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An ag trip to Japan

By Staff | Apr 24, 2009

David and Jen Teigen are by no means globetrotters. However, the rural Rugby couple recently returned from a trip across land and sea.

The couple traveled to Japan earlier this year, a 10-day trip filled with many memories and an apprecation of the similarities and differences between the two countries, in terms of agiculture and food processing.

The journey was arranged by SB and B Foods of Casselton and Japanese food processing companies. SB and B is an exporter of non-genetically modified (GMO) soybeans which the Teigens raise on their farm southwest of Rugby.

They traveled with six other couples and two single men, all from North Dakota. The group left Fargo Feb. 21, first flying to Minneapolis, then to Tokyo, and finally, 27 hours after first becoming airborne, landing at Fukuoka on the south island of Kyushu. It was 10 p.m. local time. so they were able to go right to bed and jet lag was minimal, Jen said.

The purpose of the trip was two-fold, according to David. First, the Japanese wanted to impress upon the farmers the purity of their facilities. Cleanliness was paramount, Jen said. Employees first wash, then don white gowns to ensure there is no outside contamination. “It’s quite the process,” she said. Second, the exporter wanted farmers to see the end result of their efforts to raise untainted crops.

Japan has strict laws that prohibit genetically modified foods from being consumed by humans, and importers pay a premium for non-GMO foodstuffs.

“Instead of traditional breeding techniques, (GMO) scientists take a piece of DNA from a bacteria and insert it into the soybean DNA. They modify the soybean genetically,” David said in explaining the process. “Since they aren’t traditional breeding techniques, some people aren’t convinced that they are safe.”

In the case of soybeans, the modification is done to make the crop resistant to the herbicide Roundup, which kills everything that is sprayed with it. Farmers are thus able to kill all weeds growing with the soybeans, but not the soybean plant itself. The GMO soybeans are probably easier to grow, but the non-GMOs carry a premium, so they are more profitable.

The exporter and the processors had a full schedule arranged for the visitors. In addition to touring food processing plants, the group visited a port, a Toyko shopping district and spent time at farms, grocery stores and restaurants.

Japan covers a land area roughly the size of Montana, but 70 percent of it is mountains and forests. The popluation of 130 million live on the remaining 30 percent. “These people live on land the equivalent of putting the entire U.S. popluation of 300 million into North Dakota east of the Missouri River,” David said. “It is crowded.”

Because of the scarcity of land Japan imports 60 percent of its food. On the islands the Teigens visited farms that are about one-half to one acre in size and grow mainly high value crops. On the north island of Honshu, where most of the production agriculture takes place, the average farm size is a few hundred acres, with fields of about 20 acres, David said.

Nearly all soybeans imported

Ninety-five percent of soybeans consumed in Japan are imported, even though their government subsidizes their growers $30 dollars per bushel. “And they still can’t attract young farmers,” David said. Indeed, two-thirds of Japanese farmers are over the age of 65.

That is a golden opportunity for the five percent of U.S. farmers who grow non-GMO soybeans, according to David, and Japanese processors are eager to take good care of them.

The first processor the group visited was a tofu plant. Since North Dakota farmers can’t supply all the soybeans they need, they also buy from other places. There are many opportunities for state farmers to increase sales, according to David.

The group toured the Hakata Port in the city of Fukuoka and saw container freight being loaded onto ships. Also at the port was a large parking lot, probably 50 acres in size, about half-full of new Japanese cars bound for America. Their guide told them normally it would be full, but because of the economic crisis auto exports are way down.

Grocery stores were an interesting contrast to their American counterparts. The seafood sections were huge, since fish is a mainstay in the Japanese diet. “The fresh produce is excellent,” David said. The shopping carts are tiny, though, because shoppers buy enough food for that day’s needs only. “There are only six slices of bread in a sack,” David noted. Home refrigerators are correspondingly small, about half the size of American ones.

One day the group took the bullet train from Fukuoka to Tokyo, traveling at 180 miles per hour. “The highline poles looked like a picket fence,” David quipped. But with all-electric drive the train was quiet and smooth. It was also very clean.

The Shinjuku train station in Tokyo handles three million riders per day and is the busiest in the world.

Very few people own cars, according to David, but even so freeways and other roads are packed. Toll roads are well-maintained but charge up to 50 cents per mile traveled, and it costs an astounding $10 per hour to rent a space to park a car in Tokyo. Gasoline got as high as $8.50 a gallon last summer, but it is about $4.00 now. All cars are very small, and David didn’t see even one full-size pickup.

Most people use public transportation, which the Americans considered outstanding. All signs in subways, train stations, airports, even road signs were in both Japanese and English. Announcements were also made in both languages which, “made the trip a lot better,” in David’s opinion.

It is common for Japanese to ride two hours to and from work every day. “Commuters sit shoulder to shoulder with no room to open a newspaper or even a book,” David said.

Trip to Tokyo

In Tokyo the group saw a few tourist attractions, including the Tokyo Tower, which is built to resemble the Eiffel Tower in Paris, only taller. From the observation deck, 250 meters above the city, the Teigens were told that on a clear day they could see Mt. Fuji, 65 miles distant. “Unfortunately, Tokyo had snow for the first time all winter when we were there,” Jen said. Home to 30 million residents, Tokyo has an abundance of skyscrapers since there is little land on which to build.

In a high end Tokyo shopping district, the Teigens saw a $94,000 Rolex watch. “We just window shopped,” David said with a laugh. Another highlight was seeing the Kumumoto Castle, which was built between 1607 and 1610.

Japanese food was a mixed bag, according to David. Some was pretty good, some pretty bad. “I enjoyed the experience of the different foods,” he said.

Many meals are served in a bento box, a compartmented container, and nearly always include rice, a few kinds of fish, fruits and veggies. At one meal one of the men commented, “This is obviously beef,” because of the familiar taste and texture of the meat. He was wrong. It was horse meat, but David said you really couldn’t tell the difference.

The Teigens tried natto, a slimy soybean dish fermented with bacteria. It smelled like spoiled soybeans, David said, and was as stringy as any string cheese. The Japanese love it. The Americans felt it was something you probably had to grow up eating. “It was the only thing I flat out could not eat,” David said.

All meals are served with green tea or beer, and water is available upon request. A common alcoholic beverage is shochu, which is very similar to vodka but made from sweet potatoes. They have the same brands of beer and other alcoholic beverages as are sold in the United States. Coca-Cola seems to be the most popluar soft drink, and Teigens saw very little Pepsi. The unemployment rate in Japan was five-and-one-half percent when the Teigens visited. But their economy is slowing down also because of the global economic mess. The average income is about $40,000 per worker.

English is taught in schools, but it is very different from the Americanized version. David said some people are reluctant to speak it because they are self-conscious about the way they sound.

Japanese age 30 and under are very pro-western, David said, and try hard to be like Americans. The 60 and older crowd is still pretty traditional. Their diet consists mainly of fish and rice and they often wear traditional clothing. Both groups are pretty environmentally conscious, he said.

Many memories

David and Jen, who are both NDSU graduates, returned home with many photos and memories. “It was a wonderful experience,” Jen said. And if the opportunity came up they would go again. It’s possible that might happen. David is on the board of Dakota Pride, a North Dakota co-op that’s trying to get into food-grade soybean exports. The company specializes in identity-preserved crops, food that can be traced back to the very field where it was grown. That attention to detail corresponds to what Japanese consumers are looking for, opening the door for possibly more visits by the Teigens to the island nation.

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