#495 - Yamada Nishiki Project
I heard that a new association was founded, called The Association of Sake Producers who can say "Agriculture!” (play-on-words as the word “agriculture” in Japanese also reads as “No”). Sake producers who grow their own rice are eligible for membership. It piqued my interest as it seems as Sakai Shuzo, a fellow producer from our region -Yamaguchi Prefecture, is also part of this association.
As I was reading this news article, it reminded me of 30 years ago. At the time, it was extremely difficult for me to purchase Yamada-Nishiki rice in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Yamada Nishiki was not available through the usual agricultural cooperatives or sake producers’ associations, and farmers nearby were reluctant to try and grow it: they did not want to try anything new.
So we decided to prepare about 1 ha (2.5 acres) of rice fields so that we could grow our own rice. However, we couldn't get seeds through the usual cooperative route (for three years, three times they told us: "We don't have any seeds available for you this year, but we'll have some for you next year!”). They never rightfully supplied us. We had to try every trick in the book for some seed supply and eventually had been able to start our own rice farming. (Note)
This “kiting” of three times promising us seeds but never actually supplying us was extremely irritating to me at the time, but it was this irritation that led me to give up on any sake producer association, farmers' association, or cooperatives to purchase sake rice. By giving up on these “traditional” supplies, I developed our own supply route for purchasing Yamada-Nishiki in Hyogo and Yamaguchi Prefecture. I suppose I should be grateful to all the officials, the regional economic council, and sake producer associations because, in a sense, if Dassai became what it is today, it is thanks to them getting in my way back then.
However, it was still demanding for me to go out of the usual local rice supply and try to purchase directly on my own. I can still see the expressions on the faces of every farmer at that time, all really good encounters including Mr. Kanai and Mr. Fujiwara from Hyogo’s Fujita area, Mr. Tanaka in Okayama, Mr. Murata in Yamaguchi (how many times have we argued with each other?), Mr. Ebihara in Tochigi, or Mr. Toyonaga in Niigata. I had many good encounters with farmers, but I also had few conflicts with people from Zen-Noh (National Federation of Agricultural Co-operative Associations).
At the time, there was a nationwide decline in the use of Yamada-Nishiki, expensive Yamada-Nishiki being used in the sake-making industry was decreasing rapidly. Farmers were either giving up on Yamada-Nishiki and switching to other types of rice, or they were giving up on the farming altogether.
Back then, our position was that actually the quality of sake made with Yamada Nishiki is outstanding, we really wanted more Yamada-Nishiki. But Zen-Noh (NFACA) farmers would not increase the supply of Yamada-Nishiki.
Still, I wanted more Yamada Nishiki rice, so I did everything I could - including threatening and shunning the person in charge visiting our company. I'm really sorry about that by the way. Anyway, this person actually became successful, and I have no doubt that the reason for his success was because I made him increase the overall amount of Yamada Nishiki handled by the entire cooperative.
Thanks to this, I was sometimes called "the villain who raised the price of Yamada-Nishiki". (It's interesting to note that, not only I was often called that by people in the sake-making industry, but also from Zen-Noh people. I mean, what kind of logic is that?)
I was also vilified by some sake producers, some saying that "Dassai is monopolizing Yamada-Nishiki, we can’t get a hand on the rice". Some even accused me by asking me to “think more about the other sake producers”. That, to me, was too much. How dare they say that? I mean it is the sake-making industry itself that made it so the amount of Yamada-Nishiki produced was declining!
In the end, we were given the opportunity to appeal directly to Prime Minister Abe and the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and as a result, we were able to increase the amount of Yamada Nishiki produced in Japan, which had been in the low 300,000 bales, to just over 600,000 bales.
Throughout this process, I have been concerned about rice farming in Japan. Is agriculture really a good thing under these circumstances? Will the next generation of young people be attracted to agriculture?
This concern ended up with a project: to make the best Yamada Nishiki. I shall purchase the best Yamada Nishiki rice, the winning prize at 500’000 JPY per bale for an overall total of 25 million JPY.
This contest is all about the simple fact that "good stuff gets more expensive", but the main point is a free market: market forces will come into play. We are not trying to put pressure on farmers to lower the price of Yamada Nishiki in its current state, but the reality is that some farmers will get paid more for their Yamada Nishiki than the farmers next door, as everyone is now considered to be equal.
I am aware that the stress the contest puts on those involved in agriculture is not small. And I am sorry for that, but I think it is important for the future of rice farming. I am confident that it will bring greater benefits to Yamada Nishiki farmers in the future.
And, of course, as a sake producer, I want to make sake with the best Yamada-Nishiki available. It's obvious, but I can’t fight this will. I am not sure if the Dassai I shall make with this rice will be as good, but I still want to try. We'll have to wait and see if I fail spectacularly or if I can pull it off.
I plan to keep this contest going. If I don't keep on doing it, it's meaningless.
Finally, I forgot to mention that, just to pass the minimum selection criteria for this contest, farmers need to invest in a color sorter and some other equipment. We would need farmers to start by sorting their fields. For a good field, if we did not ask for higher quality, there's a good chance that the farmers would still be getting benefits anyway in terms of yield.
It's not just a free prize if you do well. Taking the risk, 18 teams of 48 farmers from Fukuoka, Tokushima, Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Okayama, Tottori, Hyogo, Nara, Shiga, Toyama, Niigata, Ibaraki, and Tochigi participated in the contest. I can't thank these farmers enough for their support.
Note: The Yamada Nishiki we cultivated by ourselves was the reason behind Dassai flagship: Dassai 23. With approximately 60 bales (3600 kg) of rice in front of us, we came up with an unorthodox Junmai Daiginjo, where the rice is polished to an extreme 23% rice polishing ratio.