Publish Date: Spring 2019
Improvements in agricultural technology and breeding helped struggling Japanese farming communities in the early 20th century. Since the 1990s, Dr. Toshihiko Nishio, a Japanese rice farming system researcher, published over 150 stories about these innovations. By showing how these discoveries derived from careful observation, patience, and in some cases, serendipity, we hope that farmers will realize how ordinary people can contribute to the advancement of their local agricultural communities and beyond.
In the winter, Mt. Fuji is covered in white snow. It looks beautiful from a distance, especially from the Kuno mountain region in the Sizuoka Prefecture. Among the many other attractions of this area are the so-called stone wall strawberries.
The story of the stone wall strawberries began around the turn of the twentieth century. According to one version, a rickshaw driver at the Kuno Mountain Toshogu shrine, whose name was Kawashima, received a strawberry plant from the local Shinto priest. The priest had obtained it from a friend who was working at the American embassy. When Kawashima placed the pot at the base of a sunny stone wall, the strawberry plant was warmed by the radiating heat and bore beautiful fruit earlier than anywhere else. In 1901, Kawashima decided to start producing early bearing strawberries using stone walls.
Local farmers experimented with planting strawberries at different angles and directions near stone walls to maximize the plants’ exposure to the sun. Steep angles were ideal for catching sunrays, but if the terraces were too steep, they eroded during heavy rains and had to be rebuilt. Retaining soil moisture and fertilizer was also difficult. The farmers eventually settled on a slope angle of between 40 and 60 degrees. Irrigation was another challenge. Until the water pump was introduced in the early 20th century, the farmers had to haul water with wooden buckets three or four times a day. To control the temperature, straw mats or oiled paper were sometimes draped over frames around the plantings, and they needed to be opened and closed.
By 1923, the pebble stone terraces were replaced with concrete plates with v-shaped crevices on the upper edges, into which the farmers planted strawberries. Devised by farmers Seisaku Hagiwara and Keitaro Araya, this system reduced the labor needs for stone wall construction. Strawberry acreage increased rapidly and rose to between 80 to 100 hectares by the early 1930s. During that time, Kuno Stone Wall Strawberries became known throughout Japan.
The next leap forward in stone wall strawberry production took place in the 1930s, when the cultivar, ‘Fukuba’ was introduced to the region. It was bred in 1899 by Hayato Fukuba, who was a senior researcher at the Shinjuku Imperial Garden after his return from a study tour in France. Fukuba had initially tried to import strawberry plants; however, they dried up in shipping, so he was forced to import seeds instead. ‘Fukuba’ was bred from a chance seedling of the French variety ‘General Chanzy’. The new cultivar had large berries and ripened early.
In the mid-1950s greenhouse, production was introduced, and after 1966, u-pick production became more widespread. By this time, ordinary citizens could afford fresh fruit and vegetables, and the consumption of strawberries rose, especially in Christmas cake, a strawberry shortcake that became a symbol of post-war prosperity. At the peak of strawberry production in the mid-1970s, about 10 million plants were grown.
Although most of the strawberry production in the Kuno region is now located in the lower plains, the author has a deep respect for the determined farmers who transformed the steep, stony slopes. Nowadays, local specialty crops are promoted everywhere, but Kuno stone wall strawberries were at the forefront of this movement. In a plum orchard at the Kuno Mountain Toshogu Shrine, a monument commemorates the “Birthplace of the Stone Wall Strawberries”. Currently, the strawberry acreage of the region is 50 hectares, farmed by about 240 families. Today, visitors to u-pick farms pay a fee for half an hour of picking and receive a container of sweetened condensed milk to enjoy with as many strawberries as they can eat!
Additional Resource Kakuchi G.H. 1960. Stone Wall Strawberry Industry on Kuno Farmer harvesting stone wall strawberries. Mountain. Economic Geography 36:2. April 1960. p. 171-184. Farm