Yamagata prefecture lies at roughly the 38th parallel at 2,625 feet above sea level on the main island of Japan, northwest of Tokyo.
This region has a sizable agricultural base and produces a variety of crops including rice, vegetables, edamame (soybeans eaten fresh), grapes and several tree fruits, including 29.1 million pounds of the country’s 40 million total pounds of sweet cherries.
Like Traverse City, Yamagata is famous for cherries, and this area is the primary cherry production region of Japan. There is an annual Cherry Festival held in mid-June during Japan’s harvest time.
There is also a shopping center called Cherryland where customers can buy all things cherry — from cherry flavored cakes, cookies, creampuffs, ice cream, and popcorn, to T-shirts, hand towels, coin purses, knickknacks and plush cherry helmets for both children and adults. Similar to the Michigan cherry industry’s focus on Montmorency tart cherry production, more than 70 percent of Yamagata’s cherry production is comprised of the sweet cherry variety Satonishiki.
Satonishiki is the prized cherry of Japan. Its red skin color, white flesh and delicately sweet taste are the key qualities that Japanese consumers desire.
In the early 20th century, Eisuke Sato bred Satonishiki from its parent cultivars Napoleon (for longer shelf-life) and Kidama (for a sweet flavor). The success of Satonishiki production was preceded by attempts to grow cherries in Japan during the mid to late 19th century Meiji period when German varieties were first introduced in Japan. Unfortunately, production was not successful due to lacking knowledge on how to grow German varieties and these varieties produced fruit that perished quickly.
In the late 1800s, the Japanese Ministry of Home Affairs introduced American and French sweet cherry varieties that showed greater promise for growing a cherry industry in Japan. Production has continued to improve as a result of cherry breeding by Sato and his successors who have generated new varieties with better shelf life and good flavor, ultimately providing more diverse market opportunities for the Japanese cherry industry.
Japan’s small-scale cherry orchards are considerably different from our fruit farms in northwest Michigan.
First, the average Japanese cherry farm size is roughly three-quarters of an acre. Most of these small orchards are grown under plastic high tunnels because Japan’s rainy season overlaps with harvest, and high tunnels help protect ripening cherries from cracking. Cracking occurs when rainwater is absorbed through the skin of cherries via osmosis and as the cells beneath the skin expand, the skin ruptures resulting in an open wound on the cherry. Cracked fruit are unmarketable as well as potentially problematic as they can serve as a breeding ground for fungal pathogens and pests.
Japanese cherry production is very labor intensive, and many orchard tasks are performed manually and by hand. After trees are pruned during dormancy, Japanese producers thin the fruit buds. Using a knife or scissors, workers remove all but two flower buds and a vegetative bud on each cluster. During bloom, pollination is done by hand using brushes or handheld mechanical devices; some farms also manage Japanese orchard bees. Later in the season, limbs with too many fruit are again thinned by hand using scissors. When fruit begin ripening, workers hand-remove leaves around the developing fruit clusters to maximize the amount of sunlight that reaches the fruit.
Because cherry trees are primarily grown on standard rootstocks, tall orchard ladders are necessary during harvest to pick fruit from the upper canopy of these large trees. A one-man operated packing line is used to sort fruit by weight and the fruit are packaged into small plastic containers that are sold at a premium price at farm stands and local markets. Just over a half-pound of high quality Satonishiki can sell for $52 dollars in the United States. Cherries are also shipped and sold to markets and customers throughout Japan.
Nikki Rothwell, a Michigan State University Extension district horticulturalist and coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station, and I had the recent pleasure of visiting Yamagata to present our latest cherry research at the 8th International Cherry Symposium hosted by the International Society for Horticultural Science.
We were fortunate to have this rare opportunity to visit with international researchers and cherry producers. We would like to extend our sincerest thanks to the Michigan State Horticulture Society and the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission. We would not have been able to attend this meeting without their support.
Emily Pochubay is a Michigan State University Extension fruit/integrated pest management educator at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station.