Fruit is a popular summer treat in Japan, but orders have plummeted this year, even though the levels of radioactive material detected in the fruit since the crisis began at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are much lower than government-set interim limits.
As Shigeru Yui carefully picked a plump peach from a tree on his farm in the Ozaso district in Fukushima, Japan, recently, he was impressed with what he saw.
“The peaches are large and contain a lot of sugar. They grew really well,” he said, unable to suppress a smile.
But not everything is quite so rosy for Shigeru and other farmers in Fukushima Prefecture, which is often called the “fruit kingdom” and is the nation’s second-largest producer of peaches.
Shipments of Fukushima’s signature akatsuki peaches would normally be peaking about now.
The fruit is a popular summer gift, but orders have plummeted this year, even though the levels of radioactive material detected in the fruit since the crisis began at the Fukushima No 1 nuclear power plant are much lower than government-set interim limits.
Unless consumers stop shunning this produce, the problems afflicting peach farmers could soon spread to growers of other fruit – such as pears and apples – whose shipments are scheduled to peak later in August.
Shigeru, 54, harvested this year’s first akatsuki peaches on August 8. The peach has a distinctive red tinge, and the branches were groaning under the weight of the fruit.
Based on advice from a local JA group agricultural cooperative, he carefully and deliberately plucked his peaches so that not even a tiny quantity of radioactive material would get on his fruit.
To prevent his fruit from touching the tree’s leaves, Shigeru placed containers for harvested peaches on the back of his truck, not on the ground.
Radiation checks on akatsuki peaches produced in Fukushima on August 2 and 3 detected 23 to 54 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram – far lower than the interim limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram.
In July, as in usual years, Shigeru notified about 600 trusted clients – some of whom he has dealt with for about 30 years – by letter that his fruit was ready.
But this year, he also enclosed a map showing his farm is more than 60 kilometres from the troubled nuclear plant, and copies of certificates showing prefectural government checks guaranteeing the safety of his peaches.
He also sent peaches to an inspection institute in Hyogo Prefecture for checks to confirm they were safe.
Despite his efforts, Shigeru has received only 30 per cent of the orders for gift peaches that he would get in a normal year.
“I want to raise this figure to 50 per cent of last year,” he said. “The quality of my peaches is even better than usual. I’ll be really disappointed if nobody eats them.”
Some farmers are in an even more desperate predicament. A 62-year-old fruit farmer in Date in the prefecture has received only 10 per cent of orders for gifts compared with past years.
“I feel consumers are shunning Fukushima products,” he said.
The prefecture ranked third in national pear production in 2010, and fifth in apple production.
“If other fruit starts suffering due to fears caused by (radiation) rumours, I won’t be able to stay in business,” the farmer said. “Some of my fellow farmers have said the same thing.”
Alarmed by the situation, 60 officials from the prefectural government and JA Zen-noh Fukushima, a prefectural economic organisation for farmers of the JA group, in late July distributed 12,000 leaflets explaining peaches and summer vegetables were safe at major supermarkets and 22 shops operated by the organisation.
The Fukushima vice governor also visited markets in Sapporo, Osaka and three other cities to beat the drum for peaches grown in the prefecture.
The entities also produced leaflets emphasising the safety of Fukushima peaches that farmers can include with fruit that is shipped out.
JA Fukushima Chuokai, a prefectural branch of the JA group, and other concerned entities have formed an association to promote local produce and consumption of it inside the prefecture.
The association asked about 100 companies with offices in the prefecture to use peaches grown in the prefecture as summer gifts.
Hajime Yoshida, chief of the prefectural government’s farm products distribution division, said a lot was at stake.
“If Fukushima’s peaches, which are famous nationwide, don’t sell, then no farm product grown in our prefecture will stand a chance. We’ll do everything we can,” said Hajime.