were going around introducing ourselves to the local agricultural business operators, an officer at Yomitan Village had already contacted them saying, “they’re really doing their best, so I hope you’ll give them your support”. And the neighbors too seemed to be keeping an eye out for us, watching how it would turn out, and when they tried some strawberries, offered praise in return with, “Frankly I didn’t think you’d manage to grow them so well.” We also felt that our hard work had borne fruit and maybe we had been acknowledged as Yomitan locals.
Although the project has really only just taken its first step, we are gradually managing to create new jobs, and are employing local people in production work. Our goals for the future are to grow the brand until people say “Okinawan strawberries? You mean Berry Moon? Strawberry production area? You mean Yomitan?”, and for lots of new agricultural business operators to grow this business model.