Japan faces a declining population and there is no doubt an aging trend in the Japanese society. In the agricultural sector, this trend is quite obvious: The average age of farmers in Japan was 66.6 in 2017. Furthermore, an influx of people into cities is a big problem. Many women used to work in the potato industry as laborers.
But nowadays it is becoming rather difficult to find operators to work on potato farms, according to our correspondent in Japan, Mariko Kihira.
Mariko writes that the conventional or traditional cultivation scheme in Japan is that potato farmers do plowing first. And then they do harrowing and soil preparation before a fertilizer application. After that, planting half-cut seed potatoes is done.
After planting is done, farmers do inter-row tillage and ridging. Then, at the end of the season, the potatoes are harvested by mostly 1 row harvesters (Grimme SE75-20, SE140 are commonly used). On a harvester, 3 or 4 operators (sometimes 6 operators) are standing for picking out stones and rotten potatoes as the harvesting is done. Around one hectare of potatoes is harvested each working day by an average Japanese potato producer.
Farmers producing potatoes on more than 30 ha of land is fairly common in Hokkaido, which is a famous potato production area in Japan. Thus, many operators are needed to work on the harvesters and usually need to work for more than 1 week in the same field. It is a high work lord for these operators and farmers are now struggling to find enough operators to work under these conditions.
The new ‘Soil conditioning cultivation’ scheme was introduced in Japan recently to help potato farmers.
Under this cultivation scheme, whole seed potatoes are used. It requires less work of farm workers compared with using half-cut seed during the planting operation. Before planting, ridging and making a big bed (for 2-rows) using a bed former are now done by many farmers. And with a stone separator machine, doing soil crushing, stones and soil lumps are removed. Ridging and fertilizing are completed together with planting by a planter for deep planting of potato seeds. This mechanization process results in less working hours for workers and it is also more effective, as most farmers agree.
During the harvesting of potatoes, 2-row trailed harvesters are more often used nowadays – machines that are fitted with bunkers so that operators can sort potatoes in the sorting centre (not on the harvester) in a short period of time. It is an efficient way of operation for both farmers and workers.
The Japanese sensitive potato varieties are less harmed by this new way of cultivation that is taking place on many farms in Japan. The quality of harvested potatoes is quite visibly improved and results in uniformed size and shape of potatoes delivered to retail stores in that county. And as a bonus, working hours of labourers were reduced by up to 40%, some analysts say.
However, these cultivation practices are not the rule as of yet for all potato farmers in Japan, but the expectation is that it will become the norm within the next few years.
Our correspondent in Japan is Mariko Kihira, owner of Maru Communicate in that country. She can be reached at email@example.com. The picture above was taken by Mariko during a trip to the most important potato producing region in Japan, Hokkaido. Other articles by Mariko can be accessed on this page of Potato News Today.