Miracle for Da Lat?

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A project to produce lettuce following a Japanese "miracle village" model will be launched in the Central Highlands resort town of Da Lat next year

Masahito Shinohara (L) and Takaya Hanaoka take land samples in Da Lat, where they plan to launch a new lettuce project next year / PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

Last month end Masahito Shinohara, 34, and Takaya Hanaoka, 35, the owners of Japan's famous vegetable producer Lacue Company, visited Da Lat, but not as tourists.

They were scouting locations for a farm that will use the latest agricultural innovations to grow lettuce for export to Europe and Asia in collaboration with Da Lat's An Phu Produce Company.

Slated to be launched next year, the project will follow farming model made famous in Japan by Kawakami Village, now known as  "miracle village" for it's turn from one of Japan's poorest villages before 1980 to one of it's most wealthy. 

The answer to Kawakami's success is simple: lettuce.

The village, located at the height of 1,185 meters above sea level in Minamikasu District, Nagano Prefecture, hosts 1,735 hectares of agricultural land, or one-fourth of the land available in Da Lat. All 1,735 ha in Kawakami is dedicated to lettuce farming.

Every year lettuce crops generate US$150 million for the village, or $250,000 per household, even though the crops are only available between June and October, because it reaches 20 Celsius degrees below for the rest of the year.

Hironosi Tsuchiya, representative director of HT Capital in Vietnam,  initiated the collaboration.

He said the miracle did not lie in huge profits, but the fact that such profits are made on the poorest quality land in all of Japan. 

"My village's best land lot is perhaps the worst in Da Lat," Hanaoka said.

However, current fertilization trends are set to ruin Da Lat's land, he said. arguing that vegetables and water surrounding the scenic town will soon be contaminated.

According to Shinohara, Kawakami's advanced agriculture technique is actually similar to what the best farms in Da Lat are already doing: using 100% safe and clean fertilizers.

The biggest difference is that in the Japanese village, everybody agreed to do away with old techniques and only apply the new one, following village head Tadahiko Fujiwara's leadership, he said.

The move enabled villagers to create their own brand and grow extremely clean and sage crops, he added. 

In fact, Kawakami does not follow any international agricultural standards, like GlobalGAP, but the village's lettuce actually surpasses Japan's food safety guidelines.

Shinohara quoted Fujiwara as telling villagers at that time: "Fertilizers for lettuces must be usable or harmless to humans."

Another difference is the way Kawakami preserves its vegetables, according to Hanaoka.

He said Kawakami farmers harvest lettuce between 2 a.m.-6 a.m. when it is often 2-4 Celsius degrees outdoors. After being harvested, the lettuce is put into freezers at the same temperature so that quality is not affected by sunlight.

Da Lat farmers, on the other hand, mainly harvest in daylight.

Besides such techniques, discipline is another "important key" to Kawakami's huge profits, Shinohara said.

He explained that the village chief is in charge of maintaining discipline, making sure all farmers follow consented rules, and violators are prohibited from farming.

After community meetings, rules are often tightened, never loosened, he added.

Shinohara also said that the village has its own TV channel which not only broadcasts the village's agricultural stories, but also how-to documentaries on agricultural production and daily-updated market news.

Making it young

Hanaoka said that like Vietnam, many Japanese villages see young people leave for economic centers in search of work.

However, in Kawakami, young people returned to their home village after graduating with degrees agriculture and business, and then began working as real farmers.

Under a rule laid down by the village chief, when young people complete their schooling, their farmer parents have to hand over the management of family farms to them, so they can develop the farms freely.

This gives opportunities to the youth who can keep renovating agriculture by applying the most advanced technologies, Hanaoka said.

The man himself was also given a two-hectare farm when he was 25 and returned to the village after finishing school.

Now, after 10 years, he runs a company collaborating with many farmers to produce 1,500 tons of lettuce for the local market every year.

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